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Jeopardy jinx and out-of-this-world ketchup

by Andrea Widener
January 2, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 1


What is Double Chemist “Jeopardy!”?

Bar at the top that says "Jeopardy! Professors Tournament" with two photos underneath. The left photo is of Gary Hollis, and the right is of John Harkless.
Credit: Jeopardy!/C&EN
Daily double: Chemists Gary Hollis (left) and John Harkless took their chances in a recent Professors Tournament.

Two chemistry professors were among the 15 competitors on the first ever Jeopardy! Professors Tournament last month. Howard University professor John Harkless and Roanoke College professor Gary Hollis competed with academics from disciplines as diverse as musicology, botany, French literature, and law on the quiz show, in which contestants must come up with questions to fit answers presented in different categories.

Professors are a natural fit for Jeopardy!, Harkless tells Newscripts. “If you need some nerds who are, by definition, going to be know-it-alls, go get you some professors,” he jokes. Playing with other professors, especially those he might never have met otherwise, “was so dorky and so much fun.”

Both Harkless and Hollis are longtime quiz fans, but they never got the call to be on Jeopardy! until they were invited to be in the Professors Tournament, a 2-week competition that aired Dec. 6–17, 2021.

The show recorded in October at Sony Pictures Studios in California, and the professors were given hair, wardrobe, and makeup services, complete with their own personal powder puff, in keeping with the show’s strict COVID-19-prevention protocols. “It was a different experience than teaching organic chemistry,” Hollis says.

Before the matches started, the professors got practice time with the buzzer, which can be the biggest challenge of Jeopardy!, Hollis says. You can’t buzz in too early or too late. “Unless you can quickly figure out how to work the buzzer, you’re never going to get a chance to show what you know,” he explains.

Early in his first match, Hollis was lucky enough to get the category “It’s a Wonderful Life Turns 75,” which focused on one of his favorite movies. “That put me at ease,” he says. Harkless wasn’t so lucky in his match. “That entire game, there were categories that we did not want at all,” he says.

Though it was unclear what the category “I’ve Got a Theory” meant at first, it gave Harkless his only chance to use his chemistry knowledge, as it had a question on the Brønsted-Lowry acid-base theory. He also had a Daily Double win with a question about string theory. In other categories, his chemistry wasn’t much help. “My mixology knowledge helped me with Moscow mule,” Harkless says. “That’s technically chemistry, right?”

Both professors say they didn’t remember much about the match until they saw it afterward. Harkless calls it the “Jeopardy! fugue state.” He says, “You are just in the zone; you are doing all the things,” like figuring out the buzzer, forming the answers as questions, or getting the pronouns right.

In a close match, Harkless didn’t make it past the first round when he missed the Final Jeopardy! question in the category “Old Geographic Names.” The time during that infamous Final Jeopardy! music is “the longest 30 seconds of your life,” Harkless says. “It was a lot more stressful playing than watching, and watching was pretty stressful.”

Hollis won his first-round match with a large lead going into Final Jeopardy! but lost in the semifinal round. His college organized a watch party for the first round, and current and former students, colleagues, and friends all attended and cheered him on.

Hollis says, “It was one of my favorite things that have happened to me in my life.”


Martian sauce

Cartoon image of a bottle of ketchup sitting on a cratered surface of Mars with a black, starry sky in the background.
Credit: Heinz/C&EN/Shutterstock
Tomatoes in space: Heinz has made ketchup from tomatoes grown in soil conditions like those on Mars.

Ketchup is among some people’s favorite things—just ask a toddler. But what will those people do if we end up living on Mars? Not to worry, we should be able to have red sauce on the Red Planet: Heinz announced in November that it had teamed up with Florida Institute of Technology astrobiologists to make ketchup from tomatoes grown in harsh environmental conditions mimicking those on Mars.

“Working with the Tomato Masters at HEINZ has allowed us to see what the possibilities are for long term food production beyond Earth,” Florida Tech’s Andrew Palmer, who helped lead the research team, says in a press release. Marz Edition ketchup is not available for purchase by the public, unfortunately, but the team has submitted its work for publication, which may guide future martian gardeners.

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