What do physics and cooking dinner have in common?

Oct 30 2013

Solving big problems with physics like finding new ways to generate energy, store data or create amazing new materials sounds complicated. Maybe difficult to even think about. How do physicists begin to try and solve these huge challenges? Well they do it the same way you or I would eat an elephant, one bite at a time.

A physicist starts their work with the hopes of finding an answer or making something new or better than it is right now. For many physicists, this involves carrying out experiments to test an idea.

A physics experiment isn’t really that different from preparing dinner. It starts with a problem that requires solving, like having a house full of hungry people to look after. Then comes an idea to sort it out, by cooking a nice meal.

For someone cooking a meal, one option is to just add random things to the pot, another is to use a recipe. Often the best dinners result from the cook adapting a recipe to suit the people who are going to eat it. The same principles apply for a physicist approaching a scientific challenge. They identify a problem and come up with an idea to solve it. Usually physicists do this by drawing on existing knowledge and experiments that have been carried out in the past; these are like tried and trusted recipes. Physicists then use their own flair to adapt and advance previous experiments to solve the problem they are working on now. Just like adding more of a particular ingredient or some extra spice to a dish.

 

Cooking dinner involves keeping an eye on many things at once, like the quantity of the ingredients, the temperature of the oven, and the cooking time. During an experiment physicists call these variables: things they have control over and can change while the experiment is taking place. The types of variables physicists use depend on the question they are trying to answer but could really be anything from the strength of the current they pass through the material they are testing, to the wavelength of the laser beam they use to look at tiny atoms and molecules.

 

A physics experiment ends with some kind of result, useful or not, just like most cooking endeavours. If things don’t go as planned, a physicist might be left with with nothing more than a bunch of unrelated data points or a material that hasn’t improved at all. Just like a dish that comes out of the oven as weird tasting gloop that no one wants to try. But when things go well for a physicist and their experiment gives them a useful answer or creates something new this lets them know that their idea was correct, or at least that it has potential.


For a physicist, proving their idea is like serving up a culinary masterpiece after long hours in the kitchen, and being rewarded by the sight of everyone happily devouring their food. Every now and then a physicist’s experiments go so well and their achievements are so significant that the rewards might even top winning master chef!

This guest post was written by Dr. Fiona Blighe, who is a Scientific Programme Officer at Science Foundation Ireland and studied physics at Trinity College Dublin.

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