A wry view of life for the world-weary

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Eight


Although I am far from a whizz in the kitchen, other than standing in front of the sink, I have always disputed the veracity of the rather pejorative phrase, “couldn’t even boil an egg”. My relatively few attempts have resulted in variable end product and even more accomplished practitioners of the culinary arts struggle to achieve perfection every time.

The inability to boil an egg consistently rather than the inability to put an egg in a pan of boiling water is no shameful matter. Help is at hand – there is an egg-shaped device now available which you can put in your pan alongside your egg and apparently it changes colour to mirror the points between raw and hard-boiled so you can better boil your egg to your taste. I bought one at a car boot sale – the location of my purchase may be a clue as to its efficacy.

But imagine unboiling an egg. Well that, according to the ever popular journal, ChemBioChem, is what a team of chemists from the University of California, under the leadership of Gregory Weiss, have done. From a scientific perspective when you boil an egg, what you are doing is causing the proteins to unfold and refold into a more disordered and tangled structure. The idea Weiss wanted to test is whether you could reverse the process, changing the proteins from their unruly mess to a more ordered state. And it seems you can.

It is quite simple really but if you can’t boil an egg, you may have some difficulty. Firstly, you take a hard-boiled egg which has been boiled for twenty minutes at a temperature of 90 degrees Centigrade – now that is hard-boiled. Next you add a substance, unspecified in the reports I have read, which strips away the egg white and liquefies it. The remains are then put into a vortex fluid device, specially designed for the purpose by Flinders University, whose shearing forces from the thin microfluidic films knock the proteins back into their former untangled state.

There are actually some anticipated benefits from this discovery. Proteins have a tendency to misfold and so become unusable in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. Conventional methods to straighten them out are both costly and time-consuming. The benefit of the Weiss method is that it is both considerably quicker – a matter of minutes – and likely to be cheaper, thus allowing drug manufacturers to make even more money.

There is one final point to clear up and that is how this all squares with the second law of thermodynamics which superior science wallahs often explain to ignorami like me by comparing it to cooking eggs. Once you’ve scrambled an egg, you can’t separate the yolk from the white because to do so would create order from disorder.

The second law, as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, states that the degree of disorder or as it is technically known, entropy, will always increase in the universe. Weiss’ experiment, at first blush, would tend to stand this rather picturesque metaphor on its head because order is being created out of disorder. But, a by-product of the process is the production of entropy in the form of heat which offsets the decrease in the loss of entropy caused by the increased order in an unboiled egg.

Glad we’ve sorted that one out.

Isn’t science wonderful?!

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links


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