April 2 2013
Tropical Fruit Inspires Innovative Research
Two weeks from now, renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala will be joining Science & Food for the first 2013 public lecture at UCLA. Chef Atala has generated a lot of buzz in the food world by discovering and classifying new ingredients from the Amazon basin. But Atala isn’t the only one looking to the South American rain forest for inspiration. By studying the fruit of the tropical plant Margaritaria nobilis (commonly known as the bastard hogberry), a team of researchers led by Dr. Mathias Kolle has created an amazing new material that changes color as it stretches. Read more…
Via Science & Food
8 months ago
March 25 2013
kitchen programming 101
For a long time, I wasn’t a big fan of rice. It just seemed so… boring. Sure, it was a great base for curry or stir fry, but I never caught myself thinking, “Hey, I’d really like to chow down on some rice right now.” Then I met my
boyfriend husband*. He LOVES rice. Give him a big bowl of plain white rice and he’s good to go. Give him some rice with a little soy sauce or a fried egg on top and he’s in heaven. And don’t even get him started on fried rice…
My husband also introduced me to rice cookers. I know, I know… who doesn’t know about rice cookers? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I grew up cooking rice in a pot. On the stove. Crazy.
Seriously, though, rice cookers are pretty awesome. Before we got married, we had an old dinosaur of a rice cooker (circa 1980) that had just one button to turn the whole thing on. The rice cooker “knew” when the rice was done cooking by keeping track of its temperature; when the temperature of the rice rose above 212 degrees, the rice cooker automatically turned itself off.
This old rice cooker is a perfect example of “binary logic” in action. It chose one of two possible actions by asking itself a simple “yes or no” question:
Binary logic is also often referred to as “Boolean logic,” named after George Boole. His work became the basis for the modern digital computer, which often “thinks” about problems in terms of “yes or no” questions and uses 1’s (for yes) and 0’s (for no) in its computations.
Binary logic goes pretty far in computing systems, but sometimes this simple logic isn’t quite good enough. Consider the following example:
Suppose a highway has a speed limit of 65 mph. Those who drive faster than 65 mph belong to the set of “law-breakers” who are violating the speed limit, while those who drive slower belong to a different set of “law-abiding citizens.” Is the sharp transition between law-breakers and law abiding citizens realistic? Should a speeding ticket be issued to all drivers who are caught at 65.5 mph? Or at 65.9 mph? In practical situations, there is always a natural “fuzzification” where there is some overlap between two seemingly opposite sets.
Adapted from Introduction to Fuzzy Control
This “fuzzification” is the basis for “fuzzy logic” — a more advanced form of computer reasoning that helps computers mimic human experience and intuition. Instead of making decisions based on simple “yes or no” answers, fuzzy logic uses “truth values” between zero and one to deal with gray areas like the 65.5 and 65.9 mph drivers in the example above. Today, fuzzy logic controls everything from big wind turbines to home appliances like washing machines and air conditioners.
In the eighties and nineties, Japanese engineers decided to use fuzzy logic to build a better rice cooker. They hoped that a rice cooker controlled by “neuro-fuzzy” reasoning would mimic the experience and intuition of human cooks and ultimately produce tastier cooked rice:
The cooking process of experienced housewives should be reproduced. The process consists of a slow heat application, quick heating, intense heating at the middle and a long simmering period. Moreover, the heating process and the amount of water should be finely controlled according to the preferred stiffness of rice, type of rice, amount of rice and the amount of water, etc.
Applications of neural networks to home appliances (1993)
My husband and I got one of these fancy new rice cookers as a wedding gift. I’m not so sure how I feel about the old-fashioned view of housewives cooking rice, but the rice cooker certainly cooks rice better than I do. And now I finally understand why it has “neuro fuzzy” written all over it. Now, if only I could figure out why it sings Amaryllis to let you know your rice is done…
P.S. If all this programming stuff sounds interesting, go check out Code Academy. You can learn more about programming and even learn a few programming languages, no prior experience necessary.
*Who also helped write this post!
8 months ago
February 26 2013
The Flavor Network
Physicist Albert-László Barabási likes making connections. By studying networks, Barabási and his Northeastern University research group improve our understanding of everything from the internet to human disease.
Now Barabási and colleagues are using networks to learn more about the way we eat. Read more…
Via Science & Food
9 months ago
February 11 2013
Remember that time I told you about an amazing food science lecture series at UCLA? Well, Science & Food is back and better than ever. Not only will they be presenting three new public lectures this spring, but they’ve also been hard at work creating awesome new internet content. Oh, and yours truly will be helping out! It’ll be like Bite-Sized Biology on food science steroids.
But wait! There’s more…Science & Food UCLA is now on Tumblr!
So if you’ve been craving more food science in your life, check out the Science & Food website, visit the blog, and follow @scienceandfood on Twitter for all the latest updates. And if you’re an LA local, stay tuned for more information about the public lectures.
9 months ago
January 31 2013
It’s been said that to make a truly great discovery, a researcher needs two of three things: an outstanding work ethic, a touch of genius, and really good luck.
Hard work and a strong intellect make sense, but… Luck?
It’s astonishing how many breakthrough scientific discoveries can be attributed to chance. Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes straight-up “mistakes” lead to big payoffs.
Like using Post-It notes? Their not-so-sticky glue was a failed attempt to create a super-strong adhesive. Can’t fry an egg without a non-stick pan? A scientist discovered Teflon when a chemical stock went bad. Ever take Penicillin? The fungus Penicillium rubens contaminated Alexander Flemming’s experiments.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this fun video from NSF about the discovery of the artificial sweeteners saccharin, cyclamate, and aspartame. Three scientists got a sweet surprise when they all made one silly mistake…
10 months ago
December 20 2012
"sweet, sweet nutmeg"
This time of year, I look forward to two things: pigging out on holiday cookies and watching cheesy holiday specials. Somehow the holidays don’t seem complete without a rousing chorus of “Christmas Time is Here” or a trip to the Island of Misfit Toys. And don’t forget about all the great food-related scenes! The Grinch carving the “roast beast” in Whoville; Swedish Chef preparing Christmas dinner for all the Muppets; and, more recently, John Legend serenading his favorite holiday spice.
John Legend is totally right about this one. Nutmeg gives eggnog (and pie and cookies and cider) that extra Mmmmmmm. But what is it about this time of year that encourages us to put spices like nutmeg in just about everything?
Back in the day, people believed nutmeg had medicinal properties.
Nutmeges be good for them the whiche haue colde in theyr hed, and dothe comforte the syght and the brayne, & the mouthe of the stomacke, & is good for the splene.
Andrew Boorde, Dyetary of 1542
This may sound crazy to us now, but sixteenth century doctors were on to something. Nutmeg and other holiday spices contain chemicals very similar to mood-elevating drugs called amphetamines. Two amphetamine-like compounds called myristicin and elemecin are thought to give nutmeg its hallucinogenic and toxic properties.
But how do these compounds go from only being “amphetamine-like” to being the real deal? Some scientists have suggested the conversion occurs as the chemicals are metabolized by our bodies. And here’s my favorite hypothesis:
The typical spices used in winter include nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and anise. It was suggested 40 years ago by Alexander Shulgin that these substances [certain chemicals in the spices] act as metabolic precursors of amphetamines… Humans may be exposed to amphetamines derived from these precursors in furno, the formation during baking and cooking, for example in the preparation of Lebkuchen, or Christmas gingerbread… This may be responsible, in part, for uplifting our mood in winter.
Idle JR (2005) Prague Medical Report
Assuming you’re baking traditional Swiss Style Lebkuchen using old school baker’s ammonia instead of baking soda, the chemical reaction in your oven might look something like this:
Of course, this is all purely speculative. But if spices like nutmeg do provide super small doses of mood-lifting amphetamines, our historical preference for these spices during the cold, dark winter months sure makes a lot of sense.
11 months ago
December 10 2012
Looking to mix things up this holiday season? Want your cookies to stand out in a crowd? Maybe you just like super awesome things? If you answered yes to any of these questions, be sure to check out this epic gallery of science cookies from Not So Humble Pie.
There you’ll find everything from edible circuit boards to surprisingly appetizing petri dishes. You’ll even see my favorite model organism rendered in cookie form. I’m pretty sure my gingerbread people will need lab coats from now on…
12 months ago
December 1 2012
Bite-Sized Biology is now on Twitter!
Come chill with me (@bitesizedbio) in the Twittersphere — we can swap food science links, tweet at our food science heroes (I’m looking at you @altonbrown and @Harold_McGee), and make up crazy new hashtags like #thesugarcode.
Let’s do this!
1 year ago
November 19 2012
"Are you there Brain? It’s me, Stomach."
Quick! What’s your favorite thing about Thanksgiving?
a. Spending time with friends and family
b. The long weekend
c. That crazy parade with all the floats
d. Eating more food than you thought was humanly possible
Since you’re reading a food blog, I’m just going to assume you picked “d” and that, like me, you spend the
weeks months before Thanksgiving mentally preparing to eat your weight in pumpkin pie.
I’m also going to assume that, despite your best efforts, you never quite reach that goal. But what exactly is going on when you get to that very last bite of pie? How does your brain know when your stomach is ready to throw in the towel?
Your brain communicates with your stomach through sensory neurons embedded in the stomach wall. As you eat, some of these neurons will sense how much your stomach has expanded to accommodate all that turkey and pie. Through a process called mechanotransduction, the neurons detect mechanical forces — the tension in the walls of a full stomach — and convert them into chemical signals that the brain can understand.
This transformation from mechanical inputs to chemical outputs involves special ion channels (so-called "mechanosensitive" ion channels) that allow charged particles to enter or exit a neuron in response to a mechanical force.
When your stomach expands, it physically deforms the many neurons embedded within its wall. The mechanosensitive ion channels in these neurons respond by opening, which allows specific ions to flow in or out of the neurons. This flow of ions triggers the release of chemical signals (neurotransmitters) that relay information to neighboring neurons and, ultimately, your brain. As your brain translates these chemical signals, you feel full and eventually stop eating.
When you loosen your belt and dig into that last piece of pie this Thursday, remember to give thanks for mechanotransduction!
1 year ago
November 18 2012
idealconditions asked: I WISH YOU WOULD POST EVERYDAY. Your posts are awesome!
Why thank you! I wish I could post everyday, too, but this whole grad school thing keeps me pretty busy…
1 year ago