05:40 AM

The Science Of Food - Gastronomy Night at The Exploratorium

I love any excuse to go to the Palace of Fine Arts and visit The Exploratorium -- two of my favorite places in San Francisco.

On the first Thursday of every month The Exploratorium hosts its "After Dark" series of unique events. This month the theme was 'Gastronomy' looking at the science and the art of creating food. Several thousand people turned up for lectures, tastings, demonstrations, and to play around with The Exploratorium's marvelous, hands-on science exhibits.

The theme reminded me of the incredible, and very much under-appreciated importance that the invention of gastronomy has had, both on our development as a species and in developing our civilization - no other technology has done the same.

The development of cooking food had a monster effect on our ancestors. Cooking unlocked vast amounts of hidden nutrition in raw foods.

The development of the cooking pot literally blew our minds - our brains jumped in size and our bellies shrank - which made us smarter and much better looking.

All that extra food energy went straight to growing and fueling our brains, which need 24/7 glucose, our highest octane food fuel and burn 25% of our calories.

The cooking pot allowed us to build a Ferrari of a brain, expensive to maintain but incredible in performance. We left the other primates in the dust and now we're on the doorstep of our next big leap, into some sort of mixed biological digital world.

If gastronomy hadn't been invented there would be no civilization, science, arts, building of big things, or development of semiconductor and computer technologies because we wouldn't have the time for it.

It turns out that it's very difficult to digest a full day of energy from raw food. 2500 calories is a shockingly large volume of raw vegetables, salads, berries, fruits, etc.

An experiment at Bristol zoo in the UK, with human volunteers agreeing to eat a raw food diet for the summer, had to be shut down after a few weeks because the people were losing so much weight they were becoming malnourished and it could have led to serious health problems. They simply could not chomp, chew, and swallow enough raw food during the day to meet their nutritional needs.

The evidence is that we evolved alongside the cook pot and we become sickly without it, it's a technology that's absolutely vital to our well being.

Outsourcing our stomachs

The development of gastronomy essentially created an external stomach that helped us to extract the maximum nutrition from what low-energy food. Less time eating raw food left more time for hunting animals, whose rich and highly nutritious flesh and organs further accelerated our brain growth.

It's humbling to think of the enormous effect on our lives and evolution that the simple cooking pot has had. It surely must rank as the single most important technology ever invented.

Today we are in the midst of our next big step - outsourcing some of the work of our brains to external machines. We'll see massive changes and at a faster pace than those from the patient cooking pot.

What will come from our increasing, and ultimately inevitable collision of our biology with our technology?

What new inventions and behaviors will this bio-digital future produce? What types of new cultures and societies will arise? (Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer brilliantly explores these types of futures in "Cyberiad" and in many other books.)

What does the economy look like in a future world where manufacturing technologies are 10,000 times more productive at 1,000th of the cost? What happens if only 10 percent of the population working can produce the needs of all 100%? That's where we're headed, and beyond, thanks to the good old cooking pot.


Here are some photos from the Gastronomy evening at The Exploratorium:

(Photos by Tom Foremski.)

A long line for one of the lectures.

A demonstration on the main stage is about to begin.

A rapt audience.

There's lots to explore.

The sand isn't edible but there were a lot of other things to taste.

An exploration of our taste for sweet foods.

Comparing notes...

Hodo Soy from above.

The Hodo Soy tasting was very popular, unfortunately I missed out :(

The Exploratorium is a giant playground: blowing giant bubbles.

This is how tornadoes get their twist.

Heading home...

I'll miss the incredible setting of The Exploratorium when it moves to its new location at the Embarcadero. I've been coming here more than 25 years, and I used to bring my kids here constantly.

I hope the new Exploratorium building won't be the dud that the California Academy of Sciences ended up with. It spent $500 million to replace a building of great character, and one that housed far more exhibits than it's ghastly replacement.

It now costs a fortune to get in, $30, while providing far less content. It's a disaster. I don't care that it's a platinum rated "green" building. There is nothing Green about spending half-a-billion dollars, sugar coated with a "living roof" -- featuring local species. I have plenty of local species living under my fridge.

It's built as a citadel with no public spaces, unlike the de Young across the concourse in Golden Gate Park, which has one-third of its exhibit space in public areas! You can see experience great art, sit in its sculpture parks, without paying a cent.

The California Academy of Sciences has a six-foot high metal fence and no public spaces! The huge cost of its building means it must charge members to attend its Thursday night 'Nightlife' events, while the de Young 'Friday Night' events are free to everyone. (The Exploratorium events are free to members.)

The contrast between the two institutions, as they face each other in Golden Gate Park, is striking: one is exclusive and the other is inclusive.

It's bad design and it's a bad message for today's world. We all agree that science education is incredibly important but here, the California Academy of Sciences, has become far less accessible. It's walled off its incredible treasure trove of collections and muted a great story of more than 100 years of important scientific research and discovery. Hopefully, this can be fixed in some way.

- - -

When the de Young reopened in October 2005, it was open for the whole weekend - 48 hours. The line to get in stretched for miles. I joined the line late on Saturday and I was half-a-mile away from the entrance. I had so much fun in the line, the people, the conversations, the surroundings, all made for a great time.

I have a dream of an annual event where the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum stay open for 48 hours straight -- starting Friday evening to Sunday evening. There would be tons of events, lectures, music, lots of things happening in the concourse between the two buildings...

There would be streams of people coming and going between events, it would be a heady mix for the senses and the mind. It would be a unique city festival -- a celebration of the arts and natural sciences -- an island of reason and logic in an increasingly fragile world, threatened by rising levels of ignorance and superstition.

It would be a great event.