Physical chemistry in the kitchen

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Sandra Porter
How do you use science outside of the lab? People say that transferring knowledge and skills from one subject to another represents one of the highest levels of learning. They also say that it hardly ever happens. Perhaps this explains some of the more astounding things that we hear from Nobel Prize winners, like when Francis Crick proposed that Earth was settled by sperm from outer space, or when Watson, well, we'll leave that subject alone for now. I admit, I don't always think to apply my scientific training to things that happen outside of the lab. When those moments do happen, I relish them. It's always good to feel that you have some permanent bit of knowledge from a class in physical chemistry. Yesterday I got to trot it out and apply it in my kitchen. Remember this: PV = nRT I have used this relationship many times in the lab (every time I autoclave!), but it doesn't automatically come to mind when I'm cooking. i-f89d85577584a35a40e9daef108e24b6-goldfinch-on_mustard.jpgWe have wild red mustard greens growing our backyard, as you see in this photo. I'm not a very diligent gardener. My garden mostly grows on it's own without any interference from me. The dog runs through it. Our three cats sleep in it. But my episodes of digging, planting, and harvesting are few and far between. Still, there are lots of mustard greens growing wild in our back-yard. So I picked a whole bunch of them the other day and cooked them for dinner. Braised in home-made chicken broth with a bit of soy sauce, the mustard greens from the backyard are delicious. I thought they were probably done, so I turned the heat off and let the cooking pot be while I helped set the table for the meal. When all was ready, I lifted the cover of the pot. And, I lifted the entire pot off of the burner. The cover was stuck tight. I turned it. No luck. i-1d521ada3667d81877bbd146502fd392-cooking_pot.jpgPuzzled, I stared at it a moment, wondering what to do and how we were going to eat my contribution to dinner. Then my husband walked in. "Oh," he said, "Don't you remember? PV = nRT!" "You need to heat it up and expand the gas." Oh right, yeah, PV = nRT (In words, this is pressure x volume = number of moles x a constant x temperature] In other words, if I were to heat up the pot (increase the temperature, T), either the gas inside the pot would expand (increase in volume, V) or the pressure (P) inside the pot would increase and it would make it easier to take the top off. Sure enough, it worked. I heated the pot and the lid came right off. And the mustard greens were yummy, too.

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