A couple of months back, I made an intriguing observation on a slab of Emmentaler cheese: around one of the holes that this quintessential ‘Swiss cheese’ is known for, I noticed some veins or wrinkles radiating away from the edge of the hole.

mystery veinsThat set me thinking, because I had never seen those, and I wondered how they had formed. Discussing this with those around me, I soon realised that we all viewed cheese very differently. Most had never thought about the properties of cheese or noticed any details on its surface. Even the question of how the holes in cheese are formed generated a range of explanations, including them being drill holes caused by the cheese maker taking samples, and something having eaten through the cheese.

With some thought and reasoning, combined with close inspection of the hole, we soon agreed that these were quite unlikely explanations. (In fact the holes are bubbles of CO2 produced by bacteria involved in the production of the cheese.) But this made me realise that even an everyday object like a piece of cheese can highlight how useful a scientifically informed worldview can be.

I am not saying that a detailed knowledge of the microbiology of dairy products is of vital importance. But I do think that having an appreciation of how the things around us came about and behave gives us the reassurance and confidence of knowing what’s going on. (I also think that the world is a much more interesting place that way, but I may be biased there.)

For instance, I explained those wrinkles to myself as being the imprints of the plastic wrapper that had been pulled into the hole when the slab of cheese was vacuum packed. So I could dismiss alternatives like it being a fungus growing on the cheese, which may have caused me to throw it out and waste some yummy food. But to arrive at that explanation, I had to have an appreciation of how the plastic might interact with the hole under a vacuum, how the resulting wrinkles might affect the cheese, considering its consistency and elasticity, etc.

Interestingly, when I posted the above photo as a mystery picture on our ScienceIt Facebook page, one of my friends spontaneously came up with the same explanation. As a Chemist, I guess she has a similar way of looking at the world as me.

Posted by:Andy Giger

Andy is the Science Centre Singapore's Director of Strategy. He is a Neuroscientist who started out studying how Tunisian desert ants navigate, then tamed honey bees to find out more about their visual system, and moved on to counting cockroaches, feeding termites and attracting mosquitoes. Now he deals more with people, and enjoys being in touch with science on a much broader basis.

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