The Theory of Alimentary Particles

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke (Dyke the Elder) goofing (as usual) on what’s happening when we decide things are things:

[For use (in the right hands) as a pedagogical aid to understanding the quantum mechanics of particles, or (in the wrong hands) as a parody of the mess the physicists have currently gotten themselves into.]

We can begin with the intuitively persuasive fact that everything that lives is made of food. At a macroscopic level this is well understood, but raises the obvious question: what is food? A natural starting point for answering this question is the well established observation that just as the elementary constituent of matter in general is the atom, so, the alimentary constituent of food is the crumb. While this can be accepted without reservation, we will find that even this innocent truth involves us in some very non-intuitive mathematics. We are familiar with the fact that when an atom is split the result is not two half-atoms, but an array of fission products. This array does not add up in any simple way. Similarly, when a crumb is split, the result is not two half-crumbs, but two crumbs ( Carlin’s theorem ). One divided by two does not equal ½, but 2.
This “anomaly” warns us that we must be very careful about carrying our prejudices, formed in our everyday lives, into our investigation of food. Like atoms, food may not have parts in the way that, for example, bicycles and automobiles have parts. So, we will be led to questions such as: “Does a part of food have itself to be food?” Or, we may wonder what holds the parts of food together. That is, what are the fundamental food forces (FFF)? A familiar cautionary event should suffice to make the point. Early theorizing about light, and the discovery that it could behave like a wave, led physicists to think that there must be a medium, the ether, as that within which the waves occurred. Careful experiments failed to produce any evidence of any such medium, and now no one thinks that it exists. Just so in the early days of food particle theory, and especially in the Brillat Savarin theory (BS), it was speculated that there must be a medium within which all food occurred, in order to account for taste. This medium was called sauce. However, careful experiments soon showed this conjecture to be false. A brief account of the experiments is instructive.
Clearly, an examination of Coq au vin and/or Pasta al’Amatriciana wouldn’t prove a thing. Everyone agrees that they contain sauce. What is needed are cases where the presence of the sauce is not immediately obvious. In fact, the experiments were done by the BS theorists themselves in the hope of finding the sauce in apparently sauce-free dishes. We needn’t list the entire smoergesbord of dishes tested. Suffice it to say that they were chosen upon the criterion that neither the BS theorists themselves nor the skeptics could detect any sauce by any normal means. These dishes were then picked apart in such a way that all non-sauce food was eliminated. In some instances a substance ambiguously identified as sauce remained. These dishes were discarded from the experiment in favor of those where no such traces were to be found — where not a crumb remained.
Now the crucial stage had been reached. The results were examined, and it was found that the dishes so carefully purified had no taste! Here a milestone decision was made that set the course of basic food research on its current positive path. The principle was first articulated that Where there is no taste, there is no food (the NSF principle ). Food can taste good or bad, even be in bad taste, but if there is no taste there is no food. The days of sauce theory were over.
Diehards persisted for a time. They pointed out that fish swim in water, and don’t notice it; we live in air, and don’t notice it. Perhaps there is a very subtle sauce common to every food, hence unnoticed by any eater. As weak as this objection was, it had a disproportionately profound effect on theorizing, for it evoked the first statement of the fundamental food symmetry (FFS): If everything tastes the same, there is no taste. It was a short step to the ground-breaking realization that taste was a consequence of symmetry breaking. Food is possible only if differences appear where no differences existed before.
FFS is, in fact, not one symmetry, but a family. Indeed, the principle itself forbids a global symmetry. However, it’s entirely possible for there to be local symmetries: things that taste the same as other things. This observation quite quickly began to be treated in terms of the mathematical tools of Group Theory. A group is defined precisely in terms of a symmetry or set of symmetries. For example, in two dimensions a circle is radially symmetrical. If we think of a circle made out of string, we can see that properly smoothed out, any closed string (with no knots in it) can be made into a circle. So, from the right point of view, anything that can be smoothed into a circle can be thought of as a member of the circle group. On the other hand, a square is symmetrical under 90 degree rotations, a pentagon under 72 degree rotations, and so on. If we don’t change the shape, but simply rotate them so they look exactly the same in the new orientation as they did in the old, we can see clearly how they can be thought of as groups of things with a particular symmetry. Similar groups can be defined in any larger number of dimensions. In fact, there is no end to the number of groups something can belong to. The only question is the fruitfulness of considering objects as members of a particular group. The race to find the fundamental food groups was on.
Crumbs are alimentary particles, but they obviously can’t be the most basic particle, or the exclusive basic particle. It takes work to pull them apart, so something must be holding them together. What? The holding-together forces have to be found. Of course it would be ideal for the FFF and the FFS to coincide in some way, for that would make things tidier, always a major consideration when dealing with food.
Holding-together is always a problem. Take nails, for example. You nail two boards together. What holds the boards together? The nails. Bu twhat holds the nails to the boards? Or you glue two pieces of paper together. What holds the two pieces of paper together? The glue. But what holds the glue to the paper?
Years ago my older son embarked upon a career of profound thinking in the following way: He asked “What makes the light go on, magic?” I said “No, you flip the switch on the wall and the light goes on.” He said “By magic.” I said “No, when you flip the switch, electricity goes into the bulb and lights it up.” “By magic.” No, there’s a little wire in the light bulb that gets very hot when the electricity goes through it, and that makes it glow.” “By magic.” “No, when the electrons in the wire get excited (oh oh) they jump from one orbital to another, giving off a photon.” “By magic.” …
His persistence convinced me that he was now old enough to go out and play in traffic. Parenthood is a humbling experience.
My son had discovered, through some doubtlessly inherited genius, that without thinking about it, and without understanding anything in particular — on the contrary — he could enter into an infinite loop of magic. Well, we’d better be careful not to end up in one of those infinite loops if we’re going to understand what holds our food together. What, then, are the FFF’s?
We’d be well advised to make a new start: put a new spin on the question. So we start from what we know experimentally. Cooking will have to enter the investigational picture. We decide to make pizza, and start by pouring some flour in a bowl. We push at it, but it won’t stick together. We need some liquid. Eureka ! A scientific breakthrough. We begin to generalize the picture. If we don’t put some sauce (oh oh) or some cheese (phew) on the pizza later, the pepperoni won’t stick. We really may be on to something.
So we organize our thoughts. There are obviously two basic sorts of stuff in food. Firm things (we’ll call them firmions) that don’t stick together, and wet things (we’ll call them hosons, because whenever we need some liquid we can always turn the … oh well). Now wet things don’t stick to one another very well either. They tend to spray around, evaporate, leak away, and so on, but they seem to hold firmions together just fine. In addition, and this is a central concept, if you whirl a firmion around it keeps its shape; but try and whirl hosons around. They go flying all over the place. Thus firmions are said to obey the laws of spin, and hosons do not.
We experiment, and, to make a long tail short, we find that if, for example, we press flour together very very hard we can get it to stick together a little bit, but under normal pressures we do indeed need something wet. We can speculate that under high pressure the difference between firmions and hosons disappears in some respects; but confirming this grand unification will have to wait until we’re much farther along. For example, we’re obviously going to have to deal with heat somehow.
Consider a ball of Mozzarella. At low temperatures it behaves like a firmion, but at higher temperatures it behaves as a hoson. This may, however, be simply a matter of the cheese being a composite of firmions and hosons: and aren’t we all. Pure hosons might always behave like hosons, and firmions like firmions. How are we to isolate pure hosons or firmions? Decisions have to be made about the state of the world: cool/hot, high pressure/low pressure, and so on in which the basic particles behave the way they should in their purity. And how in the world are we going to recognize, say, a single hoson? Will it be wet?
One more key concept must be put in place before we can begin to hazard an answer to these questions: the field. No concept is more important to the study of food than the field. And paradigmatic it is firmionic earth drenched by hosonic rains so food may grow. Furthermore, to retrieve themes we laid aside before, what is absolutely striking as we look at a field of growing food is the subtle array of colors. Moreover, can we look at such a field without anticipating the tastes that await us? A field of growing things is a field of flavor — or, rather, flavors, for we must recall the FFS. How many flavors, and how much flavor? It’s time to be quantitatively more precise than we have been so far.
We hypothesize (on good grounds) that colors and flavors can be treated as symmetries, and thus handled in terms of groups (green vegetables, to take an obvious example, or sweets). But now we have to recall a common fact. Sometimes a bite of food is so small it has no taste, and seems to fly in the face of the principle that something without taste isn’t food. There thus must be smallest units of food –food quanta, we might say. So we define the (necessarily existing)smallest portion of food, and, remembering the central role of our taste buds in this investigation, we call that smallest portion the bud.
We can now ask “Do buds add up to produce the flavors we know and love?” The answer, for good or ill, is “No.” One of the pervasive facts we must account for in our theory is that flavors combine. Their combination is interactive and highly non-linear. Depending on cook in temperatures and a myriad of other culinary conditions that can’t be controlled with infinite precision, the result of combining buds is highly variable. If we tried to “add up” all the flavors that could result from the possible interactive combination of even two buds, we would find ourselves with an embarrassing infinity on our hands.
We find, however, that some resulting flavors are more likely than others. If there were no reliability whatsoever, fine cooking would be out of the question. So we determine the probabilities of the various flavors and square them to derive what we call flavor abundances. Then, to calculate the canonical flavor of any combination of buds we sum over all abundances .
It’s a mark of the current state of the theory that no one is quite sure how the procedure works to predict and produce reliable flavors. In fact there are some skeptics who maintain that the theory is no better than the BS that preceded it. Only the future will decide the issue, but one reflection may be apt.
The theory of alimentary particles is meant to be a theory of everything with taste. ( Elementary particle theories would call such a grand unified theory a GUT. Alimentary particle theorists are above such childish banter.) All possible food must be accounted for. But in saying this a fatal ambiguity is introduced. Do we mean all possible food in our world, or all possible food in any world? It may well be that we can’t derive the number of buds we discriminate in our world from any more basic “pure” principle. But that may mean that as we work our way back from our experiences, traditions of scientific practice, and contingencies of funding, some of the things we find are fundamental features of our gastronomic universe, and others are fundamental features of any gastronomic universe. But some, in their yearning for ultimate unification lump them together in the pious hope that they will ultimately form a smooth rational totality with but a single golden arche. Others of us candidly cultivate our gardens.


Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: