• scissors
    November 29th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    After 3 and three quarter hours, it emerged from the oven to the exultant tones of Handel.

    There it sat in its double lined saucepan, a giant nugget of cakey, fruity, boozy goodness. Behold! I cried, brandishing the improvised tin at my dozing mother: a cake is born!

    The Reactants

    This weekend saw the first Stir-Up Sunday in a generation of Houses. At the grand age of 21 I decided that I wanted to have a go at making a Christmas cake, since I love Christmas and I love cake, so why not? When I declared this to my parents they were somewhat bemused since Houses don’t really “do” Christmas cake, nor pudding. Aware of the gaping abyss of mixed peel, brandy and baking times opening up before me I consulted Grandma House on the matter, hoping to receive some treasured handed-down recipe. Alas, none such was to be found. I heard from my Grandma that once she made Christmas puddings every year, a whole year in advance. She told me, without nostalgia, that a time came when you could buy puddings “that were just as good” from shops and so she hung up her pudding basin.

    It seemed odd to me that someone of my Grandma’s generation would value commercial produce over homemade, but then, when my Grandma was 17, WWII broke out. After rationing I’m sure the idea of buying your Christmas pudding was a huge step up from powdered eggs and hoarding butter rations. Now, in my generation, making things is back in vogue. Anyone can buy a chunky cable knit snood from Topshop, but who can make their own? (I couldn’t, but my sister did). Sure, you could just pop down to Tescos and purchase your Finest Christmas Pudding with caramelised holly leaves and a miniature of brandy for singeing your eyebrows with. However, who has the time to stir 2lbs of dried fruit into a gloopy mix and then bake it upon a sheet of newspaper for almost four hours? The excessive labour is part of the love that goes into it. Only once a year can such extravagance for one single baked good be justified.

    Only a mother could love it

    If no one else likes the luscious/delicious/blasted cake and it takes me until Easter to finish eating the concoction then so be it! If anyone would like to give me a hand, please send stamped addressed cake boxes from Boxing Day onwards. Only put quite a lot of stamps on because it’s pretty dense.

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  • scissors
    August 4th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    This week’s science question comes from my dear mama. She asks “Why do I dribble when I sip my champagne in the bath?”.

    Just for clarification, the champagne is wishful thinking and my mum is much more likely to be drinking tea. Either way, why is it that one who knows much better can’t help getting tannins in her bathwater?

    The answer is surface tension. Alike molecules­­ attract and hold on to each other via cohesion. H20 is a polar molecule, so it has both a positive and negative end which means that one H20 can turn around and attract another. Water molecules form a linked surface layer which tries to resist attempts at breaking it. You can see this in drops of water clinging together on a hard surface, or that well known systematic error-source, the meniscus (for future reference, one must always measure from the bottom of the meniscus). Rivulets of water running down your window follow the path of least resistance, and this means the path that is already wet. Drinking when your face is wet elicits the same effect: water does not retain its surface tension and flow exactly where it is directed, but follows the path which has already been laid by your bubbly beard experiments.Minimise those errors!

    The solution I would suggest to my mum as she gets tipsy on her PG is either 1) dry thine face or 2) use a straw. Anything else is likely to result in a tragic loss of beverage.


    Is there a scientific issue you’re curious about? Is there something you wish you could hear explained simply? If so, drop me a line at [email protected], on twitter via @imogenhouse or using the contact form, and I’ll break it down for you so you need never lack the answer again.

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  • scissors
    March 13th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    MSG in a bowl, in a packet.

    What does MSG stand for? Makes Stuff Great? Or perhaps, Morbid Sauce Generator. I know which is snappier, but what’s the true story about this food additive? I want to find out how it is supposed to be bad for us and more importantly, whether it actually is.

    I mainly became aware of the controversy over glutamate due to the smug messages of “No MSG” on the front of a growing number of processed foods. I feel I am missing some vital information on why manufacturers think that people don’t want to be eating extra glutamate. Glutamate is a naturally occurring version of the synthesised MSG, which is glutamate stabilised by the addition of salt.

    Some of the various alleged side effects of consumption of MSG are numbness, tingling, headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and for asthmatics, difficulty breathing. This website written by an American takes the form of a chain email, sent out to “inform” friends and encourage them to “blow the whistle on MSG”. The main point against seems to be that scientists inject infant rats with MSG to cause them to become obese so they can be used in studies on diabetes et cetera. However, the author of this article has not mentioned the relative levels found in food and that which the rats are given.

    After checking the cupboards of my student kitchen I was surprised by the lack of monosodium glutamate on ingredient lists. In fact the only place it was freely stated was as the second greatest component of Bouillon Stock Powder. This surprised me, since the product is organic and boasts “all-natural ingredients”. However, like most awkward topics, many other names for glutamate are now in use. These include hydrolysed vegetable protein (in pringles) glutamate (a natural result of the formation of soy sauce and cheese) and main constituent of marmite, yeast extract. Lots of lists also included the cover-all terms of “spices” or “natural flavourings”. Even the soy sauce boasted “no added MSG”, which is a bit misleading since glutamate develops naturally during the fermentation of the soy beans. If you are on a serious MSG-hunting mission then check out this page.

    So basically, MSG is in a lot of things we eat but we might not realise it. This means that if it is actually bad for us then this could be worrying. I contemplated catching some rats from Euston underground and conducting my own experiment by feeding them up with all the stock cubes they could eat. However, my student bedroom is cramped enough already and I signed something for the landlord saying I wouldn’t keep any pets, so I decided it was best to leave it to the professionals. So I looked through some studies to find out whether scientists have found any concrete proof that MSG is harmful.

    The first one I came across is titled “Monosodium Glutamate: Lack of Effects on Brain and Reproductive Function in Rats”. The title betrays the non-result. The abstract tells us that they injected infant rats with monosodium glutamate and then basically  tested whether it had an effect when they had grown into adults. In their words: “treated animals showed no adverse monosodium glutamate effects on the reproductive system and neural morphology”, that is, the cells of their brain and nervous system didn’t seem worse off for the dose of glutamate when they were young.

    Another article seems to think it has found a correlation between MSG and the release of growth hormone in rats. However, the injection of MSG these rats were given happened a few weeks after birth and was dosed at 4mg/g bodyweight. This might not sound like much, but for a 60kg human this is the equivalent to 240g of MSG. That’s like if I ate 20kg of parmesan in one sitting. Disregarding whether that is actually humanly possible, anyone would tell you that eating so much of anything is not going to be a good idea. Which is why although the consequences for the rats in this study were not good, I am dubious of whether this is relevant to our everyday eating habits. For example, you can die from drinking too much water but “normal” volumes of it are essential to our bodily functions.

    As they have been saying for centuries; “everything in moderation”. This also applies to glutamate. So basically, don’t eat more than a significant fraction of your bodyweight in marmite at once and you should be fine. I’m off to enhance my food.

    For more info check out this great article at the Guardian by Alex Renton, entitled If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?”

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  • scissors
    January 22nd, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    Myself as a nipper. That hair is in need of some silicone!

    My family loves potato omelette. Recently, leftovers of said omelette were left in the dish it was cooked in for several days and the baked-on grease became very difficult to remove. After it had been soaking for a day with no improvements and we were driving home with Brillo pads I had a brainwave! It went thus: Washing up liquid cleans (in part) by breaking down fats, but the problem here seemed to be the stubborn bits of egg, which are protein. Therefore surely we needed an enzyme which could digest the protein, such as biological washing powder! Unfortunately, it appeared the protein was not the problem so my genius idea was not as useful as I had hoped.

    However, it got me thinking about how we clean other things. In particular; 2-in-1 hair products. I don’t use them a lot, personally, because I don’t want to get shampoo on the long bits of my hair (which are dry already) nor conditioner on my roots (not that dry). But am I being naïve in assuming this will happen? Are 2-in-1s, as I had assumed, just the two individual concoctions mixed together? Well, as I discovered from this very interesting article on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s site, the 2-in-1 is a carefully engineered product in its own right.

    The purpose of shampoo is primarily to remove grease and dirt from hair. However, conditioner adds oils to the hair in order to leave it glossy and smooth. So the question is, how can these two co-exist in the same bottle? One solution that scientists have come up with is to use shampoo and conditioner molecules which repel each other. As the product is rinsed out and mixes with water, the conditioner molecules (which have been coated in a “crystalline matrix” and suspended in the shampoo) are precipitated out since they are not water-soluble. Think of this as like the evaporation of sea water. Salt is soluble in water but not in air, so when the water becomes water vapour suspended in the air, the salt is left behind as little crystals. So the shampoo is washed away, leaving the conditioner to do its work.

    This is all news to me. I thought you were meant to leave conditioner on for a few minutes to get the full effect but this obviously doesn’t translate to 2-in-1s. As to my conditioner-on-hair-roots no-no, this should not be a problem with the combined products, since the conditioner targets dry or damaged regions of your hair. Another interesting point in the article is the balance between mildness and lather-osity. The more lather produced, the more grease the shampoo is taking from your hair. The dirt is then suspended in the lather to prevent it being re-deposited in the hair. However, some shampoos such as those formulated for babies, need to be milder and so produce less lather.

    On an interesting final note, an article in a similar vein on the Beauty Brains blog (“Real Scientists Answer Your Beauty Questions”) tells us that since dimethicone (the silicone bit) is nearly always present in products which condition your hair, even if you don’t realise it. This means that if you only want your shampoo to remove oils from your hair, check the ingredients first! It’s more common to find it in shampoo than you think. Now before you head off to check the ingredients of everything in your bathroom, check out the Electron Microscope photos of damaged hair on Procter and Gamble’s site. The most striking piece of information comes from their assurance that “backcombing is one of the most damaging physical treatments that can be inflicted on hair.” This, along with photographic evidence is definitely going to make me respect my tresses a bit more. Silicone is my saviour!