hands making food with a rolling pin

Cooking with reckless abandon

Professor Massimiano Bucchi charts the long term stories of science and cooking from 1682 in "Newton's Chicken". The intersection of science and cooking is a gateway to popular culture. But what can STEM academics take from this?

I'm a parent winning at life..... well, some days I think that.  As an educator I'd hope to scaffold and foster an innate curiosity to learn that my own children would grab with both hands.  Sometimes it's hard to acheive that; and this was most apparent during the COVID19 lockdown when I had to integrate crisis schooling alongside our day-to-day family lives.  Some days winning at life, other days plummeting into the dysfunctional depths of despair and rote learning of times tables.

girl celebrating in front of laptop computer

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I found that a happy place during these times could be found in the kitchen.  I take solace in the injunction attributed to the Dalai Lama who said "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon".  My approach is without scales, preferring to assess the food by taste and feel.  My daughter, is more precise, using measurements with scientific accuracy.  Consequently she creates the perfect cake that rises in the middle and feels fluffy to the tongue.  Her approach to the kitchen landscape, however, can be less regimented.  Flour fluffs, butter bubbles and the floor is covered in hundreds and thousands.

My need to keep a clean, ordered space in the kitchen curtails her flow.  Following her movements with a cloth and scrubbing brush, tidying away extra ingredients....  It stops the magic happening.  I need to learn to sit back, to scaffold, to allow space for mess, space for error, because that allows space for growth and active experimentation.  It's the same for teaching and learning.  And this aligns neatly to Kolb's theory of experiential learning.  There is nothing neat about cooking, or science for that matter.....

Kolb's cycle of experiential learning

Image credit Marquell Anteola, 2016

A year ago I attended a webinar hosted by World Scientific "Newton's chicken: Where food and science collide." The speakers Prof. Massimiano Bucchi (Sociology and Science Communication) and Prof. Davide Cassi (Mathematics, Physics, computing and scientific cuisine) led the discussion on the intersection between science and cooking.  Prof Bucchi has outlined in his publication Newton's Chicken  the ways in which cooking humanises science, and can sit "side-by-side with common sense".  

This was not the case for Sir Issac Newton (1642 - 1727) who snubbed his friend William Stukely.  According to Prof. Bucchi, Newton was absent, immersed in his studies, when his friend arrived for dinner.  A delicious chicken was cooking on the stove and whilst Stukely impatiently waited for his friend he was compelled to furtively eat all of the fragrant chicken and replace the lid on the pot as if nothing had happened. 

Bucchi notes "This is another way in which science relates to cooking: by snubbing it as if it were a mere distraction, unworthy of competing with research activities" thereby incarnating the image of Newton as a self-important, disconnected scientist.  This underlines one of the issues my PhD research has examined.  Othering is a word which describes the phenomenon whereby there is a disconnection between individuals and groups within the norms of a social setting.  This is often encountered in science communication and the liminal spaces between science and society.

Newtons cradle in close up

Image credit pexels.com

So what does this mean for STEM academics?

I'm researching the perspectives of STEM lecturers who teach undergraduates in Scotland.  I'm looking at how they integrate public engagement with teaching and research.  The process is a wee bit like coming up with a good recipe.  Good quality ingredients gathered.  Mixing. Timing.  Cooking.  Cooling.  Research is like slow food and the recipe can always be adapted according to seasonaility and locally available foodstuffs.

My early research findings from interviews conducted with lecturers indicate that teaching and learning in a lab environment can be constricted by curriculum, funding and time.  Furthermore the COVID19 pandemic has changed the way that students can access the labs for hands-on experience.  It appears, however, that there is very little wriggle room for students to embody research due to the regimented and ordered ways in which lab work is expected to be carried out.  

This is different in other European countries.  Germany, for example, allows greater personal freedom aligned to the ideals of Wilhelm von Humboldt.  However, this comes with the consequence of discontinuation of studies should a student fail at year end.  In Scotland it is different.  According to those I interviewed there are implicit institutional requirements for lecturers to return (in some instances) as much as an 85% pass rate in their student cohorts.  Some suggest this target can be unrealistic and jostles for position with the demands placed on them to reconcile "a ladder of competing priorities" within the triple nexus of public engagement, research and teaching (Stevenson and MacArthur, 2015).

Prof. Bucchi maintains that the public communication of science is in essence, sociocultural.  It should be driven by enjoyment and fascination.  The academics I have spoken to concur.  They articulate a love of science.  They have attended science fairs, school visits, prison outreach and even street-based soapbox science events, frequently, voluntarily.  Although there are no formal mechanisims to measure these impacts, it would appear that these spaces can provide elements of unpredictability, which can lead to growth and new scholarly learning processes.  I'd like to call it "messy science".  Academics find the experience both thrilling and horrifying.  There is nothing more damning than the challenging indictment of a class of P1s who witness your experiment with gravitational forces and slime go catastrophically wrong......


Bucchi, M., 2020. Newton's Chicken: Science in the Kitchen (Vol. 2). World Scientific.

Stevenson, E. and McArthur, J., 2015. Triple nexus: improving STEM teaching through a research-public engagement-teaching nexus. International Journal for Academic Development20(3), pp.291-294.

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Lucy Beattie

Lucy Beattie

Hi I'm Lucy, a PhD Candidate with the UWS Academy. I'm looking at the role of public engagement in connecting teaching and research in Higher Education

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