Archives for the month of: August, 2012

My father-in-law is very fond of the sarcastic suggestion ‘how about a glass of water and a quince?’ to any grandchildren having a whinge about being hungry.

It’s quite apt, actually, as we have the most wonderful old quince tree in our back yard. At a guess I’d say it could be 50 years old, perhaps more. After a spring featuring delightful tea-rose-like blossoms (similar examples can be seen here in an unrelated blog), each summer the tree fills with an enormous crop of beautiful quinces. Initially pale green, they ripen to a dull yellow, and are covered in a fine layer of fuzz which can be rubbed off. When cut, the flesh is creamy light green, with deep red seeds.

My favourite way to cook quinces is a la Stephanie Alexander: peel, chop, throw into an enamelled cast-iron pot filled with light sugar solution/vanilla/lemon juice/lid on and then cook in a slow oven (130 degrees centigrade) for about 8 hours. At which point they emerge as glistening segments of garnet surrounded by blood-like syrup.

Complete colour change. But why? There’s gotta be science in that. So I did some research.

Turns out the red colour emerges as a class of chemical compounds called anthocyanins are converted from their colourless, astringent precursor cousins the leucoanthocyanins during cooking.

Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen says it best,

The combination of heat and acidity causes the subunits [of the precursor molecules] to break off one by one; and then oxygen from the air reacts with the subunits to form true anthrocyanins: so the tannic, pale fruits become more gentle-tasting and anything from pale pink to deep red.

The final colour depends on the pH (acidity) of the cooking fluid.

Anthocyanins are also what make blueberries blue, red cabbage red, blackberries black, eggplants purple and blood oranges bloody. According to some experts, we may get cardiovascular benefits or even cancer protection from eating more anthocyanins.

I’m onto it. Quince tart anyone? Here are some I prepared earlier.

National Science Week is here. This annual August festivus of science and technology attracts over a million participants and aims “to acknowledge the contributions of Australian scientists to the world of knowledge; […] to encourage an interest in science pursuits among the general public, and to encourage younger people to become fascinated by the world we live in.” Perhaps it will inspire a new generation of children to study science at university. Will such students then move into careers in science? A recent article in The Australian suggests not.  According to a new study from University of Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education senior fellow Kerri-Lee Harris, up to 60% of students who study science don’t then go on to become ‘working scientists’. Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb thinks we need to consider this fact when designing science degrees, and indeed embrace the view that:

“an education in science is valuable beyond the labs and fields of research”.

Rather than think about science students as a being on a conveyor belt to a research career, lets think more about how an education in science can provide a balance of skills, knowledge, and a way of thinking about the world. The scientific method with a broader application, if you will.

Although I have been a working scientist, and am now a science writer, science is not just my chosen career. It frames every aspect of my daily life. The way I think, process and act on information, make sense of my world and even parent is a direct result of my science training. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, or have emotions take over on occasion. It’s just my own twist on an evidence-based way of living.

With National Science Week as a backdrop, I began wondering whether it would be possible to formalise how science informs daily life in ways which don’t necessarily have a focus on equipment, displays, lectures and laboratories. Is it possible to insert a little more celebration of science into every day of the year?

I’m going to try. I will write a post a day for 365 days about the science in and of my life. It won’t be lengthy or elaborate. I just hope to shed some light on how much of an impact the scientific approach has on me.

I hope you like Science for life. 365 – website and Facebook page are now live.

Officially launched on August 13 2012 (National Science Week 2012), I’ll wrap up and post some reflections on August 13 next year (National Science Week 2013).

[thanks to Dr Krystal Evans for alerting me to The Australian article, and the ‘Science is Life’ title.]