Tag Archives: science

Travel: Volcano National Park on The Big Island of Hawai’i

This week I turned 30, and I did it the only way I deemed acceptable: on a Hawaiian island with a strong margarita in my hand and a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack. I’m going to level with you: I’m a recovering goth who doesn’t care much for the sun, tanning, or even beaches. But I still love Hawai’i, because it’s awesome. So I spent most of this trip riding in helicopters* and looking at rocks. Because as a wise man once said, science rules.

On Monday, we took a guided volcano tour to the Kilauea Caldera.

It's not vacation without dorky self-taken photos. This is me and my friend Ben. He's a nerd too.

PRETTY ROCKS. Seriously, though, some of the cooled lava is gorgeous. If it weren't bad luck to piss off Pele, I'd be lugging a suitcase home of this stuff.

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Guest Post: Indiana Jones, Mythical Hero

Today’s Guest Geek is M. Ravenwood, and she is an actual, real life archaeologist. 

Indiana Jones is (c) Lucasfilms

Hello, I am an archaeologist.  “Really?  Like Indiana Jones?”  This line is usually delivered with the slow spread of a smile and spark of excited eyes, the realization of a long-held fantasy.  While I admit I am not really much like the esteemed Professor Jones in either appearance or adventurous accomplishments, I do know a little about the public face of archaeology from my work in museums, having interacted with people of all ages and backgrounds.  The opening quote spoken to many of my colleagues would provoke a strained smile at best and outright derision at worst.

The field is polarized on the issue of Indy—either he’s a total travesty or adopted as a figurehead while attempts to uncover the “real life” inspiration abound.  They’re all missing the point.  The Indy films are really about the mythology of archaeology, not about realism.

Harrison Ford is an expert at glamorizing dirt and sweat and rough living.  None of us mere mortals can carry it as well as him after a day in the field, but even pre-Indy archaeology has always held a certain swashbuckling glamour.  No matter how hard you try, this is not a career that can happen indoors from the safety of your office chair.  Indy says as much himself in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  The story is also a period piece, set in the first half of the twentieth century, an era that frequently conjures images of decaying empires, pith helmets, and vast sociopolitical upheavals.  Critics like to tell you that Indy is a terrible archaeologist, nothing more than a relic hunter, but they neglect to qualify their analyses by remembering that it is a period piece.  Yes, Indy is a terrible archaeologist…by today’s standards.  In the 1930s, Indy’s adventures and practices were not implausible.

James Henry Breasted, who famously founded the Oriental Institute and is cited as a probable influence for the Indiana Jones character, rode in a crop duster to do a photographic survey of Egypt’s Giza plateau.  Unfriendly groups attacked expedition caravans, particularly in areas plagued by political turmoil.  Decade-long excavation projects hired hundreds of local people to uncover entire cities over field seasons that lasted six months rather than six weeks.  Activists like Gertrude Bell literally drew boundaries of modern nations.  These situations should sound vaguely familiar, as they are all incorporated into the series to some extent.

And yes, sometimes archaeologists really did fight Nazis—young American men that enlisted during World War II potentially had experience with WPA and CCC projects during the Depression, went to college for archaeology, or became interested in it when the returned.  Indy himself fought in the Mexican Revolution and WWI before being recruited by OSS during WWII.

Accusations of looting and poor heritage management are a bit of an anachronism in the Indiana Jones series.  According to contemporary laws already in place when the movies were created he definitely participates in looting (though archaeologists of all people should know better than to judge the past by the values of the present).

However, Indy also professes some views that would have been progressive for the period portrayed in the films, such as his stance against private sale of artifacts in The Last Crusade.  Condemn his methods as archaic, if you will, but his unselfish view that archaeological findings belong to all of humanity is admirable.  Indiana Jones does for the field of archaeology what any good mythological hero should do—he’s a little ridiculous, a lot of fun, and a total bad ass, but he also reminds us some more sobering truths of our past.

Cooking With Science: Molecular Gastronomy

Guest Post By Michelle 

Girls. Girls. Have you heard of molecular gastronomy?

A man named Hervé This (pronounced “Tis”), future father of molecular gastronomy, set out to understand what happens when you apply science to various cooking methods. That is, what happens from a scientific perspective. Working with physicist Nicholas Kurti, This started out testing what he called “cooking precisions,” which are essentially the common practices believed necessary to get the desired results from a recipe, like adding eggs two at a time to a souffle or boiling an egg for 10 minutes. For the record, don’t boil an egg for 10 minutes; boil it at 65C for a perfectly done white and a creamy orange yolk. Do add your eggs two at a time for a souffle. His scientific approach means reliable results and a vast increase in our understanding of what happens when we prepare foods.

Working with Chef Pierre Gagnaire, This’s research has led to a new way to approach preparing food. Just to be confusing, both the science of studying processes in cooking and the new techniques themselves are often referred to as molecular gastronomy.

And once you know what chemical reactions and physical changes are happening, you can start thinking about different methods and combinations, for startling effects.

For example:

We know that most of the taste of a food is actually in the smell. We also can identify those volatile compounds (the ones making the vapors that get in your nose to make the smell). So when Heston Blumenthal started identifying key volatile compounds in foods, he could then match foods based on whether they contain those compounds rather than by traditional pairings. This leads to some rather strange pairings, like white chocolate and caviar, which both have trimethylemine, or liver and jasmine, which both have indole. The website http://www.foodpairing.be/ can help you find pairings based on this method, and also some replacements. I like the idea that I can replace pecans (which I am allergic to) with lots of chocolate. I definitely intend to try the mushroom/mustard combination, maybe with some bacon, on, say, a buckwheat roll..

Of course, a good dish isn’t just about flavor. Texture goes a long way to making a food what it is. And oh man, does modern technology have a way of putting those familiar flavors into some really new textures. Spherification, gelification and foams are common methods. Turn watermelon into caviar with spherification, make tomato noodles with gelification, foam a beet or make a raspberry air. Have a dry-ice frozen pancake for breakfast with maple air and powdered sugar. Or maybe just top it with powdered caramel. http://www.moleculargastronomynetwork.com will tell you how.

This video also demonstrates the process:

If you’re interested in trying some of this at home – and really, one of the best things about molecular gastronomy is that you can try at least some of the methods at home – you will need some basic supplies that might not be easy to find at the local grocery. http://www.molecule-r.com/en/11-cuisine-r-evolution.html is a good starter kit.