Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, the new book by Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl, has made headlines across the globe and even led to a faux trans-Atlantic tea controversy that was addressed in both a statement from the U.S. embassy in London and a follow-up mention in the State Department’s weekly press briefing (42:30 mark). The controversy followed an initial flurry of coverage of the book in the U.K., where early reporting focused on Francl's recommendation to add a pinch of salt to reduce an overly bitter cup of tea. Articles appeared in virtually every major U.K. media outlet including The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and more.
Once the U.S. embassy in London weighed in, Francl and the book went viral globally. An Associated Press article appeared in hundreds of media outlets, and other highlights included a New York Times mention, being part of a limerick on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (34 minute mark), and having the folks at Serious Eats put Francl's claims to the test. In addition to the countless print articles, Francl has appeared on local, national, and international television broadcasts.
“It’s been a wild few days, but today I finally managed to both make and drink a cup of tea,” wrote Francl on Facebook late last week.
While Francl hoped the book would have some cross-over appeal, neither she nor her publisher, the U.K. Royal Society of Chemistry, could have guessed how it would take off. The first printing was already sold out even before Francl received her own copy.
“My intention at the start was to write something that not only looks at the fascinating chemistry in a cup of tea, but also presents the research in a way that could perhaps help people think about the world the way scientists do,” wrote Francl in a New Scientist commentary about the stir the book created. “I believe that’s important because there is so much good that chemistry can – and does – do around the world.
“It might seem like a cliché, but science makes the world a better place and can be a real catalyst for change. I want more young people to channel their talents into STEM, facing up to significantly bigger challenges than how to produce a perfect cuppa.”
But what about that perfect cuppa? While the media focused on the salt tip, there's a whole lot more involved in applying science to brewing a great cup of the world's favorite drink, as Francl shows in the below video.
For her next book, Francl plans to look at “the bones of the universe and how atoms and molecules hold it all together,” she says. “It’s all about the big ideas of chemistry and the beauty in the very small.”
Francl is the Frank B. Mallory Professor of Chemistry. She joined Bryn Mawr's faculty in 1986. She was appointed an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory in 2016. She is a quantum chemist who has worked in areas ranging from the development of methods for computational chemistry to the structures of topologically intriguing molecules.
Her essays on science, culture and policy appear regularly in Nature Chemistry and other venues. She was elected a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2009 and was the 2019 recipient of the ACS Philadelphia Section Award.
Classes Francl teaches include General Chemistry, Quantum Chemistry, Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics and Chemical Kinetics, and Writing Science.