How did a poor, nice mathematician end up giving cooking lectures?

Science is all around us. It is integral to how we live, the technology we use, how we stay healthy. It is even in the food we eat, which is exactly what Harvard is showcasing in its free public lecture series “Science and Cooking”. The aim, as stated on Harvard’s website, is “simply to inform and inspire with a fresh perspective on culinary science”.

So what is “Science and Cooking” really? Well, it is an event inspired by Harvard’s undergraduate course “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter”, that explains recipes through physics and engineering. When Professor Michael P. Brenner of the Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics department and David Weitz, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics began this course in 2010, Brenner states that he often asked himself “how did a poor, nice mathematician end up doing this?” We aren’t sure how it came about, but we are sure glad that it did!

The weekly talks begin with a 15 minute lecture by a Harvard faculty member, followed by a presentation by a world-class chef and food expert.The objectif? Well, it depends on the topic, but for one particular lecture, entitled "Bakistry: The Science of Sweets", Professor brenner wants "to show what happens to a mathematician when they think about baking". His guest is Joanne Chang, owner and founder of Flour Bakery, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in Applied Mathematics in 1991.

Professor Brenner begins the event by explaining how recipe ingredients are nothing more than ratios, and how these ratios (and therefore recipes) can be expressed on a plot with an X and Y axis. He then goes on to show a visual analysis of this data: Plotting flour on the X axis and sugar on the Y axis, he can show the recipe of his favorite brownies and of ALL the brownie recipes from a website called

After analyzing the data obtained from and finding that the set of recipes obtained and plotted on the graph is actually the convex hull of the most important recipes of that category, Professor Brenner moves on to question how much creativity really exists in cooking. If we average two recipes together, is it a new recipe? He then ventures a conclusion: those within the convex hull are in fact, uncreative. And those recipes found to be outside of the convex hull are creative, pretty far from the average!

You’ll have to watch the whole lecture to get the big picture, and we definitely think you should, as it is a pretty interesting look at how math can be applied to baking.

Mathematician and Baker-galore, Joanne Chang, then takes the stage. Although she is now a baker by profession, she hasn’t left her interest in science behind - she is fascinated by the relationship between these two elements. As she explains, baking demands extreme precision, in terms of temperature, proportions (i.e. Professor Brenner’s ratios!), and sequence of events. In this lecture, she chooses to focus on cake, as she explains that there are many chemical reactions that occur to ensure a light, fluffy and delicious cake.

She goes through the different ingredients needed for cake: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, leavening… what are their characteristics? How to the react with other ingredients? How can we use each ingredient in order to get the desired effect? And how can we manipulate each ingredient so it reacts in the way we want it to? She explains the chemical reactions she observes in the kitchen between ingredients, and also how to improve recipes by only slightly changing the proportions (an example: add more sugar to a dry cake so it becomes more moist!)

Throughout her presentation, we can follow her thought process and can quite easily imagine the effects she is talking about. When she describes the process of creaming butter (adding sugar to room temperature butter), she compares it to gardening, and digging up frozen dirt, to let it breath. As she speaks, she makes it extremely evident that science is indeed everywhere. As are strong women promoting just that. Joanne is just another example helping to break down the stereotype of the scientist in a white lab coat.

What other interesting initiatives are mixing science with something unexpected? Let us know by tweeting us at @4womeninscience!

For Women in Science

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