Blog Archives

The Five Second Rule: A Simple Everyday Question Leading To Quantum Mechanics and Biology

Sometimes the simplest question can lead down a deep rabbit hole to new worlds. How fast germs contaminate food that falls on the floor is a good example of such a question. When you start to think about it, you realize that you don’t quite now what it means for two objects to touch, and when you start analyzing the microscopic and then the quantum mechanical details, you cross multiple scientific disciplines.

This is the intellectual journey that Michael Stevens goes on in his video that debunks the “five second rule,” a popularly held belief that food that falls on a dirty floor is safe to eat if it is picked up quickly enough. One of the main benefits of this type of video is its ability to connect seemingly unrelated issues and motivate viewers to conduct their own thought experiments. You may think it’s a silly question, but you’re sure to be surprised by at least some aspects of the answer.

A Possible Mathematical Theory Behind The Coming Cicada Infestation

The eastern United States is about to be overrun by billions of cicadas who will crawl out of the ground and create a deafening commotion. The interesting thing about their emergence is that they only come out every 17 years. Some scientists think that this is a coincidence, but the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the major figures of evolutionary biology, postulated that the fact that this number is prime might not be an accident. He reasoned that if these periodical cicadas were to come out every, say, 12 years they would coincide with the emergence of predators whose life cycles are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12 years. Because their life cycle is 17 years, only predators with life cycles of 1 and 17 years coincide with the cicadas and it is easier for them to survive. In other words, periodical cicadas evolved to minimize their exposure to predators. You can learn more about this possible connection between number theory and biology in this Nature article and in a more detailed math paper [PDF] from the Courant Institute at New York University. Even if questions remain about the validity of this particular theory, it is an important reminder that purely mathematical ideas can provide fertile ground for scientific theories in any discipline.

A Quick Look at the Biochemistry and History of Modern Frozen Food

Most of us know that freezing food prevents it from spoiling, but the fact that quick freezing is better than slow freezing is a more subtle point that not everyone may know. As always, Henry Reich delivers a to the point video that addresses this issue and illustrates the science behind modern frozen food. As usual in such videos, some details need to be skipped, but there are enough scientific nuggets here (if you pause it) for further exploration. Even if you don’t take the time to learn about the Arrhenius equation, you will be much more appreciative of modern refrigeration.