Today is Shrove Tuesday in the UK, relating to some archaic mumbo-jumbo religion nonsense about Jesus but generally celebrated as a good excuse to gorge oneself on pancakes. For some reason, newspapers like to ignore these religious overtones and focus on adding their own mumbo-jumbo science nonsense instead. Making and eating pancakes is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Why is everyone trying trying to complicate things with god and science?
In 2002, the BBC reported on physics lecturer Dr Gary Tungate who had calculated the mathematics involved in flipping a pancake,
contributing this inanity to the public discourse of science:
Half a joule of energy is needed to get a 50g pancake airborne to a height of one metre
It should take 0.45 seconds on the downward journey, completing the perfect toss with a 90 degree flip
A pancake will hit the pan with a velocity of 4.5 metres per second or splat onto the floor at 14 miles an hour just 1.1 seconds after its launch
The following year, student Stephen Wilkinson derived the calculations needed to plot the course of a pancake in mid flip, allowing the BBC to engage the public with science through this statement:
The angular velocity of the object equals the square root of Pi, times the gravity divided by the distance the pancake is from the elbow times four – that is how to get the pancake back in the pan.
Haha, do you get it? Science is hard! And capricious!
So it comes as no surprise to find the Daily Mail and the Telegraph spouting their own pancake-science drivel in 2009. This time the culprit is one Dr Ruth Fairclough, who has created a formula for the perfect pancake, as the Daily Mail reports:
The 34-year-old senior lecturer of mathematics and statistics worked out the food formula because her two daughters loved eating pancakes so much.
Personally, if I had kids who liked pancakes, I’d make them some pancakes, not write a press release. But then, I’m just a science punk, not a senior lecturer of mathematics and statistics. Perhaps they do things differently in academia.
So what’s the formula?
Dr Ruth, who teaches at Wolverhampton University found that
100 – [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S – E) created the tastiest snack.
In the complex formula L represents the number of lumps in the batter and C equals its consistency.
The letter F stands for the flipping score, k is the ideal consistency and T is the temperature of the pan.
Ideal temp of pan is represented by m, S is the length of time the batter stands before cooking and E is the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten.
The closer to 100 the result is – the better the pancake.
Now firstly you should notice that the Daily Mail claims Dr Fairclough found pancakes made to her formula made the tastiest snack, suggesting that some kind of research went on here. Weirdly, none of the factors involved in making a tasty pancake really relate to flavour – there’s no mention of what kind of flour to use, etc. The second thing to notice is that there are no units here. Not all scientific formulae have units, but you’d think Dr Fairclough would tell us whether the ideal temperature should be calculated in centigrade or Kelvin or whatever. Thirdly, notice that although the formula uses ‘ideal temperature’ and ‘ideal consistency’, there’s no clue as to what those values might be. This is kind of like saying:
Perfect pancake = ideal ingredients * ideal cooking * ideal toppings
That is to say, a total truism. And finally, as commenter James Smith on the Daily Mail page noted, this formula is bullshit. The longer you leave the pancake standing (either as batter or finished snack), the closer you will get to a perfect pancake. Watery, undercooked pancake? Have no fear, bung it in a cupboard for 12 months and by Dr Fairclough’s logic, it will emerge perfect, just in time for Shrove Tuesday 2010.