April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
November 20, 2012
Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied host of America’s Test Kitchen and founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, knows the difference between good cooks and great cooks. Great cooks—and he has built his empire on this premise—understand the scientific principles involved in their techniques. They are fluent in the different modes of heat transfer: radiant heat, convection and conduction. They can explain how diffusion and osmosis maintain equilibrium in their recipes. And, perhaps most impressively, they harness this scientific knowledge to defy gravity—when making soufflés and other baked goods rise.
In a recent presentation at the National Museum of American History, Kimball flashed a photograph of Albert Einstein. “Einstein was so smart not to get involved,” he said. “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics.”
Luckily, Kimball and his crew of editors, test cooks and food scientists at the actual test kitchen, a 2,500-square-foot culinary laboratory just outside of Boston, unpack the science and serve it to us in bites we can chew on. I’ve found that the team’s latest book, The Science of Good Cooking, offers helpful tips in explaining the science behind some Thanksgiving favorites.
Brining a Turkey
A brine is a simple solution of salt and water. When you place a turkey in a brine, both the salt and the water move from an area of greater concentration (the brine) to an area of lesser concentration (the meat) in processes called diffusion and osmosis. The added water in the turkey’s muscle cells makes the meat juicier. Meanwhile, the proteins in the turkey rearrange to incorporate the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. “This reshaping helps the proteins to hold on to the added water, even after the meat is cooked,” say the editors. The reconfiguring of the proteins also makes makes the meat more tender.
The editors of Cook’s Illustrated offer up a simple brine recipe. A 12- to 17-pound turkey should soak in 2 gallons of cold water and 1 cup of table salt for 6 to 12 hours. An 18- to 24-pounder should sit in 3 gallons of cold water and 1 1/2 cups of table salt, also for 6 to 12 hours. If you are making a bone-in turkey breast, it requires 1 gallon of cold water and 1/2 cup of table salt for a brining time of 3 to 6 hours.
Cooking Green Beans—Just Enough
I am not a fan of green bean casserole. You know, the one with french fried onions sprinkled on the top? My biggest gripe is that the beans are much too mushy. Kimball and his colleagues share the secret to firm, yet tender, brightly colored green beans (and any other green vegetables, for that matter). “It’s all about a high-heat blanch followed by an ice-cold shock,” they note.
As soon as the green beans hit boiling water, their color brightens. “Some of the air contained between their cells expands and bubbles off, bringing the cell walls closer together and causing the plant tissue to become more transparent, producing a brighter green color,” the team reports. The heat causes the beans to tenderize. How? The polymer, pectin, which gives the vegetable’s cell walls their structure, breaks down and water leaks from the cells. The optimal boiling time for green beans, according to the pros, is three to five minutes. If you boil any longer, your beans will be pretty limp. After some time, the color of the beans will also dull—a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat. Tossing the beans into a bowl of ice water stops these processes.
Mixing Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
For the best results, the America’s Test Kitchen folks suggest russet potatoes. Potatoes are anywhere from 16 to 22 percent starch, and russets are on the starchier end of that range. “When potatoes are cooked the [starch] granules absorb water from within the potato and swell like balloons, causing the cells that contain them to expand, separate and eventually burst,” says the book. “This, in turn, translates to a potato that falls apart when cooked.” A crumbly potato is an easily mashable potato. Russets also have more amylose starch molecules, as opposed to amylopectin; amylose is a sponge for liquid. “Just what you want when adding dairy to mashed potatoes,” say the pros.
Preparing Flavorful Sage Stuffing
At Thanksgiving, my mother prepares, as many do, a delicious sage stuffing. But why sage? Well, sage is a hearty herb, meaning its flavor compounds can withstand cooking. (To Kimball’s team, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and marjoram are all hearty herbs, whereas basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, chives and tarragon are delicate herbs.) The sage releases its flavors during the hours that a stuffed turkey cooks.
Test cooks compared fresh herbs to dried herbs in 24 different recipes (other than stuffing), and in all but one case, tasters preferred fresh. Be warned, though, “Ounce for ounce, dried herbs are more potent than fresh,” according to the book. So, if your stuffing recipe calls for dried sage, the test cooks recommend you quadruple the measurement for fresh sage leaves.
Rolling the Perfect Pie Crust
“Perfect pie dough has just the right balance of tenderness and structure. The former comes from fat, the latter from long protein chains called gluten that form when flour mixes with water,” say the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. “Too little gluten and the dough won’t stick together—but too much and the crust turns tough.”
The test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen suggest using a combination of water and vodka, in place of the water that a crust recipe calls for. When vodka is added to flour, its molecules, unlike water, do not cause the proteins to reconfigure into gluten. “Using a mixture of vodka and water allows us to add more liquid to the dough to get it to be as malleable and easy to work with as possible without causing excessive toughness,” the testers report.
If you don’t have vodka, feel free to use rum, whiskey or gin. “Surprisingly, the vast majority of our tasters could not distinguish among the different flavors of booze,” say the editors. Any 80-proof liquor will do.
Find more tips from The Science of Good Cooking at Food and Think.