Making sense of nanotechnology – a piece of cake!

by Andrew Maynard on April 4, 2010

The quality’s a bit flaky, but I thought I would upload this video for a bit of fun.  It’s the first – and possibly the last – time I will simultaneously attempt to unravel the mysteries of nanotechnology… while baking a cake!

Filmed at the National Museum of American History as part of Nanodays 2010, the presentation was part of a public dialogue on  nanotechnology.  My task: help set the scene for a discussion on who should oversee the responsible development of nanotechnology.

Wanting to try something a little different, I thought I would play around with cooking as an analogy for nanotechnology.  The analogy is a useful one – I only scrape the surface of where it could be taken here.  But whether it was a wise decision to actually cook in public – well, I’ll leave judgment on that one to you!

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One thing the video doesn’t show is how the cake turned out.  I would like to say that it was light, moist and delicious.  However, just in case someone posts pictures of the actual result, I have to be straight with you – it sucked!  Personally, I blame the lab oven provided by the Smithsonian – I can cook, honest!  Perhaps a bonus lesson though is that, even with the best preparations, unanticipated consequences are always possible – whether baking a cake or making the latest nanotech-enabled gizmo!

1 Ruth Seeley April 4, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Oh my. The cake assembly portion of this video was rather appalling and I’m enrolling you in baking 101 twice as a punishment. How did you expect the cake to rise when you hadn’t put any air into it to begin with? And was there a leavening agent? Did you actually succeed in creaming the butter with the flour rather than with the sugar? I’m pretty sure I didn’t see you beat the eggs before adding to the (now hopelessly jumbled) mix of wet and dry ingredients. Wise not to post the result, even for comic relief.

Still, once one’s over the shock of the baking portion, some nice and clear analogies here. And your apron co-ordinated beautifully with your shirt. ;)

2 Andrew Maynard April 5, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Believe it or not, there was method to my madness! I’ve been obsessed with baking the perfect pound cake for years – have tried all the long complex approaches involving kitchen limbering-up exercises and obscure culinary arts (including aerating the flour!). But have never had great success.

However, when I started rehearsing for this talk, I was more interested in the process than the product, so I threw everything I knew out of the window and just chucked the ingredients together – in the right sequence of course, so I ended up with something resembling a plausible cake mix. That sequence was… quickly cream the butter with the sugar using the spoon; smash, add and roughly mix the eggs; pour in the flour and baking powder (un-sieved!!) and mix; throw in a dash of vanilla essence – and you’re there.

Just for a lark, first time I ran through this to check the timing, I thought I might as well actually bake the cake – it was the best cake I’d made! And in case you think it was a fluke, the backup-cake for Saturday’s talk (sadly eaten before I had a chance to photograph it) was made in the same way – and turned out just as well.

I have a sneaky suspicion that cooking has its fair share of redundant folk-lore. But I suspect I am going to have to prove this one on video – if only to show that I really can bake a cake :-)

3 Kiyomi April 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm

I really enjoyed your presentation, it was one of the most engaging and interesting scientific talks I’ve seen and I give you huge points for baking in public! My personal trick is mixing by hand between the initial mix everything together stage and the final stirring frenzy. The heat from our hands help the butter to melt slightly making the batter more liquid, which seems to help homogenize the mixture.

4 Mary Spiro April 6, 2010 at 11:54 am

Andrew, this should be turned into a TEDx talk. But you’ll have to be able to make an edible cake! :)

5 Andrew Maynard April 6, 2010 at 12:03 pm

The pressure is increasing to prove I really can bake a cake! Stay tuned on this one…

6 Aarti Kapoor April 9, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Dr. Maynard, this was a really entertaining talk! Loved the baking analogy and the interesting issues you raised. Mentioned your talk in my recent blog titled “Cake takes center stage at nanotechnology talk” (http://www.nanoscienceworld.com/nano-news-2/australian-study-most-effec.html)

7 Andrew Maynard April 13, 2010 at 10:54 am

Thanks for this Aarti – appreciate the write-up!

8 Amy April 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

Good post and a wonderful video..

9 Andrew Maynard April 13, 2010 at 10:50 am

Thanks Amy

10 Sruti May 28, 2012 at 5:53 am

Sir
I am having great difficulty following your accent . So are there any papers or blog posts where you discuss the analogies you made here,else is there a subtitled video available anywhere ?

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