Science. Communication. Community.
We’ve just ended our long candy season (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter). How can we use the discounted candy for the good of science?
I spent many meals at my college cafeteria engaging in Peep Wars. We would microwave Peeps side-by-side to see which grew the fastest, ultimately collapsing.
My cousin regularly enters the Peeps Show, a diorama contest held by the Washington Post. My rugby teammate brought Peeps sushi to an Easter gathering. (Her recipe was experimental and undocumented, a different version here.)
Peeps make us smile. They seem like the ultimate Frankenfood. Shaped like a early cartoon character but in 3D. The calories are all empty (sugar, corn syrup) and are complemented by artificial dye and a preservative. It takes a nasty solvent to dissolve them, due to the other ingredient, the animal protein gelatin.
That’s right. While another favorite Frankenfood, the Oreo, is vegan, Peeps aren’t even vegetarian. So if you’re a tempted vegetarian, just pretend the Peeps chicks and bunnies are actual chicks and bunnies.
And eerily, when subjected to a harsh solvent, the eyes don’t dissolve — because they’re made of carnauba wax. Literally car wax. But don’t worry (or worry a lot), carnauba wax is a common ingredient in candy, pills, spreads, and sauces.
Scientists have researched a good deal of Peeps’ properties. In their painstakingly recorded lab notes, they play the straight man to the mute funny man of the Peep. They are “Will It Blend?” before “Will It Blend?” was cool, though to add even further to the hipster cred, they aren’t part of a marketing campaign. They’re academics from Emory. They have a bare-bones HTML site that looks to be last updated before the Millennium.
The material ages well. It’s hilarious. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peeps also age well.)
But it’s also a really nice documentation of results, a model for what many science teachers might want their students to do. While the site may not be Ig Nobel worthy, it did make me laugh, then think.
Peeps are funny, but they are also wonderful tools for learning about science.
At the microscopic scale, we can ask about the molecules themselves. If they are mostly sugar, then why doesn’t water work as a solvent? The answer is in the gelatin, a protein that bonds chemically with itself to provide that solid foamy structure. (For the true geeks, it acts as a surfactant to stabilize the foam before ultimately crosslinking.) Once those crosslinks are formed, it takes a solvent that is strong enough to actually degrade those bonds.
At the “mesoscale,” Peeps are really heterogeneous beasts. The marshmallow is a network of solid links and air pockets, like a sponge with smaller holes. We can demonstrate this by watching how they expand upon heating: the little air pockets blow up like balloons, because gas expands upon heating.
At the macro scale, we can think of Peeps as softer versions of regular materials. Solid materials have an intrinsic stiffness, which you can feel. (Someone designed a really nice lab to study this property.) What you may not have thought about is how this stiffness translates to speed. After you squeeze a Peep and let go, it will recoil much more slowly than a hunk of stiffer rubber. In other words, every material has an intrinsic squishy timescale. This timescale is important to know, as it tells you how quickly energy (like sound) can be transmitted through it.
What are other examples of stuff that seems shallow but is actually deep? Is this a good way or a bad way to engage the public? To engage students?