Adventures in Chocolate

Last week I gave a talk at the MIT Museum about the science of chocolate for their Kitchen Chemistry series, as well as a talk to one of the Harvard undergraduate houses. Thanks to several other deadlines around the same time, I found myself without much time to prepare. I viewed this as something like a 48-hour film challenge: how could I create an hour-long presentation about chocolate in two days? This post describes my development process.

I approached this challenge with my three-part strategy for preparing for other presentations about my research:

  1. Draw cartoons: pictures are far more effective than only words and equations
  2. Do experiments: showing is always better than telling
  3. Eat chocolate: not absolutely necessary, but it makes the process more enjoyable

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To paste a tomato: Comparing brands of tomato paste in a pasta sauce

Going to the supermarket always feels a bit bewildering. Which label should I choose?  The generic brand is cheaper, but is it worse?  I really want to go for the colorful label, but is that how they get you?

I wanted an answer!  And so I began a quest into the difference between storebought brands with one of the most treasured and important recipes in my cooking repetoire: Nonna’s pasta sauce (follow link for recipe).  That’s right, my late Nonna was born in Italy and passed down the most delicious pasta sauce in history to my family. It’s similar to a bolognese sauce but different (my grandma was from Lucca, not Bologna), so the only real name for it is Nonna’s pasta sauce.

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Moving past the hypothesis: how to pick and choose methods to suit a research question

the spectrum of research methods

A short while back, Kevin Miklasz made an excellent argument for why the construct of the hypothesis does more to hinder the teaching of science than it helps.

I never thought about why hypotheses were necessary until Kevin pointed out that well, they’re not. But then the question becomes: how can scientists maintain academic rigor without formal hypothesis testing?

I found the answer in a book from 1972. Research on Human Behavior is a little hard to come by nowadays, but its main ideas can be found referenced in all kinds of modern publications. The book offers practical advice for research design based on how much control a researcher has over test subjects. The eight research approaches it offers (charted above) are simple, yet surprisingly inclusive. Continue Reading →

Tidbits: banishing hypotheses, bespoke chocolates/whiskies, and the science of coffee

Science Class

image by Sewanee University, from flickr

Although all of us here at Science Fare share a passion for food, our first love will always be science. A few weeks ago Kevin Miklasz, our newest-minted full PhD, traveled to the annual conference of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) to give a talk on our work here and his work with Iridescent Learning. Kevin followed up that talk with a post here on why hypotheses should be banished from science education. This week, I’ll be joining in with a post of my own arguing that it’s not the hypothesis that makes research rigorous – it’s the calculated choice of research methods to address a particular question.

The Goldilocks Guide to Caramels

I’m riding a sugar high right now. You see, I recently discovered that candy is something I can make. Mountains of sugar and rivers of corn syrup can be transformed into something beautiful in my kitchen, and this is a great and awesome power. I am probably not to be trusted with it, but now that I’ve figured it out, there’s no going back. I am making my inner 6-year-old so freaking happy.

These are a few of my favorite things.

There have been a few – okay, a lot – of mistakes along the way. So while I’ve gotten a bit better at making candy, I’ve gotten much better at mitigating confectionary disaster*. One of my favorite tricks involves caramels. One day, I made a whole 9” x 13” pan of them, and once the caramel had set they were just too hard. They shattered rather than bent. I didn’t want to toss them, and I don’t have dental insurance, so on a desperate whim I broke up the sheet of caramel and re-melted it on the stove with a bit of water. This time, it was perfect.

Coming up next, smashing candy with hammers. For Science!

Questioning the hypothesis: how to improve teaching of the scientific method

do we need hypotheses?

flickr user Marco Belluci

In my recent NSTA talk, I advocated a view of the scientific method that did not include hypothesis. What blasphemy! I feel like Galileo speaking out against the Church or something. But let’s face it, hypotheses are stupid and irrelevant for science in our modern age. At best, they are an artifact from the past that has long, long lost its purpose.

Now, I may have ruffled some feathers but I want to point out I’m not the only one - Douglas Llewellyn at NSTA “The Role of Argumentation in Inquiry” session also threw hypotheses in the trash. And this excellent compilation of quotes just published on brainpickings (many from actually scientists!) makes many of the same points I make here. And my favorite view of the scientific method, over at, doesn’t use hypotheses either (though they do have some similar ideas in their illustration of science, they don’t use the word “hypothesis”).

So what is my point? To summarize, I argue that there are three main reasons why hypotheses should not be a part of science education:

  1. They aren’t used in all scientific disciplines equally, or at all.
  2. When used, they aren’t a necessary part of the process or the focus (questions are the focus).
  3. Educationally, teaching hypotheses makes an otherwise intuitive process more formal and unfriendly.

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Tidbits: cocktails, miracle berry science, and changing aroma into art

from a recent "cocktail science" event at the exploratorium in San Francisco

For this iteration of Tidbits, we’re featuring Boston Apothecary, a site dedicated to intricately detailed explorations of cocktail science.  Here are some of their recent hits:

Other Cocktail Stuff





  • Is grass-fed beef really no different from grain-fed? I have my opinions, which I left in comments over at KitchenMyths. What are yours?
  • As long are we’re making A vs. B comparisons, are bananas any better for you than cookies? I’m really perturbed by this infographic and chart. Why? If you look at all foods compared, the major missing element is fat. Fat contributes to feelings of satiety, whereas I suspect the fullness ratings from the other foods tested are due mainly to bulk (for example, watery oranges and apples both sit high on the fullness scale). Take this one with a grain of salt.
  • What “brain food” actually does to your brain, via lifehacker

ScienceFare at NSTA!

Hey everyone!  I had the pleasure of showing Sciencefare to everyone at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Indianapolis this past week!  Thanks to all the teachers, educators, and everyone else who attended the session, there were some great comments and questions.  For those of you that didn’t get to see it, I’m posting everything here.

First, the entire presentation is recorded, right here!

Second, since it was hard to see, I wanted to upload my powerpoint presentation separately.  Feel free to use it as you wish, in particular the graphics of the scientific process.  I am including the videos in the powerpoint as separate links below, to cut down on the size of the file.  Also had to take out the pictures of the posters, but you can find those right here on the blog!

NSTA Miklasz presentation

Last, there was some good buzz about the role of hypotheses in science during the presentation.  We’re going to share some thoughts about hypotheses later in the week, so stay posted!

Tidbits: taste perception, pink slime, and steam-distilled chicken

Rubber Chicken

flickr user IntangibleArts - sorry, this picture was too cute to pass up.

Ok, no more of this “weekly links” nonsense. From now on, we’ll post links when we deem them sufficiently awesome. Oh look! they’re awesome!

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

In honor of the occasion, I thought I’d share this video by a former student of mine. Adam explains how alcohol works, in verse: