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6 Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items

(Image credit: Flickr user Claire Yuki)

1. THE BIG BANG THEORY Explained by a Muffin

IN THE CLASSROOM

Around 13.7 billion years ago, not a single element of the entire known universe existed. There was no space, no matter, no time, no wonderful magazine for knowledge junkies. Then, for an unknown reason, an infinitesimally small point called a singularity started to expand. Boom! That’s the Big Bang. Both blazing hot and unimaginably dense, this tiny point started expanding and cooling, and to this day the universe is still doing both.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître in 1927. Realizing that objects in space were moving farther apart, Lemaître hypothesized that if everything in the universe is now expanding, it originally must have been smaller. His idea: that it all originated from one intensely hot “primeval atom.” While the notion is generally accepted today, not everyone bought into Lemaître’s theory; the Big Bang gets its name from a sarcastic remark made by Fred Hoyle, an astronomer, science fiction novelist, and Big Bang skeptic.

IN THE KITCHEN

Imagine a muffin tin with one cup half-full of blueberry batter (the singularity). Inside this batter are all the building blocks of a blueberry muffin. As the batter’s temperature changes, it begins expanding, just like the universe started expanding with the temperature change of the Big Bang. The blueberries in the batter are analogous to the planets, stars, and other matter, moving right along with the rest of the muffinverse. But they’re not floating at random inside the batter—they’re moving with it, getting farther apart as the muffin bakes. And that muffin? It represents the entirety of the universe. Beyond the edge of the muffin lies a vast abyss of nothingness. All that exists are blueberries, sugar crystals, and, if the baker got a little creative, a hint of nutmeg.

2. Stirring the Pot with KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS

(Image credit: Flickr user Paul 李加乂 Li)

IN THE CLASSROOM

When the impressively mustachioed economist John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, it was a watershed moment for modern macro-economic thought. The book launched the revolutionary idea that government spending is the best way to stimulate the economy. In Keynes’s now commonly accepted view, money flows in a circle, meaning one person’s spending provides income for another. In a recession, people slow their spending, thereby slowing someone else’s earning. To grease the cycle, Keynes proposed something radically different from other free market economists—he called on the government to inject money into the economy and kickstart the cycle by “priming the pump.” His argument was that the government should solve economic problems rather than waiting for markets to self correct in the long run because, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

IN THE KITCHEN

A Keynesian cook would be a big fan of risotto, a dish that requires a fair bit of intervention on the part of the cook (the government). Unlike regular rice, which is dumped into a free market pot of boiling water and left to fend for itself, risotto must be regulated. The cook adds ladlefuls of hot stock to a pot, allowing the rice to absorb it. When it begins to dry during a stock recession, he intervenes with another ladleful, refusing to let the free market forces of unregulated Arborio rice dry out and ruin dinner.

3. The Bitter Taste of OFFSIDES

(Image credit: Flickr user OnTask)

IN THE CLASSROOM

Every four years, America briefly cheats on football, baseball, and basketball during the FIFA World Cup. Though we refuse to call soccer by its given name, Americans can’t resist the pull of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. But that doesn’t mean we understand it. While the no-hands part is simple enough, the “offside” call is another matter.

Basically, offside is all about an offensive player’s position on the field. A player is offside if there aren't two defenders—the goalie is usually one of them—between him and the goal line at the moment the ball is played toward him. (If you draw a line across the field, the player has to be even with the next-to-last defender until the moment when the ball is passed to him.) But as soon as it’s passed, he can race past the defenders to receive it. Being called offside comes with a slight penalty—when a player is whistled, play is stopped, and possession is awarded to the other team. The offside rule exists to make the game more fun—i.e., to make sure players don’t just camp out in front of the goal for an easy score—as well as to confuse those who drop in for quadrennial viewings.

(Image credit: Flickr user Emory Allen)

IN THE KITCHEN

Think of an offside call as that unpleasant taste produced when drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. It’s a penalty assessed for getting ahead of yourself. You must drink the orange juice (have the ball passed to you) before brushing your teeth (running past the opponent). If you confuse the order of those things, you’re punished with a mouthful of face-distorting flavor (a whistle from the referee). If you do it in the proper order, though, you stand a good chance of scoring some vitamin C. Important to note: Brushing your teeth and holding a glass of OJ is just fine—you can be in the offside position without being called offside. It’s only when you take a sip that it becomes a penalty.

4. A Forkful of STRING THEORY

(Image credit: Flickr user Garrett Coakley)

A Quick Primer on Dimensions

The concept of “zero dimensional” might sound confusing at first. At its most basic, a dimension refers to the minimum number of axes you’d need to identify a particular spot. On a line, you just need one, while in a square you need two. A single point needs zero—there’s only one spot!

Or, in kitchen terms:

0 DIMENSIONAL = a crumb

1 DIMENSIONAL = a toothpick

2 DIMENSIONAL = a sheet of aluminum foil

3 DIMENSIONAL = a loaf of bread

4 DIMENSIONAL (a tesseract) = Tupperware housed inside larger Tupperware
(While a tesseract can’t exactly exist in a three-dimensional plane, its shape is created by three dimensional objects, just like a cube is made of squares and a square is made of lines.)

IN THE CLASSROOM

In Sir Isaac Newton’s day, physicists believed the basic building blocks of all matter looked like tiny, zero-dimensional points (see below). Then, in the 1960s, string theory came along like the Beatles of physics and changed everything. String theory suggests that quarks and electrons, two of the smallest known particles, are actually vibrating strings, some of which are closed loops and some of which are open.

This revolutionary idea allowed physicists to consider all four forces of the universe— gravity (the attractive force of an object’s mass), electromagnetism (the push/pull between electrically charged particles), strong interaction (the glue that binds quarks together), and weak interaction (the force responsible for radioactive decay)—as part of a single theory for the first time. And while it sounds small, the idea has the potential to be big. Some believe that string theory will prove to be the elusive “theory of everything,” a yet-to-be-discovered model that solves all of the mysteries about the forces of the universe and answers the most fundamental questions about where the cosmos came from and why it’s so perfectly tuned to support life.

IN THE KITCHEN

(Image credit: Flickr user Emory Allen)

Prior to string theory, it was assumed that the smallest pieces of matter were like bowls of dry cereal. But string theory sees them more as big bowls of mismatched pasta. Some of the pasta has two distinct end points (spaghetti) and some is in a loop (SpaghettiOs). A forkful contains several of these strings, just as a proton or neutron is made of several quarks. And unlike dry cereal, which makes sense only with milk, spaghetti can tackle a variety of sauces (forces of the universe). If physicists are right about string theory, the movements exhibited by the pasta can help explain the origin of the universe. And if they’re ultimately wrong, well, the idea’s still delicious.

5. The Sticky Business of FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

(Image credit: Flicker user Nathan Huth)

IN THE CLASSROOM
Of all the instruments of financial doom made famous by the crisis of 2008, none is as notorious as the derivative. Broadly defined, a financial derivative is a contract whose value is tied to something else, like a stock, bond, commodity, or currency. The value of the derivative fluctuates with the price of that underlying asset.

For sellers, one common use of derivatives is to hedge, or insure against an adverse outcome. A simplified example: A farmer might lock in a good price for his corn by selling a futures contract. This contract insulates him from risk, in case the market price for corn crashes.

Derivatives can also be used by buyers as bets on the future price of an asset. Consider a speculator who determines corn prices are about to rise dramatically. He buys a futures contract enabling him to buy corn at a low price. When the market soars, he gets to buy the corn at the cheap price guaranteed by his contract and sell it at a profit. However, there’s risk; if he’s wrong and the market price craters, he has to eat the loss.

IN THE KITCHEN
An agreement to sell your brother a jar of peanut butter is the perfect culinary equivalent of a derivative: The jar’s value is based on what’s going on around it. Say you agree to sell him a jar of Skippy in a week for $1. The value of that agreement will change depending on what else is in the pantry. If it’s time to make the transaction and your mom has just bought bread and raspberry preserves, the peanut butter becomes more desirable and the value of the contract to your brother has increased tremendously. It’s a good thing he locked down the low price when he did. If, on the other hand, the sale date arrives and the only thing in the house is celery, the demand for peanut butter may have gone down. In that case, it’s a good thing you decided to sell when you did!

6. 57 Varieties of EXISTENTIALISM

(Image credit: Flickr user Francois de Halleux)

IN THE CLASSROOM
Though the philosophical groundwork for existentialism was around during the late 19th century, this line of thought didn’t truly come into its own until the mid-1940s. That’s when French philosopher Gabriel Marcel gave the philosophy a name and Jean-Paul Sartre began saying things like, “Existence precedes essence.” Less rigid than many other philosophical strains, existentialism generally holds that the individual is responsible for giving his own life meaning. Existentialists believe that people should live according to their own consciences instead of by a moral, religious, or cultural code. And the ability to live that authentic life is only achievable when the meaninglessness of existence has been accepted.

IN THE KITCHEN
To understand culinary existentialism, you need only look at a popular but forlorn condiment: ketchup. Everyone knows it, but not as itself. To some it’s a tasty dip for fries, to others a meatloaf ingredient, and, to the British, it’s a pizza topping. In order to live a truly existential existence, ketchup must consider its own desires and not those of the dishes it serves. Only then will ketchup approach an authentic existence.

__________________________

coverThe above article by Adam K. Raymond is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


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