At your service: the complex science behind everyday dilemmas

How can you speed up your tennis serve? Why do your meringues keep collapsing? The extraordinary science behind the ordinary is the theme of Science Week

Thu, Nov 7, 2013, 01:00

Have you ever felt that life is a little mundane? You get up, go to work, drop by the gym, go home, cook dinner and flop into bed – nothing there to excite your dreams, you might think. But behind the seemingly dull and ordinary is a whole universe of scientific wonder – you just might not have noticed.

The extraordinary science behind the ordinary is the theme of Science Week 2013, which runs from this weekend through to November 17th.

“Exploring the XtraOrdinary” aims to show that our lives are filled with incredible scientific processes. We take so many things for granted – the water that comes out of our taps (most of the time), the grass that grows under our feet, the food we cook and eat, what happens when we engage in sporting activities – but when we look at them with a scientific eye, we see them in a different light.

Take baking a cake. You think it’s just a matter of mixing up the ingredients, putting them in the oven and voila: delicious meringues and tartes tatin. But, as molecular gastronomist Louise Lennox discovered when she was training to be a pastry chef, baking is a science, and if you don’t get the formula right, your soufflé could suffer a catastrophic collapse.

After several failed attempts to make a meringue, despite following the recipe to the letter, Lennox realised she needed to do some scientific research into eggs. “I discovered there was a lot more science behind creating the perfect meringue than I had been shown,” she says. “Egg whites are made from a protein called albumen. Salt breaks up the protein, helping them whip faster and fluffier. Also, egg whites whip better at room temperature than straight from the fridge, as the protein will expand more. Add a little acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar, which is a natural stabiliser, and it helps lock those precious air bubbles inside.”

So, leave your egg out of the fridge for a while and add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon – the appliance of science.

“It’s more than just weighing out the ingredients properly. When a recipe would call for a certain type of ingredient, I would ask why. Why is a Golden Delicious apple better than a cooking apple for tarte tatin? The answer is starch. A cooking apple, once heated, turns to puree very fast, but Golden Delicious apples are higher in starch, which stops them from losing their shape when heated,” she says.

And you thought The Great Irish Bake-Off was just about baking.

Serving sport
Kieran Moran likes watching sport. In fact, he has a passion for it. But he is looking at it in a different way. As the head of health and human performance department at DCU, he uses science to search for ways to improve athletes’ performance, reduce musculoskeletal injuries and identify factors that determine peak performance.

“Science is about observing everyday things, and we observe everyday sport actions,” says Moran. “It’s hugely complicated. To judge how complicated it is, I always compare it to what we’ve been able to do with technology to replicate what humans do – the huge investments in the last 20 years that have gone into robotics. Sony now have a robot, Asimov, that can run, but compared to what humans can do, they’re nowhere near. With all that processing ability, it could only run. It could not play a game. It couldn’t play any sport competitively against a human.”

Moran and his team have been working with Garry Cahill of Tennis Ireland to see if tennis players can tell when they are serving faster.

They found that most players tested could only guess if their serve was faster or slower than the previous one. But when they were given feedback about their serves, they were able to improve their speed. The research was published in a major sport science journal.

“We’ve become good at measuring physiological potential. We can measure arm length for rowing, and lung capacity for cycling, so we can identify prodigies. But there might be an individual who might not have the body for a particular sort, but they could be very driven. No one has had any measurable success for measuring characteristics for team sport,” he says.

“The wonderful thing about everyday science is that we’re just trying to answer questions that people know need answering,” says Moran.

Science Week runs November 10-17. Science festivals are planned for Sligo, Dublin, the midlands, Mayo and Galway, and there are hundreds of smaller events around the country. Find events near you at @ScienceWeek on Twitter, facebook/scienceweekireland. Science Week is supported by Science Foundation Ireland

Tomato trouble: Why ketchup goes splat
Why does ketchup refuse to budge in the bottle, then suddenly splat out a big glob all over your lap? Why do headphone wires and Christmas lights get hopelessly tangled no matter how carefully you store them? The causes of these everyday hassles can be answered by science, according to Dr Dagmar Baer, who has written a blog on the subject on

Splattery tomato sauce is caused by cohesion and viscoelasticity, according to Baer. Ketchup, like photons, exists in two states. When it’s perfectly still, it acts like a gel – sticky, slow as molasses. When it’s in motion, however, it becomes a liquid – enough frantic shaking, and suddenly your dinner (and you) are swimming in the stuff.

Scientists have been studying knot theory to find out why wires get tangled, and the news is not good. Apparently the chances of them not getting tangled are small. Stick your headphones in your bag, and it’s a mathematical certainty that they will tangle up, because there are infinite ways of getting knotted, but only one way of being straight. To prevent tangling, the wire has to be unable to move, so wrap it tightly and securely around something, because once it starts moving, within five minutes it will have snaked its way into a knot that will take years to unravel.

Why does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch? Blame ethylene, says Dr Baer. That’s the ingredient that speeds up the ripening process. When fruit starts to rot, it produces more ethylene, which quickly passes over to the fresher fruit, making them rot more quickly. The solution? Two fruit bowls – one for fresh, one for overripe.

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