April 2019    
  Science fare  
  Physicist and food-science writer David McCowan dishes on figs.  
  (iStock.com/Angelina Melik-Akopian)  
  As a student, David McCowan, SM'08, PhD'14, studied theoretical condensed matter, focusing on the liquid-to-glass transition. As a UChicago laboratory instructor, he teaches physics majors to develop science intuition. And as a food-science columnist for the Takeout, he explains how ancient Egyptians solved their perpetually unripe fig problem:  
  "My favorite part of the research for 'How to play god with fruit: A guide to ripening' was about figs," McCowan says. "We think of them as fruit, but they're more like an inside-out flower, and they get pollinated by wasps." He further explains:  
  "The wasps need a place where their offspring can grow up safe, so females will burrow into male figs—the kind we don't eat—and lay eggs inside. The mother dies in there, but when her babies are born, they mate, the female wasps collect fig pollen, and the wingless males chew an exit path out of the fig. Their job done, the males die while the females escape and look for their own figs to crawl into.  
  "Sometimes they mistakenly pick a female fig—the kind we do eat—where the flower's structure prevents her from laying eggs. She successfully pollinates the fig before she dies, and the fig ripens into the fruit we love. So every fig you eat has at least one dead wasp in it.*  
  "In ancient Egypt, the fig tree species and associated wasp got geographically separated. So the trees would bear fruit, but they never got pollinated and would never ripen. Someone figured out that if you cut the fruit open, it would eventually ripen, but no one knew why.  
  "Today we know the answer. If you score a fig, it goes into defense mode and releases the stress hormone ethylene, which also is the hormone responsible for ripening. So the cut figs are screaming in death and telling all their fig friends that they're about to die too, and then they all ripen together."  
  McCowan has also written about why you shouldn't put a fork in the microwave (it's more about the shape than the metal), whether it's safe to eat deli meat with a metallic sheen (it is), and why sausages scream and explode when heated (think pork tea kettle). Read more about bubbles, starch, and butter in McCowan's Food Science column.  
  *Fellow fig lovers: an enzyme digests the wasp. So those crunchy things? Seeds.  
  Food for thought  
UChicago immunologist Cathryn Nagler and molecular engineer Jeffrey Hubbell mine the microbiome to treat food allergies.
Molecular geneticist Stephanie Levi, PhD'09, explains why you should use a gold coffee filter.
Your chocolate owes its beautiful glossy appearance to a particle accelerator.
Physicist Sidney Nagel, who studies condensed matter physics and nonlinear dynamics at UChicago, considers the drips, trickles, and crunches of your morning breakfast.
Spicy foods: the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.
  Piece of cake  
  This cake uses white chocolate, dark chocolate, and beets to represent the matter makeup of the universe. (Photography by David Morse)  
  Physicists Katy Grimm and Katharine Leney, part of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN, make complex science digestible.  
  The researchers met while collaborating on Higgs boson experiments and discovered they both had a passion for baking. From their collision of interests rose Physics Cakes, an outreach project that uses baked goods to explain physics.  
  Fermilab's magazine, Symmetry, covers a few of the team's desserts, including a dark matter cake that uses white chocolate chips (1 part visible matter), dark chocolate chips (5 parts dark matter) and beets (14 parts dark energy) to represent the universe's ingredients.  
  Other treats include Schrödinger's Kit-Kat, proton cookies, an ATLAS detector cake, and Standard Model cupcakes. They hope to publish a cookbook that includes recipes and the science behind the sweets.  
  In case you missed it  
Parts unknown: UChicago sci-fi writers and their strange new worlds.
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