(Roughly) Daily

Preparing a meal that C.P. Snow would have enjoyed…



John Lanchester writes:

When Ferran Adrià, the Spanish maestro who is undisputedly the most influential chef of the last two decades, gave up cooking at his restaurant El Bulli, he announced that he was going to be starting a number of projects. One of them is intended to be a foundation dedicated to the study of himself. Another was a collaboration on the subject of food and science with Harvard. I think quite a few people, on first hearing about that, scratched their heads and wondered what a joint venture between the two might be like. On the one hand, seawater sorbet and ampoules of reduced prawn head bouillon (two Adrià signature dishes). On the other, Helen Vendler. Outcome not obvious…

What we outsiders didn’t know is that all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science…

Once upon a time, to take a course like SPU27, you had to be young enough and lucky enough in all the relevant ways to get to Harvard. Today, all you need is to be lucky enough to have access to a computer with an internet connection. SPU27 is part of a remarkable experiment in open access university education called EdX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, which gives away entire courses, online, for free…

I registered for EdX and sat down in front of SPU27x (which started on 8 October; you can still sign up and do the course in time to get a certificate). My intention was to ‘audit’ it, i.e. do as much of it as I felt like without subjecting myself to anything too obviously worky. Also, the science of cooking is one of my interests, and I was quietly confident that I knew most of it already. That turned out not to be the case. Looking at the review materials before starting the course, I found myself trying to remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere – it’s (4/3)πr3, in case you too have forgotten – and crunching logarithms in an attempt to answer e3.5=x (answer, x=33.12, obv).

The lectures are broken up into segments of about ten minutes, followed by multiple choice questions which you can do at your leisure, or not, and submit your answers towards a certificate of completion, or not. (Certificates you have to pay for. Everything else is free.) In the first lecture Adrià showed off a few culinary tricks; the second quickly had us working with Avogadro’s constant to determine the number of molecules in a given amount of matter. Homework involves an experiment to calibrate the accuracy of your oven, and some calculations to ascertain the number of various molecules in a recipe for aubergine with buttermilk sauce. Then there’s a test: ‘Estimate the concentration in mol/L of protein using the fact that the average protein is 300 amino acids long and the average amino acid has a mass of 110 amu.’  Er … I think I’ll phone a friend on that one. All this was by way of working with ‘the equation of the week’, which is how SPU27 is structured: it teaches, both by lecture and by hands-on demonstration, the profound and endlessly satisfying mystery of how mathematics penetrates into matter.

In summary, the course is more rigorous, and more educational, than I’d thought it would be… MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Courses] like this one offer something simpler, and in its way purer: education for its own sake. They are purely educational, in the way that so much education increasingly isn’t, as it goes further and further in the direction of box-ticking and teaching to the test. Although it’s already possible to extract a great deal of use from MOOCs, as in the comp sci example I mentioned, I suspect a lot of the good they bring to the world won’t be in the form of anything useful. Instead they offer anyone who can be bothered the chance to learn things just for the sake of learning. As lifetimes get longer, there’s less need for people to stop learning, and less need for the experience of education to be something confined to ghettos of the young. Avogadro’s constant, which is used to tell you the number of molecules in a given amount of matter, is 6.022 x 1023. Isn’t that cool? And now I’m off to calibrate my oven by observing the melting point of sugar. I see in the course notes that the full protocol for doing that comes from a book called Cooking for Geeks.

Read the whole piece at the London Review of Books.  And learn to cook in a way that bridges C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”— sign up for the course here.


As we wear our lab coats into the kitchen, we might send surprising birthday greetings to Rene Magritte; he was born on this date in 1898.  Magritte made a living as a draftsman and an advertising artist before putting together the paintings (largely impressionist and futurist in style) for his first show in his native Belgium… at which critics heaped abuse on his work.  Disheartened, Magritte moved to Paris, and fell in with Andre Breton, who helped him become the integral part of the Surrealist Movement that he became.

“The Son of Man”




Written by LW

November 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

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