January 26, 2010

Light in Winter Festival Bridges Gap Between Arts and Sciences

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Chemistry determines the tastes and sensations experienced in chocolate and beer. The laws of physics command the movement of balls to and from a juggler’s hands. And, of course, biology rules the wilderness that inspires many artists. While youth interests are currently slipping from books to video games, the seventh annual Light in Winter festival was held to reignite the Ithaca youth’s curiosity and interest in learning by exposing the art behind science and the science that drives art.

With events such as the “Physics of Juggling”, “Dances of Scales” and “For Love of Chocolate,” visitors from a range of backgrounds and interests were able to expand their scientific knowledge while engaging their senses. The festival even transformed the Statler atrium into the “Hall of Wonders,” its own science museum, which hosted youth attractions such as yo-yo experts and the Cayuga Nature Center.

The challenges for the founder, Barbara Mink of the Johnson School, proved to be uncovering the most appealing links between art and science. “Its easy to just take a title and then just put things together that don’t interact,” Mink said. “But when it really works, it results in something like the tasting of chocolate or dance that ranges from the scales of nanotechnology to cosmic interpreted through science and multimedia, those are the kinds of things that provide different entry points for different people of different backgrounds.”

One of the festival’s lectures, “For Love of Chocolate”, outlined how hundreds of years of chemistry has brought chocolate to the standards now held for it. Chef and chocolatier, Tammy Travis, created art out of science, while Cornell’s Prof. Gavin Sacks, food science, explained the science behind the art.

“Trick question: What percent of wine and chocolate is chemical?” Sacks posed to the audience. “I once had someone guess that about 99 percent of what they ate was chemicals. They were so close! Everything you experience with chocolate and wine is a chemical.”

The texture, taste and other physical qualities of this luxurious treat have all been perfected through the collaboration of both natural processes, such as fermentation and roasting, and anthropogenic processes, such as conching and tempering. Conching is a grinding and refining process that is responsible for the smooth texture of the chocolate, while tempering causes uniformity in the chocolate crystals that is responsible for the firm, glossy consistency of expensive chocolate through strategic heating and cooling.

Chemistry is responsible for how every human sense perceives and experiences chocolate, but it is the interaction of all the senses that makes it a desirable treat. The strong aroma of chocolate, for example, is a chemical property that stimulates both the sense of smell and taste. However, while it may be unrivaled by any other food, the aroma of chocolate may not be as unique as many think. Sacks explained that “the aroma compounds found in chocolate are relatively common. There are only about 500 – 1000 compounds that are commonly found in food aromas. So, its not that there is a unique chocolate aroma compound, but that there are quantitative differences of the same compounds.”

Though the Light in Winter festival has faced many challenges, not only creatively but financially, its founders remain enthusiastic about the success of this year’s festival and its future potential. Not only is the festival attracting more people from surrounding states, but the festival has also seen an increase in interest from diverse performance groups. With the potential addition of new crafts and performances in upcoming years, the Light in Winter festival lends proof to the growing passion for the link between art and science.

Original Author: Jade Tabony