Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Doesn't Alton Brown have a hand puppet for this?

Andrew Gelman feels he may have the solution to the mystery of why Nathan Myhrvold (billionaire, physicist and former Microsoft CTO) became so fixated on solar cells acerbating global warming that he convinced the authors of Superfreakonomics to include an almost immediately discredited section on the subject.
Aha! Now, I'm just guessing here, but my conjecture is that after studying this albedo effect in the kitchen, Myhrvold was primed to see it everywhere. Of course, maybe it went the other way: he was thinking about solar panels first and then applied his ideas to the kitchen. But, given that the experts seem to think the albedo effect is a red herring (so to speak) regarding solar panels, I wouldn't be surprised if Myhrvold just started talking about reflectivity because it was on his mind from the cooking project. My own research ideas often leak from one project to another, so I wouldn't be surprised if this happens to others too.
Gelman was referring to Myhrvold's writings on modernist cuisine (or what the slightly less trendy call molecular gastronomy) and specifically to this passage, "As browning reactions begin, the darkening surface rapidly soaks up more and more of the heat rays. The increase in temperature accelerates dramatically."

This may explain why Myhrvold had albedo on his mind, but the comments to Gelman's post suggest another mystery: does the change in color actually have a dramatic effect the rate of browning or is the rate primarily driven by other changes such as water boiling away from the surface of the food*?

Is it possible that Myhrvold is, at heart, basically a freakonomist? Someone who, though brilliant and accomplished, is so eager to find examples of important principles that he sees them where they don't apply?

The following clip has nothing to do with anything in this post, but it does feature an exploding turkey which is really cool.

* From Wikipedia:
High temperature, intermediate moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the Maillard reaction. In cooking, low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): significant browning of food does not occur until all surface water is vaporized.

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