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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 23, 2009

The Limits of Free Scientist Chow?

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Posted by Derek

This piece over at Science magazine's "The Gonzo Scientist", brought back some memories. John Bohannon, in the midst of an investigation of truffles, tried an experiment on some party guests: rank a series of five patés according to taste. There were three authentic ones, two fake ones (liverwurst and whipped Spam), and. . .dog food.

He did tell people that dog food was one of the choices. Interestingly, although it ranked last in the taste test, people were no better than chance at identifying it as such. Perhaps they expected it to taste better than it did? But the reason this made me smile was thinking about the usual behavior of scientists and engineers down by the coffee machine. You know what I'm talking about - put anything down there, and people will eat it. It's a standard way of clearing out dessert-like things from home that you don't want around the place; take it to work and it'll disappear.

Well, I saw that put to the test once at a former company of mine. One of the freer spirits down the hall put out a bowl of chocolate-flavored hamster treats and sat back to watch the results. Unlike the dog-food experiment, he did not inform his subjects - but in his defense, he told me that he'd tried one himself, and that although they were somewhat gritty, he'd had worse.

Results? The hamster treats disappeared, of course. I'm just glad he didn't press on with this line of research - and as for me, I made sure never to eat anything left by the coffee machine at that end of the hallway. . .

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. toxchick on February 23, 2009 11:51 AM writes...

I have a great example of this. When I was in grad school, a truly awful fruit cake/pannetone type thing showed up in the lunchroom one day. It was dried out and pretty nasty. We all tried it, agreed it was awful. However, we continued to hack pieces off and eat it for several days.

At the next group meeting, I asked who had brought this disgusting stale cake. Our advisor said "I did! I found it in my closet, and it was a year old. I knew you people would eat it!"

Sadly, he was correct. I don't think we threw it out after we found out it was a year old either, if memory serves me right...

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2. milkshake on February 23, 2009 12:12 PM writes...

This morning, I just had one bite from a communal banana-apple bread that someone left out in our kitchenette because they apparently put a whole pond of baking soda in it. I decided that my free food limit is around pH=9.5

Also we have all freezers filled with frozen cheesecakes (and its a good brand too - Cheesecake factory). Turns out its for rats: one group here does rat obesity studies and cheesecake is the most effective fattening chow they found so far. And for some ridiculous safety rules they are not allowed to keep it in lab freezers because it is "food" so they filled up the common kitchenette freezers with the stuff.

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3. Kent G. Budge on February 23, 2009 12:12 PM writes...

So by "chocolate-covered hamster treat", do you mean a chocolate-covered treat intended for hamsters, or a chocolate-covered treat made from hamsters?

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4. Jose on February 23, 2009 12:16 PM writes...

Cheesecake, eh? Good to know it tops the list. This reminds me of the communal house where I lived in college- people's groceries had a habit of disappearing. And so, the tried and true donut and ahem, appendage trick, (complete with polaroids in the bottom of the box), made an appearance. True hilarity ensued!

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5. Dave on February 23, 2009 12:26 PM writes...

It's not all that surprising about the meats. I'm told that, once you've seen sausage being made, you won't want to eat sausage in the future. After all, the meat packers have to do something with all of those undesirable parts of cattle/hogs/sheep/etc.

As for eating dog food, the only qualms I'd have is that, around here, some of the dog food companies pick up dead animals from farms to make it with (Of course, you can't make any kind of food from live animals!). Then, again, since the meat is sterilized, there shouldn't be any problem eating it. I'd be MUCH more concerned about consuming melamine contaminated food stuffs (whether they're animal foods or human foods)!

As for the year old fruit cake, those things are packed with enough sugar that even bacteria find them unappealing. And, a year old isn't even close to setting a record.

With the banana bread with too much baking soda, that brings up the interesting question about certain double acting baking powders which are based on Aluminum compounds. Are there any health concerns with eating baked goods produced with these?

Oh, and as for eating animal foods, I wouldn't think of feeding anything to my horses that I wouldn't munch on myself.


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6. Headloafer on February 23, 2009 12:52 PM writes...

I rarely sample from things left around the coffee maker. Actually, the only way I'll pick something up is if 1) someone else is already eating some, 2) they're not dead/dying, and 3) they swear it's delicious. But the question I can't get out of my head is: "why do hamsters need chocolate-flavored treats?"

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7. Hap on February 23, 2009 1:04 PM writes...

I think Kyle reported somthing like this with nachos on The Chem Blog.

Both in grad school and at work (with chemists), if it looks like food and is in an open area, good-bye.

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8. SP on February 23, 2009 1:55 PM writes...

I'm reading this while eating a bagel with cream cheese and OJ. The OJ (sealed bottle) is left over from a breakfast talk this morning and the single-serve cream cheese packet was stashed in my office mini-fridge after some talk last week where there were excess packets. Unfortunately I had to buy the bagel from the cafe for $1.25. Not a bad cheap lunch.

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9. Sili on February 23, 2009 2:17 PM writes...

I shoulda realised this earlier (but I don't work in chemistry anymore - and I must say that in my group we usually brought along cake baked for the purpose), but I just threw out a dozen vol-au-vents that I hadn't time to stuff and serve last weekend.

They were quite green and the tin they were in had rusted.

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10. road kill still alive on February 23, 2009 3:56 PM writes...

OK, does this really surprise anyone?

We do, after all, consider the smell of DMS during a Swern oxidation "sweet success" instead of some horrible odor.

Why would our tolerance for taste not also follow our elevated tolerance for smell?

By the way, some of the dog treats we reward our Golden Retriever with are actually pretty tasty ... for dog treats, that is.

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11. Swapna on February 23, 2009 5:54 PM writes...

You have got me a bit worried about tomorrow's department birthday party (with cakes and ice-cream). I might sit this one out ;)

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12. The Inorganic Gardener on February 23, 2009 7:56 PM writes...

Hey - DMS got me my Ph.D - it IS the sweet smell of success!

We always joke in the lab that the best way to get scientists to attend anything is provide a free lunch. You can always spot scientists at an all-you-can-eat too - we know how to work a buffet!

A while ago, a colleague of ours sadly died and a week or so later, the day of the funeral, we saw one of his closest former colleagues walking around looking quite cheerful "Why's he so happy on his way to the funeral?" I asked, to which one of my labmates replied "Of course he's happy. He's a scientist and he's about to get a free lunch!".


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13. wgc on February 24, 2009 12:31 AM writes...

This is a true story!

While in graduate school (Biochemistry, Michigan State) in the mid 70's my wife, a fellow graduate student in another dept., had a batch of bananna bread fail to rise due to bad baking powder. She was going to throw it out, but I saved it and left it in my lab (occupied by five male graduate students) with a label of "bananna fudge". The next day she was horrified when one of them stopped her in the parking lot to compliment her and ask her to bake another batch of bananna fudge for the lab.

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14. Petros on February 24, 2009 9:00 AM writes...

I remember a party at Cambridge University where one of the nibbles on offer was a plate of Bonios (dog biscuits(. They were quite popular (and I don't remember anyone indulging in herbal kicks at that party)

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15. Anonymous on February 24, 2009 11:14 AM writes...

"Never trust an organic chemist who can't cook."

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16. Anonymous on February 25, 2009 11:47 PM writes...

too true. fastest way to get rid of anything from senior seminar is to put it either in the chem student lounge (reasonable) or in the copy room (huh?). thankfully, the food from senior sem is usually edible.

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17. Jonadab the Unsightly One on March 4, 2009 8:08 AM writes...

> they apparently put a whole pond of baking soda in it


I thought 2 TBSP of soda when the recipe called for 2 tsp was so bad nobody could eat the results. But a whole pound? Whoah.

> As for the year old fruit cake,

One of my friends in college had a theory that only one batch of fruitcakes had ever been made, back in the thirties, but nobody ever ate any of them, because they were unappetizing even during the great depression. Apparently people just kept passing them off on one another over and over again, and they're still making the rounds today.

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18. pilates workout oceanside on November 15, 2011 5:26 PM writes...

Formula for success: Rise early, work hard, strike oil.

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19. Frank on April 30, 2015 4:12 AM writes...

Those saying a year-old fruitcake doesn't sound too bad: if it was a pannetone-type cake, then I expect it was like a rock.

The ones that last are the English-style fruitcakes: dense, syrupy, and made with generous amounts of booze.

Take it only a little further and you have a Christmas pudding, which shouldn't be made *less* than a month in advance, and one made the previous year and left to mature is considered especially good.

Pannetone is a different beast entirely, more like bread than cake. After a few days it's only fit for making a bread and butter pudding.

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