Harvard Professor Cooks Up Food for Thought
Published: Saturday, April 14, 2012
Updated: Sunday, April 15, 2012 15:04
Georgetown programs never fail to bring energetic, interesting and often witty speakers to campus. This week was no different when Harvard University physics professor David Weitz, who presented “The Physics of Cooking” in the Reiss Science Building this past Tuesday.
Weitz’s acclaimed class, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter,” presents an overview of soft matter physics paired with visits from world-class chefs, such as Jose Andres, and demonstrations of science-based cooking techniques.
His lecture, sponsored by the Georgetown’s Department of Physics, garnered equal support, drawing over 100 attendants and making “The Physics of Cooking” the biggest foodie event since Chef Duff made a cake of Jack the Bulldog in Gaston Hall in the fall of 2011. Many members of the audience had to stand during the event due to the overwhelming turnout.
Weitz structured “The Physics of Cooking” as he would his own class back in Cambridge, Mass., starting with a self-introduction, an overview of his course and the historical contexts of the proposed topics. The course itself seeks to explain physics through labs and lectures that revolve around cooking.
At the beginning of the lecture, Weitz described his class at Harvard University as the perfect way help non-science majors eliminate their fear of equations. When he proposed the course, he hoped to make science more accessible to students who were afraid of the field. Throughout the lecture, that goal shown through as he captivated the audience, demonstrating his passion of physics through the fun and experimental nature of cooking.
Following the introduction, Weitz jumped into the action, starting his demonstrations off with how to cook an egg — through the lens of a physics professor. The audience watched astounded as Weitz ignored the frying pan in front of him. Instead, he opted for placing the egg in a bowl and drenching it in liquid nitrogen, which is known for its quick freezing abilities. As he waited for the egg to “cook,” he explained the phase changes that occur in eggs as they cook, drawing the audience into the science behind cooking. The audience gladly followed along with Weitz’s explanation, as the audience seemingly enjoyed being presented with equations. This is the magic behind Weitz’s class: the ability to engage listeners with a difficult topic by capturing their attention within the context of cooking.
Weitz’s presentation continued to encourage audience participation by handing out samples of the scientific culinary methods. The audience remained engaged throughout Weitz’s lecture and was rewarded with several more experiments and their corresponding scientific explanations. Reminding the audience several times that “he doesn’t know how to cook,” Weitz continued to wow the crowed with his demonstrations of mayonnaise emulsions, flavor gels and phase changes in ice cream. He closed the lecture with the “perfect” martini, taking into account the difference in freezing points in alcohol versus water to ensure the chilliest of mixtures. It was a hit with the college crowd.
For all of the students who enjoyed Weitz’s lecture, Georgetown offers a similar course, titled “Molecular Gastronomy,” that is taught by chemistry professor Jennifer Swift. Swift’s class focuses more on the chemistry of cooking rather than physics, but the intention is the same: to encourage those less enthralled by equations through a love of the culinary tradition. Students learn the scientific premise behind cooking while diving into the history and properties of food.