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Hervé This

Hervé This

Physical chemist, co-creator of molecular gastronomy

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Hervé This von Kientzheim. I'm an Alsatian physical chemist, in exile in Paris (because ich habe mein Herz in Kientzheim verloren) and my research is "molecular gastronomy", a scientific discipline that I created in 1988 with my old friend Nicholas Kurti. I have to add that contrary to a misconception, molecular gastronomy is not cooking, but a scientific activity, and more precisely, a science of nature (opposed to sciences of human and societies).

This means looking for the mechanisms of phenomena occurring during dishes preparation. The idea is that cooking involves a lot of transformations (the meat turns brown, the pancake hardens, etc.), and that we are looking for the mechanisms of such transformations (why does the steak turn brown, for example).

We are doing a scientific activity, which means that there are no pans in the lab, but only nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy.. and equations. I have a passion for equations, and my job gives me the wonderful pleasure to deal with equations all day long.

The goal is to make discoveries, as for any science. We have to push the borders of knowledge farther. Of course, making research involves teaching, at least to younger scientists of our group.. but also much more broadly, because I get so many applications from all over the world (this is why I contributed to create a Master programme called "Food Innovation and Product Design").

Also science has applications: technical applications, social applications, educational applications. And I participate in applications of molecular gastronomy in these three directions. For example, for more than 15 years I've been publishing one culinary innovation, often on the Internet site of my friend Pierre Gagnaire, one the of best chefs of the world. But I'm also introducing new educational programmes in primary schools as well as in high schools (and of course at university level).

Some years ago, I also had to head the "Human Food Group" of the French Academy of Agriculture, and I was appointed the Director of the International Centre for Molecular Gastronomy, with relationships with more and more universities of the world (often, I contributed in creating such laboratories).

I also forgot to tell you about "note by note cooking", which means cooking with compounds, instead of using vegetables and meat, fish or fruits. This will be the next big culinary trend, and you can trust me: it will last for a long time. I proposed it as early as 1994, but it's now begun spreading all over the world.

And there's more, but let's come back to the most important: sciences of nature, physical chemistry! Indeed, this is the basis on which all is built.

What hardware do you use?

I'm not a native English speaker, so I can interpret "hardware" as computers, but also more generally electronics.. and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is mostly a big magnet with a lot of electronics.

The system that I'm using is a Bruker Avance 300 MHz spectroscope that Jean-Marie Lehn (Nobel Prize 1987) gave me, some years ago. This huge electronic system is run by a small computer, but the computer itself has no importance, and I even don't know which one it is.

For my most important work, i.e. calculation, I'm using UNIX and Linux running on various systems. My laptop is a laptop, and it has no importance. I mean, it has to have a real keybord, a screen bigger than 13", and it should be thin and light, because I have it always with me (indeed, I have two of the same, because I don't want to lose one second, if one breaks). The flash memory is very useful, and I could not admit booting in more than some seconds now.

On my desks there are other computers, and most are Dell, but indeed I don't care, as long as they can calculate. You know, this is an attitude that I have generally: for example, I have two cars, but I don't care, as long as I can drive safely. I don't care about their color, their brand, their power, etc. Sometimes, I need them, and they have to work. It's only a question of use. For my clothes, the same, and also for my laboratory, etc. On the other hand, intellectually, I am completely different, and here elegance and beauty are most important for me.

The way I calculate, the way I think, the way I speak, the way I write... and this is why I am so sad to answer your questions in English, because my English is very poor (it means that I cannot express myself with the utmost precision that I love).

And what software?

Here, the answer is straightforward. I told you that Linux is on my ultrabooks and computers (or UNIX), but the main software that I am using is Maple.

Indeed this software is really good, and I regret that it is so expansive, because it deserves being used by more people. Using it, you can write, but primarily you can do good science, i.e. calculus, equations. I love it, and it is almost the only software that I am using. Immediately when my computer is on, a Maple file is opened (my "notebook"). Right now, answering the questions, I am looking on the left of the screen and I can see that I am also using (sometimes) Unison (for backups), LibreOffice Writer, GIMP, Avogadro..

What would be your dream setup?

If Maple could include a chemistry software, it would be wonderful. But indeed, I am not sure that this would change a lot. What I need is intelligence, kindness and time.

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