Picture It… Chemistry has hit the stage at the Science Showoff in the Bristol Grain Barge. Our very own Dr Jenny Slaughter fired up the crowd with a spicy exploration of the molecules in chilli fruit. Using theory, demonstration and, inevitably, a little bit of audience experimentation, she revealed what makes chillis hot and what you should do if you have bitten off more than you can chew.*
On a very hot and sunny Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, the Chemistry supporting crowd shunned the outdoor seats on the top deck of an old Grain Barge (aka Bristol Beer Factory), which is moored in Bristol docks, and headed below decks into the stuffy events space, which was filling up already. Compere Steve Cross soon started the Science Showoff, an open mic night for science communicators, emphasising the last-day-of term atmosphere as it was their last show for the 2012/2013 season. **
Jenny’s contribution focussed on some of the molecules in chillis, also featured in our most recent post here, exploring how the key component capsaicin causes the familiar sensation of chilli heat and how you can use a knowledge of its molecular structure to pick the right drink (solvent) to remove it from your taste buds. But capsaicin doesn’t just spice up your food, it can also be used to control pain and as a defensive weapon, for example in chilli spray.
After a bit of introductory science, and improving the scent of the room with vanilla and almond (vanillin and benzaldehyde, which have similar molecular structures to capsaicin), volunteers were soon required. While Jenny was prepared for, and perhaps even looking forward to, calling on her Bristol colleagues in the back, not just 3, but 5 members of the audience came forward quickly to experience a bit of chilli heat.
Jenny quickly explained that drinking water would not help with taking the taste and heat sensation of the chilli powder away. She showed how small differences in the molecular structure of related molecules can alter their solubility and offered milk to those with the highest dose of chilli heat. Perhaps not what you think you want with your hot curry or chilli sauce, but guaranteed to dissolve the long hydrocarbon chains of capsaicin.
Also in the first set we were entertained by Becky Brooks, exploring the science behind the most popular drink in the room. As it was starting to get hot and stuffy in the room, even her exploration of how alcohol is produced by yeast (see photo) did not put anybody off their drink for long.
Other contributions educated us about the varied form of male reproductive organs in various species, the perception of scientists as experienced by Audrey Nailor, and the self-inflicted injuries and deaths caused by children experimenting with chemicals at home – the graphics in the study by one Craig Burns certainly showed considerable dedication to this research project (and there were some strong contenders for the Darwin Awards, mostly for hitting tubes full of explosives with hard objects to start the reaction). With no air left in the room and other commitments at home, I had to leave at the end of this first set, but look forward to the next time Science Showoff comes to Bristol.
*Forget water and beer and get some milk or yogurt.
**For show and tell, he’d brought his parents along for this gig…
Contributors: Natalie Fey (text and photos), Simon Perks (accompanying spouse and editing). Oh, and Jenny Slaughter did do all the work on stage, of course.