Cereals and Physics: Windows on fundamental realities

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk



“No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat.” – Socrates

CP Snow in his 1959 lecture on The Two Cultures lamented of “educated” people: “Once or twice I have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare... So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

By a similar token, Socrates reminds us that an awareness of cereals, which feed the world and dominate human history, technology, politics and international relations, ought to feature within the purview of an educated person. Yet the majority of people are unaware of the role of cereals as the source and ongoing basis of civilisation, and could not even name the major cereals, let alone recognise them. But an appreciation of cereals, like an appreciation of physics, opens up new vistas of understanding that are both edifying and useful. Cereals feed the body, but they also challenge social systems, inspire technological advances, and enrich the soul. Like one of their most celebrated products, in educational terms cereals reach the parts other disciplines don’t reach.

“What other food could do all this symbolic work and yet still reliably fill human bellies? No wonder long stretches of European history can be told as the story of bread.” – Michael Pollan (2013)

Wheat is the king of grains and the world’s most important cereal because wheat, uniquely, gives us raised bread. And bread is the world’s most important food because of its aerated structure. In these two statements lies half of all that is important about cereals. The aesthetic appeal of bread, its practical challenges and its mystery and symbolism all derive from its bubbles. And the behaviour of bubbles in bread is a topic to which physicists, and indeed chemical engineers, have distinctively valuable perspectives to offer.

“Aside from hydrocarbons, grains are the most concentrated form of true wealth—sun energy—
to be found on the planet.” Richard Manning (2004)

As we face the diverse and daunting challenges of oil depletion and climate change in the 21st century, cereals are again on the frontline, as they have always been. Maintaining and increasing production, in the face of climate change and population growth, exercises governments and agronomists; efficient processing into safe, secure and nutritious foods exercises cereal scientists and food manufacturers; and exploiting cereals as a renewable feedstock, to meet our chemical and energy needs as well as our food needs, exercises biorefinery engineers. Systems thinking that appreciates the foundational and diverse roles of cereals is needed to address these highly interconnected issues. One might surmise that a Theory of Everything for cereals would truly stretch the intellect and create genuinely educated people capable of addressing the pressing needs of the world.
Period9 Jan 2019
Event titlePhysics in Food Manufacturing Conference
Event typeConference
LocationChipping Campden, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational