On November 26th, 1998, I was named by the London Times newspaper as “an enemy of the people” for using physics to work out the optimum way to dunk a biscuit. It was my first venture in using food as a vehicle to help communicate how science works. To date it has also been the most successful – at least, in attracting attention, including the award of a spoof IgNobel Prize at Harvard University.
The writer of the Times fourth leader was not the only one to express outrage at my early effort in food and communication. I still treasure a hand-written letter that I received which said (in part):
I have just watched a programme on TV on how to dunk a biscuit which I believe was a project headed by yourself.
What a complete waste of time, of manpower and machinery. Who in their right mind could sanction this scheme. I am sure you could be more dutifully employed as street cleaners or ticket collectors. Is this what goes on at English Universaties [sic] these days, its no wonder we are falling behind in World affairs.
Some were even moved to poetry. A correspondent who gave his address as The Garrick Club, London produced the immortal couplet:
Some men are moved by tits and bums
But I’m absorbed by biscuit crumbs.
My favourite response, though, was from a 12 year-old schoolboy, who wrote:
I looked at your formula but don’t think you take in the fact that the thickness of the biscuits can affect the result.
I have a couple of questions for you. What exactly is L – is it how long you hold the biscuit in for? D and t are they constant? D – is the size/diameter of the holes vary and can change. T – would this be variable depending on the density of the biscuit.
Please send me some biscuits for noticing this.
Unfortunately, I had to reply saying that all the biscuits had run out, but thanking him very much for his comments and wishing him well at school.
There is a follow-up to this story. Some twelve years later, the same schoolboy, now qualified as a doctor, wrote to me to say that my reply to his letter had been the major factor in stimulating him to take up science and to become a doctor. Which still brings a lump to my throat, and makes it all feel worthwhile.