Scientists and Baking (the Great British Bake Off)

Baking is basically science and it attracts the same fantastic array of bakers as there are scientists. Enthusiastic bakers are largely to be found in the kitchen but you can find scientists feverishly working away in ‘the field’ (not literally a large grassy meadow but anywhere outside where we observe describe and analyse), the laboratory or the computer room.

Having kids can open a whole new world of televisual wonder. These days, I like to sit down with the Naughty Pixies for a little bit of light competition (and even lighter puff pastry) watching The Great British Bake Off on iplayer. There is something satisfying about watching people try very hard to bake something very tasty indeed. Plus, baking to perfection is really not that far from the pleasures of a nicely turned experiment. The fabulous range of people baking reminds me of the brilliant range of personalities science welcomes too. Quite far from the crazy stereotype found in your average Bond movie….

So to capture the nation’s Zeitgeist this little homage is to celebrate diversity(*) in bakers and Scientists

Scientists and baking: sub-species and their habits

(1) The attention to detail kid.

On The Great British Bake Off this type can be found weighing out their raspberries for the inside of muffins to check they are all exactly the same weight. Why? Nobody knows; but it might be important.

In science world there are many of these people; they delight particularly in super tidy offices and extreme filing (both virtual and actual). They reject anything below the 99.99% confidence interval in their lab. results. They make spectacularly slow progress. They rarely make them, but when they make mistakes, they seethe with rage for weeks.

(2) The worrier (glass half empty):

In the GBBO this person can usually be found weeping over the potential for some souffle to collapse or the Brownies to come out a bit burnt. Often, this doesn’t actually happen but there is a doleful joy to be found in anticipating the worst.

In the lab. this scientist usually looks a bit woeful. Lightbulbs burst and bunsen burners topple as they move. You (slightly) suspect they could be doing this on purpose as something needs to be missing from their otherwise perfectly splendid datasets. Its not about the destination: its about the agonies on the journey.

(3) The off-piste baker.

This is my personal favourite. In GBBO these people routinely make basil,strawberry and creme de menthe cherry bakewells. The craziness of their ingredients is only matched by the strength of their conviction that this is the right thing to do.

In a field-based setting this type would generally have a great fondness for unusual and complex instruments designed to measure something you were never quite clear needed measuring. Nonetheless, these types occasionally pop up with an astonishing correlation that provides an insight you never thought possible. There will be triumph and a light chorus of angels as you sit listening in your conference seat.

(4) The newly minted mum.

Confident in the knowledge that 2.5 year old twins Minty and Jinty absolutely love her sparkle-deckered strawberry cupcakes but confident in precisely no other aspect of her skills. Boils over into extreme nervousness before producing triple decker gorgeousness on a plate. Cue tears.

Newly minted mums are a glorious addition to science world too. Recognised in this context by extreme attention to logistical detail in the field and tendency to show boundless surprise and delight when any experiment whatsoever turns out at all. Brain didn’t turn into raspberry melting moments on maternity leave after all. Cue tears.

Usually, but not exclusively, women.

(5) The Alpha Baker/Scientist

Usually found in GBBO prowling the baking stations remorselessly comparing their Frangipane tarts (ostensibly unfavourably) with others; while secretly feeling the love for their own inspired addition of chocolate sprinkles. This type loves to be the first to try something and shows a tiring awareness that being first is all about being better than everyone else.

Science world is full of alpha bakers; they tend to be clannish but somehow at the same time never true team players. There is a temptation to seek to succeed by somehow diminshing the efforts of others. Being first is also important. Sadly the intense funding competition can make us all find our inner alpha baker.

Lastly, however, lets not forget the judges themselves; they have an amazing resemblance to some of the refereeing sub-species.

Mary Berry would write a review along the lines of ‘I really love your experimental apparatus, your choice of field site is really wise… but….one really does wonder what the real point of your project is…’ Sucker punch at the end.

The cuddly bloke with the beard would just say ‘This is a bit of rubbish idea.’

‘Nuff said. Truth hurts but it can save a lot of time in the long run.

(*) Yup, I do recognise the irony in celebrating diversity by characterising stereotypes – but if you can’t have irony you can’t be British, right?

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