Tag Archives: New York City

Wondering like an Egyptian

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.


The kitchen laboratory

Molecular gastronomy in action: strawberry ravioli on a spoon before being dropped into a liquid nitrogen bath. Credit: iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign

These days the kitchen is my chemistry lab, and if I were back in college I’d probably be one of the students beating down the door to get in to a cooking science class like this one at Harvard.

Despite my experience with chemical gadgets, the wildest item in my kitchen is a food processor. Watching what molecular gastronomy folks cook up next soothes my strange secret longing for a rotary evaporator and a supply of liquid nitrogen. So last month, I headed over to the Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting to find out about a chemical kitchen topic, flavor pairings.

Bernard Larousse started with a fascinating side note about the partnerships that he and his colleagues are building between chefs and scientists with the Flemish Primitives. Chefs used ultrasound to make stock, but my favorite funky food gadget had to be the fluidic plate (my term, not his). Researchers developed plates that work like microfluidic chips (see earlier post), electrical circuits within the plates allow chefs to deliver water droplets to the food at a defined point in time. Sure, this isn’t really practical at home (Yes, I want one). But this plate has the right mix of posh and geeky food style.

But back to the flavor chemistry. Eighty percent of taste comes from the sense of smell, as most of us notice when we have a cold and all food tastes like cardboard. But what makes two flavors work together? Researchers have analyzed the flavor components and compared them. A good match is all about having a similar mixture of component flavor compounds. This doesn’t take into account other issues such as texture. If you have two foods where the flavors don’t overlap, you can bridge between them with a food with flavor components that overlap between the other two: cheese and vanilla don’t match, but they work fine if you add coffee.

The website maps these chemical relationships on a wheel. Like foods are grouped together on branches, and the distance from the central food indicates how well it matches. Take this one for strawberries: I don’t think I every would have matched them with mussels. Not only can you make new matches, you can also figure out how to replace a flavor with other components with related flavor profiles.

That last piece seems to be particularly useful for vegetarian foodies, who’d like to replicate the robust flavor of meat. Larousse also points out that it can be a way for locavores to replace non-local ingredients. Replacing an ingredient like citrus with other natural ingredients still seems a bit more like a science project at this point– something that molecular gastronomers might try for fun. Ultimately, it’s probably easier for most of us to go buy an orange.


More Maker Faire

As my husband and I were roaming from tent to tent at Maker Faire on Sunday, we were recognized, but not for any reason that you might expect. “Hey, I know you,” a guy said as he turned around from examining a table. “You got hit in the head with that plane.”

Yes, our claim to fame at Maker Faire was being that couple, the ones involved in a minor incident with a remote control stealth bomber that spent much of the afternoon circling skies between the life-size game of Mouse Trap and  the stage for Eepy Bird, the Mentos and Diet Coke guys. We’re fine, but we scanned the air space above us cautiously a la Chicken Little for the rest of the afternoon.

Collisions and vague infamy aside- Maker Faire was fun. There was plenty of potential nauseousness for some– the 360 Swing:

The 360 swing at 45 degrees

Continue reading More Maker Faire


Urban versus rural nature

Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist: this week’s New York magazine waxes poetic about ecology in  The Concrete Jungle. Not what I was expecting when the city has been teeming with fashionistas and urban wildlife on the pop edge of culture. But, there it is in the first photo: Staten Island turkeys!

In our heat island, enveloped by concrete and lush parks engineered to look natural, the nuance here goes beyond rabid coyotes and bears in the suburbs.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

But it’s a challenging metaphor for the City and our global community. As urban dwellers, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

Over Labor Day weekend, I got to spend time on a friend’s farm in western Colorado– a wonderful experience that left me more than a wee-bit jealous of wide-open rural spaces. I love my city, too, and I’m glad to appreciate it as nature, too.

UPDATE Sept 30th: This post got a nice shout-out in New York magazine’s comments.


Close encounters of the bird kind

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island
a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.