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Menlo couple lauded for helping public relate to science

 

Chocolate. Encountering the word alone can raise expectations of a celebration for the taste buds and other pleasant feelings, as some reading this sentence may have just experienced.

But suppose you're chemists talking about chemistry, a deep science, to the general public, as Menlo Park residents Howard and Sally Peters do. You're probably in need of a device to get people listening and interested. Chocolate, which has chemical properties, may be just the thing.

It's worked out for the Peters. In recognition of nearly 20 years of talks and lectures about chocolate, its history and its chemistry, the American Chemical Society named Mr. and Mrs. Peters recipients of the 2016 Helen M. Free Award for outstanding public outreach.

The Peters, also known as Mr. and Mrs. Chocolate, have made their presentation, "Chocolate Food of the Gods," at churches, science clubs, children's museums and schools in communities around the United States. They've also appeared at ocean cruises from time to time.

Their presentation includes handing out to the audience chocolate samples and raffle tickets for a chance to win a 10-pound bar of chocolate, often Guittard chocolate made in Burlingame.

In their talk, the Peters spend some time on the making of chocolate in the past and today. Chocolate's history begins among the early inhabitants of the Americas. It is they who figured out how to make chocolate edible by allowing the pods to ferment under a blanket of leaves, Mr. Peters told the Almanac.

Like chocolate, caffeine is associated with warm feelings of anticipation, and the Peters go into some detail about the similarities between the chemistry of chocolate and that of other stimulants, including coffee and tea.

Small creatures are important players. A tiny midge is essential to pollinating chocolate plants, and a fungus fatal to the cacao tree is currently threatening chocolate's future, Mr. Peters says.

The fungus is spreading as the planet warms, he says, adding that he sees a time when chocolate could be in a category with caviar: an exclusive treat for those who can afford it.

Click here for the presentation.

Mr. Peters has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Geneva College in Pennsylvania, a doctorate from Stanford University and a law degree from Santa Clara University. He holds seven patents. His career includes research on the chemistry of anesthetics, herbicides and high explosives, as well as more than 30 years as a Silicon Valley patent attorney.

Ms. Peters has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Geneva College and a master's degree in library and information sciences from San Jose State University. As a chemist, she worked for the Stanford scientist who crystallized the polio virus. She worked as an information specialist for Xerox PARC in Palo Alto for more than 28 years.

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