Pi’s Scientific Agony Aunt, Mizu Nishikawa-Toomey, is here to answer your questions
Why does cream whip?
I stand in my student kitchen, trying desperately to whip a bowl of cream using my hands alone – ok, maybe I do have a manual, old-fashioned whisk. While I repeatedly make this seemingly fruitless motion, I’m thinking: is this really working? Am I trying to mix air in to this liquid? What on earth am I trying to achieve here?
If you have ever had these thoughts while trying to accomplish this unfathomable task, not to worry, as I have found the answer.
First we need to understand what cream actually is – apart from being glorious. Cream consists of large clusters of fats and water. However, fats are repelled by water, so how is cream a homogenous mixture of both?
The fats form links with molecules called phosphates. Phosphates surround the outer surfaces of large clusters of fats, allowing these clusters to be submerged in the water solution.
Phosphates are hydrophobic fat-lovers at one end and hydrophilic water-lovers at the other. The hydrophobic end attract the fats, and the hydrophilic end attracts the water molecules.
When we whip cream, first we tear away these phosphates from the fat clusters, exposing the hydrophobic fats to water. The fats are repelled by water, allowing air to make its way between the fat clusters and water.
Instead of the phosphate walls, we now have globules of fat with thicker air walls, which makes the cream stiff. If it wasn’t for the fats, the air bubbles would float out of the cream and pop on the surface.
So next time your flatmate asks you why you are making a racket in the kitchen, you can tell them you’re breaking down the phosphate walls around fat clusters.
They will probably think you are under the influence. And if they are a well-read biochemist, they might tell you to go and take some oxytocin.
Does the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin help you sober up?
Oxytocin is a chemical found naturally in the body and has a role in inducing feelings such as empathy, generosity, intergroup bonding and orgasm. It is known in the chemical world as the “cuddle hormone”.
It turns out that oxytocin, as well as inducing warm, fuzzy feelings, develops a tolerance for alcohol in rats by binding to GABA receptors. These central nervous system receptors are thought to be responsible for inducing drunkenness.
Although the thought of having a few pints at lunch time and coming back to lectures sober and alert sounds like a dream come true, the applications go far beyond that.
As oxytocin increases the body’s tolerance to alcohol, it can be used to combat alcohol addiction by reducing withdrawal symptoms. It has also been shown that the sobering effect reduces alcohol craving in both rats and humans.
However, researchers are still trying to find an effective way to successfully introduce a chemically equivalent substance of oxytocin into humans.
So perhaps the next time you find yourself slurring your words at an overly-civilised party, you should go and give everyone a hug.
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