To be taken with a pinch of salt: food, drink and mathematics?

One of the great things about maths is that you can use it to describe practically anything. Of course, there’s a bit of a difference between “can” and “should”… There are plenty of unlikely applications out there, and every so often one of them gets picked up by the mainstream media to the irritation of everyone working on more sensible topics. One of the best ways to get your work noticed seems to be to choose a nice everyday topic like food and drink, of which we present a few specimens here. Some of these examples have a serious side to them, of course. Others — well.

To start with something relatively sensible: some recent work has combined graph theory and statistical analysis to look at the combinations of flavours appearing in various cuisines. (The full paper is also online, though you may need to view it from a university computer to get access.) It seems that southern European and Asian cuisines make more use of molecularly dissimilar ingredients than western European and North American cuisines, which might explain why they tend to be more interesting.

Keeping things, er, interesting, what’s the first thing you think of when you see a boa constrictor killing its prey? That’s right: “how do I describe this mathematically?” (Again, you may need a subscription to see the gory details.)

After that thought, you may require a drink to steady your nerves. (“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake.” — W. C. Fields.) In that case, you may find yourself wondering about the noise the liquid makes as it emerges from the bottle — the wonderfully named “glug-glug”. You’ll be delighted to know that fluid dynamicists have turned their attention to this (see also the full paper) and it’s quite interesting — surprisingly, the mechanism depends crucially on the compressibility of the air.

If all this is too traumatic or too physics-laden for you to contemplate, an architect at Harvard has recently put maths to work on an aesthetic problem: parameterising and classifying the shapes of different types of pasta. (If you subscribe to New Scientist, you may recall an article on this from the 12 Oct 2011 issue.) He even has a glossy coffee-table book describing it, which would make an ideal present for the pasta-fetishist in your life.

On a more comforting and domestic note, here’s a mathematical model that predicts how long you should dunk your biscuit in your tea — to save you fretting, the answer is 3.5 seconds for a McVitie’s Ginger Nut. The physicist responsible for this, Len Fisher, has a discussion of the work and its significance or otherwise on his website.

This sort of thing is harmless enough, of course, and most of the time the “silly” results are spin-offs from more significant pieces of research. But, as a Telegraph article pointed out at the time of Dr Fisher’s biscuits, it’s not always quite so benign. If you’ve spotted any bizarre applications of maths or stats, please post them in the comment thread. Bonus marks if the bizarre work was carried out here at Strathclyde!


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4 Responses to To be taken with a pinch of salt: food, drink and mathematics?

  1. nigelmottram says:

    The research is far from trivial, but I’ve always liked the title of this paper: “On unfounded criticism of the simple fluid of Noll”, by A.I. Murdoch (Strathclyde), 1983. Not only does Noll’s fluid have some learning difficulties, it’s been getting a lot of unfair criticism.

    By the way, for those who don’t know already, Noll’s writings are all extremely interesting and show that things haven’t changed very much over the last few decades.

    Here’s an essay that I like to read every week as we near the Research Excellence Framework…

  2. Pingback: Proving a pint | Degree of Freedom

  3. Pingback: Fair shares and pieces of pizza | Degree of Freedom

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