May 8, 2017


On my cozy Sunday evening I delve into the HarvardX MOOC Science& Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter. As my brain feels like a piece of extremely soft matter today, I would prefer to watch Friends instead. However, I am a dutiful little student and the catchy title of the MOOC finally convinces the slacker within me. Surprisingly, my time with the MOOC turns out to be pretty entertaining and I seriously consider to make Science & Cooking my new leisure time activity for the upcoming six weeks. Every week is structured along several readings, digital lectures and talks, as well as homework including actual cooking! For 75$ (or so) I could even get a “real certificate” for the course – but I choose not to.

The hosts of the MOOC Michael Brenner (Applied Mathematician), PiaSörensen (Chemist), and Dave Weitz (Physicist) provide me with a warm welcome. As they tell me, the course was developed for non-science majors at Harvard University in order to offer them “real-life” understanding of sciences. “And what could be more common in real life than cooking?” Dave asks. “Nothing!” I say to myself – I am hooked. Michael looks a bit like Jack Johnson and this is not the only reason why I am hanging on every little word he says while explaining the necessity of equations along with the process of making chocolate cake. Everybody loves chocolate cake. Everybody loves Michael. Especially when he interprets the chocolate cake recipe as a resolution of the Methodenstreit – as a site where qualitative and quantitative inquiries can coexist in mutual support and everlasting harmony: “It’s not because we care about quantification as such. It’s because what we really wanna do is – to be qualitative. But that the best way to be qualitative is to become a bit quantitative in order to understand how well the qualitative explanations work and then to use the quantitative framework to try to make our qualitative explanations better“. I feel that I should disagree at least a bit at this point, but I don’t want to. Listening to Michael feels like melted chocolate slowly dripping into my brain and I am excited to engage with my first homework Oven calibration using phase transition.

Leaving Michael’s chocolate cake and my irony behind, I definitely consider Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter a really interesting MOOC. The material is well selected, the teachers are charismatic and the topic is fun. Of course, one could criticize the commodification of education issue (see: certificates), or the aspect that a rather “elitist” group of people is attributed with an additional channel of communication, but I believe that this would miss the point. I would like to spend more time with Michael, Pia, and Dave and it almost hurts to close the tab with their smiling faces. However, there is a blog post to write. My experience could be interpreted in two ways. First, it might be a vivid demonstration of how skillful “science communication” may create profound interest – unfolding the power to attract people with a desperate desire for mellow sitcom entertainment. Second, it might be an example how the “right” communication devices may be powerful tools to translate a controversial issue into a simplified abstraction – transforming a young researcher’s image of the Methodenstreit into a delicious chocolate cake. 



  1. brrrrt brrrrt brrrrt!

  2. This sounds quite entertaining... could you recommomend further funny MOOCs dealing with "science communication"?

    1. No, unfortunately not. I'll let you know if I find something.

  3. I agree with the idea that scientific explanations have reach, and thus touch areas they weren't intended to touch (i.e. cooking). It's too often the case, I think, that a scientific education is conceived as the memorization of a set of descriptive statements, or facts, as opposed to an open-ended process of generating explanations for things, which (we hope) become better and better explanations over time.

    It seems to me that connecting scientific explanations to quotidian activities like cooking is an excellent strategy for retooling the way science is taught, in order to emphasize the feature I've mentioned.

    For example, it's immediately clear that the notion of a phase transition, and the explanatory power it wields, does not originate in a desire to make a more refined recipe for chocolate cake.

    However, having in hand explanatory knowledge of what phase transitions are, one can apply it to making the most fudgy chocolate cake on Earth (or, as the Austrians would have it, the most "cakey", which I consider to be a big mistake).

  4. Hello Lucas,

    I am glad you share my opinion. I would love to delve into a cake discussion with you but I do not really know what the difference between fudgy and cakey is. Both words sound delicious to me.

    See you (actually right now)

  5. Great blog post, thanks! Did I understand you correctly: one can get a certificate for this course? Wonderful, we should cook up STS as well, what do you think?

  6. Thanks km, I'm glad you like my post. As I see it STS folks rather seem like the food tasters/critics other than the actual cooks...but I'd be fine with that aswell.