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6 Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items

1. THE BIG BANG THEORY explained by a muffin

IN THE CLASSROOM
Around 13.7 billion years ago, not a single element of the entire known universe existed. There was no space, no matter, no time, no wonderful magazine for knowledge junkies. Then, for an unknown reason, an infinitesimally small point called a singularity started to expand. Boom! That’s the Big Bang. Both blazing hot and unimaginably dense, this tiny point started expanding and cooling, and to this day the universe is still doing both.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître in 1927. Realizing that objects in space were moving farther apart, Lemaître hypothesized that if everything in the universe is now expanding, it originally must have been smaller. His idea: that it all originated from one intensely hot “primeval atom.” While the notion is generally accepted today, not everyone bought into Lemaître’s theory; the Big Bang gets its name from a sarcastic remark made by Fred Hoyle, an astronomer, science fiction novelist, and Big Bang skeptic.

IN THE KITCHEN
Imagine a muffin tin with one cup half-full of blueberry batter (the singularity). Inside this batter are all the building blocks of a blueberry muffin. As the batter’s temperature changes, it begins expanding, just like the universe started expanding with the temperature change of the Big Bang. The blueberries in the batter are analogous to the planets, stars, and other matter, moving right along with the rest of the muffinverse. But they’re not floating at random inside the batter—they’re moving with it, getting farther apart as the muffin bakes. And that muffin? It represents the entirety of the universe. Beyond the edge of the muffin lies a vast abyss of nothingness. All that exists are blueberries, sugar crystals, and, if the baker got a little creative, a hint of nutmeg.

2. Stirring the pot with KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS

IN THE CLASSROOM
When the impressively mustachioed economist John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, it was a watershed moment for modern macro-economic thought. The book launched the revolutionary idea that government spending is the best way to stimulate the economy. In Keynes’s now commonly accepted view, money flows in a circle, meaning one person’s spending provides income for another. In a recession, people slow their spending, thereby slowing someone else’s earning. To grease the cycle, Keynes proposed something radically different from other free market economists—he called on the government to inject money into the economy and kickstart the cycle by “priming the pump.” His argument was that the government should solve economic problems rather than waiting for markets to self correct in the long run because, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

IN THE KITCHEN
A Keynesian cook would be a big fan of risotto, a dish that requires a fair bit of intervention on the part of the cook (the government). Unlike regular rice, which is dumped into a free market pot of boiling water and left to fend for itself, risotto must be regulated. The cook adds ladlefuls of hot stock to a pot, allowing the rice to absorb it. When it begins to dry during a stock recession, he intervenes with another ladleful, refusing to let the free market forces of unregulated Arborio rice dry out and ruin dinner.

3. The bitter taste of OFFSIDES

IN THE CLASSROOM
Every four years, America briefly cheats on football, baseball, and basketball during the FIFA World Cup. Though we refuse to call soccer by its given name, Americans can’t resist the pull of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. But that doesn’t mean we understand it. While the no-hands part is simple enough, the “offside” call is another matter. Basically, offside is all about an offensive player’s position on the field. A player is offside if there aren't two defenders—the goalie is usually one of them—between him and the goal line at the moment the ball is played toward him. (If you draw a line across the field, the player has to be even with the next-to-last defender until the moment when the ball is passed to him.) But as soon as it’s passed, he can race past the defenders to receive it. Being called offside comes with a slight penalty—when a player is whistled, play is stopped, and possession is awarded to the other team. The offside rule exists to make the game more fun—i.e., to make sure players don’t just camp out in front of the goal for an easy score—as well as to confuse those who drop in for quadrennial viewings.

IN THE KITCHEN
Think of an offside call as that unpleasant taste produced when drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. It’s a penalty assessed for getting ahead of yourself. You must drink the orange juice (have the ball passed to you) before brushing your teeth (running past the opponent). If you confuse the order of those things, you’re punished with a mouthful of face-distorting flavor (a whistle from the referee). If you do it in the proper order, though, you stand a good chance of scoring some vitamin C. Important to note: Brushing your teeth and holding a glass of OJ is just fine—you can be in the offside position without being called offside. It’s only when you take a sip that it becomes a penalty.

4. A forkful of STRING THEORY

IN THE CLASSROOM
In Sir Isaac Newton’s day, physicists believed the basic building blocks of all matter looked like tiny, zero-dimensional points (see below). Then, in the 1960s, string theory came along like the Beatles of physics and changed everything. String theory suggests that quarks and electrons, two of the smallest known particles, are actually vibrating strings, some of which are closed loops and some of which are open. This revolutionary idea allowed physicists to consider all four forces of the universe— gravity (the attractive force of an object’s mass), electromagnetism (the push/pull between electrically charged particles), strong interaction (the glue that binds quarks together), and weak interaction (the force responsible for radioactive decay)—as part of a single theory for the first time. And while it sounds small, the idea has the potential to be big. Some believe that string theory will prove to be the elusive “theory of everything,” a yet-to-be-discovered model that solves all of the mysteries about the forces of the universe and answers the most fundamental questions about where the cosmos came from and why it’s so perfectly tuned to support life.

IN THE KITCHEN
Prior to string theory, it was assumed that the smallest pieces of matter were like bowls of dry cereal. But string theory sees them more as big bowls of mismatched pasta. Some of the pasta has two distinct end points (spaghetti) and some is in a loop (SpaghettiOs). A forkful contains several of these strings, just as a proton or neutron is made of several quarks. And unlike dry cereal, which makes sense only with milk, spaghetti can tackle a variety of sauces (forces of the universe). If physicists are right about string theory, the movements exhibited by the pasta can help explain the origin of the universe. And if they’re ultimately wrong, well, the idea’s still delicious.

A Quick Primer on Dimensions
The concept of “zero dimensional” might sound confusing at first. At its most basic, a dimension refers to the minimum number of axes you’d need to identify a particular spot. On a line, you just need one, while in a square you need two. A single point needs zero—there’s only one spot!

Or, in kitchen terms:

0 DIMENSIONAL = a crumb

1 DIMENSIONAL = a toothpick

2 DIMENSIONAL = a sheet of aluminum foil

3 DIMENSIONAL = a loaf of bread

4 DIMENSIONAL (a tesseract) = Tupperware housed inside larger Tupperware
(While a tesseract can’t exactly exist in a three-dimensional plane, its shape is created by three dimensional objects, just like a cube is made of squares and a square is made of lines.)

5. The sticky business of FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

IN THE CLASSROOM
Of all the instruments of financial doom made famous by the crisis of 2008, none is as notorious as the derivative. Broadly defined, a financial derivative is a contract whose value is tied to something else, like a stock, bond, commodity, or currency. The value of the derivative fluctuates with the price of that underlying asset.

For sellers, one common use of derivatives is to hedge, or insure against an adverse outcome. A simplified example: A farmer might lock in a good price for his corn by selling a futures contract. This contract insulates him from risk, in case the market price for corn crashes.

Derivatives can also be used by buyers as bets on the future price of an asset. Consider a speculator who determines corn prices are about to rise dramatically. He buys a futures contract enabling him to buy corn at a low price. When the market soars, he gets to buy the corn at the cheap price guaranteed by his contract and sell it at a profit. However, there’s risk; if he’s wrong and the market price craters, he has to eat the loss.

IN THE KITCHEN
An agreement to sell your brother a jar of peanut butter is the perfect culinary equivalent of a derivative: The jar’s value is based on what’s going on around it. Say you agree to sell him a jar of Skippy in a week for $1. The value of that agreement will change depending on what else is in the pantry. If it’s time to make the transaction and your mom has just bought bread and raspberry preserves, the peanut butter becomes more desirable and the value of the contract to your brother has increased tremendously. It’s a good thing he locked down the low price when he did. If, on the other hand, the sale date arrives and the only thing in the house is celery, the demand for peanut butter may have gone down. In that case, it’s a good thing you decided to sell when you did!

6. 57 varieties of EXISTENTIALISM

IN THE CLASSROOM
Though the philosophical groundwork for existentialism was around during the late 19th century, this line of thought didn’t truly come into its own until the mid-1940s. That’s when French philosopher Gabriel Marcel gave the philosophy a name and Jean-Paul Sartre began saying things like, “Existence precedes essence.” Less rigid than many other philosophical strains, existentialism generally holds that the individual is responsible for giving his own life meaning. Existentialists believe that people should live according to their own consciences instead of by a moral, religious, or cultural code. And the ability to live that authentic life is only achievable when the meaninglessness of existence has been accepted.

IN THE KITCHEN
To understand culinary existentialism, you need only look at a popular but forlorn condiment: ketchup. Everyone knows it, but not as itself. To some it’s a tasty dip for fries, to others a meatloaf ingredient, and, to the British, it’s a pizza topping. In order to live a truly existential existence, ketchup must consider its own desires and not those of the dishes it serves. Only then will ketchup approach an authentic existence.

This article appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Illustrations by Ana Benaroya.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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Smart Shopping
18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Cost Plus World Market

Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

Buy on Amazon.

2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

Buy on ThinkGeek.

4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

Buy at Cost Plus World Market.

8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

Buy on Amazon.

9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

Buy on Amazon.

15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

Buy on Amazon.

16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

Buy on Amazon.

17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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