by Katherine Mathieson
Last week I went to a delicious event. The Royal Academy of Engineering  hosted a one-off event called ‘Tasty spoons and drinkable clouds: the art of engineering’ . Two unusual engineers discussed their adventures with materials and flavour.
Mark Miodownik  from UCL  related his Institute of Making’s  experiment on the effect of using spoons of different metals  on the flavour of food (apparently the more negative a metal’s electrode potential, the more bitter it tastes  – so to prevent your food tasting bitter, use a spoon made of chrome or gold).
David Edwards  from Harvard University  presented his work on a new way of absorbing flavour: through a ‘drinkable cloud’ called Le Whif. Developed in part by David’s work at his Le Laboratoire  in Paris, this is now being developed within a commercial framework as Aero Designs .
The event was packed – every seat was taken and there was an overflow room with a live video feed and a waiting list. There seems to be a strong appetite for events about the groovier side of food technology. The people I spoke to were from a broad range of areas: from engineering & food science to education. They were excited about the hands-on aspects of the evening: they got the opportunity to waft some drinkable cloud into a glass and suck it up with a straw and to taste some common foods using spoons made of different metals.
The art of engineering?
Both speakers would describe what they do as engineering. But it wouldn’t match what’s on the curricula of most engineering courses. Would you call drinkable clouds engineering? Or is it chemistry? Food technology? Materials science? Whatever it is – it certainly looks like fun. But should we focus on defining these types of events so that they fit into the boundaries of science disciplines?
I think we should. Knowledge is not neatly parcelled into the subjects of our school timetable. Yet when they think of science, most young people think of their school subjects – physics, biology, chemistry (from a 2010 survey  on 14 to 16-yr-olds commissioned by BIS). Yet science and engineering are much broader and more interlinked than this. One of the key challenges for those involved in young people’s science learning) is how to convey this breadth and interrelatedness.
For me, engineering is a discipline based on solving problems. Focussing on the problem means you follow that problem, whichever subject it crosses. That’s not art - ‘the art of engineering’ – but rather, it’s using the scientific method to solve a problem – more like ‘the science of engineering’.
So I would have called the event ‘Tasty Spoons and Drinkable Clouds: the Science of Engineering’ – which (sadly) might have made fewer people turn up.