Friday, November 8, 2013

Cooking is not a science part 2: But it's a lot like engineering

at 5:00 PM
So the other day I went off about how it bugs me when people say cooking is a science because "it has measurements and it's, like, an experiment". Thinking about it some more, I realized that while those arguments don't qualify cuisine as science proper, they actually do put it somewhere in the neighborhood of engineering. Well, not those particular arguments, but the ones to follow. And I think the same mindset.

Again I'm not going to get too formal here because seriously who cares about this shit but I guess engineering is science applied to fulfill a need. To fulfill a requirement, if you will :wink wink: (only engineers should feel the need to pity laugh at that joke). As I mentioned yesterday, really everything we do in life is an application of science because the world is just sweet that way. Typing on this computer is an application of science. Digesting that milk I just drank is an application of science. Tapping my foot is an application of science. But engineering - like medicine - is thorough and in-depth, the key difference from applications like art being the predefined result. 

There is such a thing as success and failure in engineering: meet the need and you've succeeded, fall short and you've failed. You have to keep going until you fulfill the requirement. You can't fail at painting. You can fail to achieve your vision (ah, to be 12 again (ah, to be the author of this blog)), but you've still created a painting. Many of history's great works of art were considered pretty crappy by their authors - if I'm remembering my high school English correctly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn't too happy with the ending on "Faxanadu", but today it's considered one of the best poems and 2D adventure platformers of all-time. This is kind of a big hint that cooking and engineering have something in common - cooking can go terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly, beverly hillbilly wrong. "Oh whoops I didn't expect that adding an extra egg would make the oven turn into a goddamn mushroom cloud!" Etc. Key to observe here are two points: the aforediscussed replication aspect of cooking - that much of the work we put even into creating recipes is simply an attempt to recapture a past experience - and that there is a flat line where food simply becomes inedible. 

The latter, that cooking can outright fail to produce food, is something of a non-issue. While it's a valid failure scenario in the execution phase, if you're regularly churning out recipes that are producing inedible products... man, something's wrong, and you've got bigger fish to fry (try not to burn them) than classifying your hobbies.

The other, that effort in cooking can be driven by mimicry, e.g. "I want to create a recipe for a hamburger that tastes just like a Big Mac" (you fuckin' weirdo) we could think of as an example requirement for the cooking process. For those not from the engineering world, a requirement is exactly what it sounds like. It is what the customer tells you a product needs to be.
I guess Dilbert fans know requirements too. Part of engineering is accepting that there are unironic Dilbert fans.
Once you have a requirement, you then apply your scientific and culinary knowledge in an iterative process to hone a recipe as close as possible to meet the need. This is something art doesn't exactly have - we could make all the hilarious jokes we want about requirements being meaningless, imprecise, and airy fairy, but at the end of the day, there is some universally defined specific need that an engineering product is meant to fulfill, a "yes-or-no" process after work is complete to determine whether it succeeded (a test procedure, if you really want to be a dick about it). Likewise, if you are trying to bake dense brownies and the brownies come out not-dense, well, I think we can agree that's a failure. If you're an engineer-cook. If you're an artist-cook, you might take this opportunity to learn that you like not-dense brownies better after all.

And that's what it really comes down to. Completely a personal thing. Whether the cooking process falls into the engineering world really just depends on how requirements-driven you personally feel. Is there an exact end product you are expecting? Will you feel as though you have failed if you do not achieve it? Or are you just trying to make anything unique? For me I know it's the latter, and it's no surprise that, as I said before, I bake to express myself artistically. I'm always trying to make something different without regard for the result. And I can see where many people out there - and most I know - probably find themselves in the first group, holding themselves to higher expectations and pushing themselves by creating more and more challenging goals. It makes a lot of sense that they would compare cooking to engineering.

But, one last time, say it with me: what the hell does any of that have to do with science? You know engineering isn't a science either, right?

Okay. Philosophy 101 routine terminated. Next week it's finally back to video games in the main. 

Well, video games and Gojira. Come on guys! It's still meeEEE!

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