The Comedy of Science

Three people laughing and having a conversation on stage

Dr. Lew Lefton headshot

Dr. Lew Lefton

By Stella Mayerhoff

While science and humor appear to be mutually exclusive fields, Dr. Lew Lefton, Faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Associate Vice President for Research Computing at Georgia Tech, has bridged these two seemingly distant worlds by performing science comedy and investigating the science of comedy.

Lew began performing standup as a hobby while a graduate student in the 1980s, just as cable television roused a public love for comedy. “As a performer,” Lew says, “you’re there to serve the audience.” Catering to his audiences from the scientific community and the public, his sets highlighted aspects of both his professional career and what was then an emerging hobby. Today, Lew continues to bridge these two passions, making science the subject of his comedy; “Comedy is the noun; science is the adjective.”

The Science of Comedy

All the time spent crafting science comedy led Lew to become increasingly interested in the inverse relationship between the two: comedy science, a field still relatively unstudied. Some who study the subject propose that comedy is unique to humans due to psychological phenomena associated with humor. For example, humans demonstrate theory of mind—or the ability to consider the perspective of others—but there is debate as to whether (and the extent to which) other animals exhibit this cognitive ability.

Comedy often relies on theory of mind; the comprehension of another’s point of view can help an audience understand the humor in a comedian’s story or a comedian recognize whether the audience might find a joke too offensive or outdated. It’s these complex cognitive abilities that may prove humor to be the ultimate Turing test, as they can’t be coded precisely through machine learning.  However, progress in this research is difficult without a way to measure and quantify humor. 

What Makes Comedy Funny?

Lew and his colleagues—including Georgia Tech faculty member Dr. Pete Ludovice—have worked to address this obstacle through the Humor Genome Project. As their database of humor-related content grows, so does their ability to perform quantitative analyses on various components of humor. The science of comedy has already boasted important results–including benefits of humor in coping with anxiety and depression–and has potential findings in numerous areas such as human health and social behavior.

One group already jumping into these data are Lew’s students; he offers a project-based data analytics course at Georgia Tech in which students analyze data on humor from the Humor Genome Project. This creative approach to studying machine learning, computational analysis, and theories of behavior and cognition has great promise for gaining a better understanding of the science behind comedy. 

“Things that make you laugh and then think—that’s the sweet spot.”

Beyond illustrating the relationship between science and comedy, Lew also emphasizes the ways it can benefit both comedians and scientists. He suggests that comedians take note of the science around them; not only can they benefit from understanding the science of comedy but understanding science will only give them a more informed voice to use on their platform. Scientists, on the other hand, should not only consider comedy another tool for telling their research story but also a great form of entertainment to enjoy. After all, anyone can benefit from a good laugh—there’s science to prove it! As for his personal take on what makes for great comedy, he suggests, “…things that make you laugh and then think—that’s the sweet spot.” 

How to Get Involved in Atlanta Comedy

Atlanta has a rich comedy scene with a diverse array of opportunities for performing. Though joining the comedy scene as a first-time performer may seem daunting, Lew recommends learning by doing! Fortunately, Atlanta offers opportunities for aspiring comedians to practice in both improv classes and open mic nights. If you’re not up for being in the stage lights, numerous Atlanta venues offer comedy shows. Science for Georgia offers comedy events that will let you sit back and enjoy the humor in science and comedy. 

Thank you to Lew Lefton for sharing his time and expertise on comedy! You can see more about Lew Lefton’s work here and explore his impressive collection of April Fool’s jokes here.

Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon: Providence Canyon

Landscape photo of the Providence Canyon in Lumpkin, GABy Misael Romero-Reyes

You are standing in the middle of a deep deep canyon. It has everything it needs to flourish: water, soil, sunlight, and air. There are wild boars at the water table, huge trees, even alligators! Can you believe this magical wonder would not have been possible without humans making reckless decisions while trying to survive?

A Trip to the 1830s

Let’s go back in time. Imagine yourself in the 1830s and what you see is just open land. Land that is ready to be farmed. There are a few trees, so you decide to cut them, you know, for more land to farm. Neighbors mostly grow cotton to support their families, so you decide to farm cotton too. Over time, you notice that cotton just doesn’t grow the same way it did years before, but you don’t worry too much, maybe the soil just has a short lifespan. You decide to go to another piece of land and cultivate cotton there. You move to a piece of land that is uphill because you have learned over the years that cultivating crops on a slope allows more water to get into the soil. 

What was happening to the soil wasn’t normal, and science explains why not. When you are farming (or in this case over-farming), you are removing the topsoil. The topsoil contains the most important nutrients for crops to grow: metals, microbes, and minerals. It also becomes “loose,” so it can be more easily carried away by wind or rain. When these get carried away, the crop won’t get the necessary nutrients and stops producing. 

Providence Canyon in Lumpkin, GA

Decades of soil erosion formed Providence Canyon in Lumpkin, GA

Loose Soil Leads to Erosion

As the land becomes “ungrowable,” a second phenomenon occurs. Erosion is the geological process where inner earth materials are worn away by natural forces. In this case, rain and bad farming practices washed away bits and pieces of soil and sand. Little by little over the course of two centuries, the effects of this became visible in the development of a deep canyon appearing on the old farmland. 43 different colors of soil, layers, and layers going into the inner earth. So much soil was taken away that it cannot go any deeper, it ends at the water table.

The rainwater is removing soil at different rates depending on steepness. Remember when you were farming cotton on a steep slope? Well, it led to erosion happening from all sides, and if you look at the deeper and deeper parts of the earth you will see that there is one color in common: red-orange, and this indicates the presence of the metal iron (Fe) because it gets dissolved as water travels through the sediment, then it oxidizes (unites with oxygen), and it’s precipitated at different depths staining the soil in different colors. 

The History of Providence Canyon

Now flash forward to today. All of this happened in a small town in Georgia called Lumpkin. The farming was improperly managed during that time, and unfortunately, Providence Canyon formed in a few decades due to the erosion and the overcropping that happened. Thankfully, we are now aware of the damages we were doing to the environment. President Jimmy Carter bought the land in 1970 and established it as a 1,000-acre conservation area. A lot of trees were planted, and this land regained a little bit of its former lush beauty. Trees reduce the amount of storm runoff, which reduces erosion, and they also serve as food and shelter to many organisms. Through conservation, plants and animals began to thrive in Providence Canyon. 

One of Georgia’s Natural Wonders

Providence Canyon is one of the “natural” wonders of Georgia. It has much resemblance to the Grand Canyon out west. If you haven’t had a chance to visit, you should! And remember that those red colors and imperfect surfaces happened because of the damage many human practices do to the earth. Despite its beauty, the history of Providence Canyon is also a reminder that if we remove vital elements of earth, we must also take steps to protect it from future damage.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Makerverse!

Close-up shot of a young woman in a makerspace working on a project.

By Malvern Madondo

Ever wanted to make something, but weren’t sure how or where to start? Don’t have the tools? Afraid of making mistakes? Not sure what a makerspace is or how to be part of one? Don’t panic!

There is a dedicated place in the metro Atlanta area where anyone can discover and channel their inner creativity and bring ideas to fruition – Decatur Makers! Decatur Makers is one of the few family-friendly and all-ages makerspaces in Georgia. It was founded in 2012 and is housed in a refurbished old gym that was previously a roller-skating rink. I recently met with Irm Diorio, the Executive Director (Maker in Charge?) at Decatur Makers, to learn more.

What exactly is a makerspace?

According to Irm, “a makerspace is a playground for your creativity, a space to learn, build, innovate, try new things, and make mistakes. Most important of all it is a community of people”. One member, Steve Freant, took this to heart and built a car at Decatur Makers using recycled materials! With the help of fellow members at Decatur Makers, Steve learned skills such as metalwork in order to bring his grand vision to reality.

A hobbyist woodworker with a background in marketing and advertising, Steve got attracted to metalwork because he did not have to wait for pieces to dry. He tapped into the vast experiences of other members at Decatur Makers who were only eager to share their expertise. Steve is now on a mission to build his second car at Decatur Makers!

“A makerspace is a playground for your creativity, a space to learn, build, innovate, try new things, and make mistakes.”

Images of the Stevemobile, created by Freant with the help of several members at Decatur Makers.

Images of the Stevemobile, created by Freant with the help of several members at Decatur Makers.

Perhaps not as difficult as finding the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, building a car, let alone driving it in Atlanta, is not always an easy task. It takes dedication, and a willingness to learn. Makerspaces provide community space to turn creative dreams into reality. 

So, you have an idea?

Decatur Makers lives its mission: “Empowering people to create and learn through hands-on experiences that positively impact their lives and communities” in its daily operations. Whether you are just starting out, merely curious, or an expert, Decatur Makers welcomes you. According to Irm, “Everybody is a maker … but we’re not just about the making of things, we’re about making a difference. Making fosters life-changing experiences where kids and adults find passions, learn hard skills, and develop and strengthen the soft skills of problem-solving and critical thinking.

Decatur Makers sign

Image credit: Maureen Haley

This type of success positively impacts people of all ages by empowering them in all areas of their life.” The process takes time and often requires experimenting with different approaches and developing multiple versions. However, a sense of curiosity and lots of patience can lead to a more refined result that not only solves the initial problem but also provides insights into solving similar problems. The making journey continues as community members share their knowledge with one another.

In its 8 years of operation, Decatur Makers has used this model of continual improvement and made quite an impact in the Atlanta community and beyond. The story goes that it all started when some local Decatur kids needed a place for their robotics team to practice. A few parents, prompted by Decatur Makers founders Garrett Goebel and Lew Lefton, took it a step further and thought a place where a diverse group of kids and adults could use tools and work together to learn skills and build things would be a great resource for our community. Years later, their idea has blossomed into a maker community that supports the learning, creating, and innovating that comes with making all kinds of things. 

From idea to product and product to more ideas

If you have a solid idea (the idea can also be in shaky liquid form or vague gaseous form) of what you want to create, do not hesitate to get to the drawing board and reach out to the maker community for help, advice, or anything you need to bring that idea to fruition. Decatur Makers features a fully equipped wood shop, an electronics shop, and a metal shop. They also have an array of 3D printers, a Glowforge Pro laser cutting/engraving system, a CNC milling machine, a HAM radio station, a microbiology lab, sewing machines, arts and crafts equipment, leather crafting tools, and a 4-color screen printing system.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t panic! Decatur Makers also offers a variety of introductory classes such as Woodshop 101, Intro to 3D Printing, Glowforge 101, Metal Lathe 101, Wood Lathe 101, and Welding Machine Basics.

Who let the dog out?

Maureen applied several techniques such as laser cutting, woodwork, 3D printing, and electronics to make her alert system.

Maureen applied several techniques such as laser cutting, woodwork, 3D printing, and electronics to make her alert system.

Another maker, Maureen Haley, has witnessed first-hand the importance of having a community where individuals can start from basics, tap into the experiences and wisdom of peers, make something they are proud of, and share the knowledge with others. Around 2012, Maureen was trying to learn some programming skills so she could build projects with her new Arduino beginners kit from This endeavor led her to two amazing opportunities.

First, she signed up for what was then MITx’s initial Massive Open Online Class about Circuits and Electronics, which dramatically opened her mind to resources available to adult learning online. Second, she came across a suggestion online to look for local hackerspaces on This led her to a nearby group meeting, which was the early gatherings of Decatur Makers. At this meeting, she met Irm Diorio, and together they “started building a thriving, open-source, magical community of do-it-yourselfers, closet instructors, brilliant creatives and enthusiastic makers.” One of her proudest accomplishments at Decatur Makers is a top-notch monitoring system that she created to alert her brother whenever his dog, Skipper, snuck outside the house.

Maureen’s path to creating the most ingenious DIY pet alert system started right after Decatur Makers acquired a Glowforge laser cutter and started offering introductory/safety classes. The laser cutter became popular among makers who would often use the free software Inkscape to create a luggage tag or key chain fob with their name on it. While Maureen was waiting for her turn to upload a tag and practice using the machine, she picked up some scrap acrylic that was lying around the makerspace and designed a small engraving with a dog on it. (Unfortunately, when she uploaded a picture of Skipper, the details were not as distinct, so she opted for a silhouette of a dog that resembled Skipper). She then took her laser-cut piece of acrylic home and wired up some LEDs to make the light shine through. Next, she supported the engraving, using wood as a base. The next challenge was connecting all the components together!

Collage of progress photos from Maureen's pet alert system design

Maureen’s pet alert system, from sketch to functional product.

Being a recent graduate of Decatur Makers Woodshop 101 class, she made a jig to guide a handheld router and created a recess on the bottom of a dark wood chunk that a fellow maker had donated, to hold a strip of lights, and another recess on top to hold the piece of acrylic. Maureen then ingeniously connected a power jack to a piece of protoboard, wired up an on/off switch, programmed a microcontroller, and engraved the Decatur Makers logo onto the wood! She queried the woodshop community for oil coating recommendations to keep the wood from drying out and give it a rich color. Finally, to cover the bottom where the electronics were, she used a free program called Tinkercad to design a small lid/tray and printed it on the 3D printer at Decatur Makers.

By the time she was done, Maureen’s project was a complete tour of the makerspace – laser cutting, woodwork, electronics, and 3D printing. Besides providing her with the resources she needed to help her brother track his furry friend’s movements, Decatur Makers made it possible for Maureen to use tools like laser cutters and 3D printers that she otherwise would have had to buy. Moreover, she benefited from other makers who were ever ready to share their skills.

How to get involved with Decatur Makers

At Decatur Makers, everyone, regardless of interests or skill levels, is welcome to join a vibrant and growing community of makers. Throughout the year, Decatur Makers hosts a variety of events such as the weekly informal Maker Happy Hour and Open Build Night that are open to anyone interested in learning more about makerspaces or sharing about a project they have worked on. Decatur Makers also organizes classes such as papermaking, stained glass making, woodworking, 3D printing, and laser cutting. You can check out their class offerings, public events, or donate to support their operations at If you have never visited, check out their virtual tour on YouTube (

Decatur Makers fitted Chase as Bruno Mars in a 1985 Lincoln Town Car Stretched Limousine.

Decatur Makers fitted Chase as Bruno Mars in a 1985 Lincoln Town Car Stretched Limousine.

Decatur Makers has also partnered with various other nonprofit organizations, institutions, and makerspaces. Under the Atlanta Beats Covid initiative, Decatur Makers partnered with other makerspaces and volunteers to create Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to curb shortage in the state of Georgia. “We are always looking for community partners because we’re only as rich as the people we work with,” said Irm.

In 2018, Decatur Makers partnered with Magic Wheelchair, a nonprofit organization that builds “epic costumes for kiddos in wheelchairs — at no cost to families”, to create TWO amazing Halloween costumes for two metro Atlanta kids – Chase and Armani. Chase dressed as Bruno Mars from the Uptown Funk video (complete with wheelchair transformed into a 1985 Lincoln Town Car Stretched Limousine) and Armani dressed as a zombie on the bus from Black Ops 2 (Call of Duty).

Decatur Makers also fitted Armani as a zombie on the bus from Black Ops 2 (Call of Duty).

Decatur Makers also fitted Armani as a zombie on the bus from Black Ops 2 (Call of Duty).

Many thanks to Irm Diorio for highlighting all the amazing work being done at Decatur Makers. Thanks also to Steve and Maureen for sharing about their work!

The Science of Social Dancing

Social dancing is all about force - a push or a pull that changes an object’s motion.

Social dancing is all about force – a push or a pull that changes an object’s motion.

By Veronica Montgomery

Two people meet on the dance floor and form an elegant silhouette. A sparkly dress flares during a double spin. Everyone catches their breath during a lift, only to grin in excitement and relief once both feet are on the ground. Whether watching it on screen or doing it yourself, it is hard to deny that sense of glamor that comes with a well-executed partner dance. 

Shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have brought social dancing to the limelight. Besides looking cool, dancing is fun, is a great workout, and may actually make people happier according to several research studies. However, many people feel excluded from this world of dance because they are intimidated by the fear of not knowing what to do. 

Physics is the Language of Social Dancing

Professional shot of scial dancing dancers Kristen Anne (left) and Ashwin Raju (right)

Kristen Anne (left) and Ashwin Raju (right)

The good news is that while dancing looks super intimidating, it is very learnable because a lot of it is based on physics! Social dancing is all about force – a push or a pull that changes an object’s motion. In dancing, the direction and strength of forces are used to tell dancers how to move. Forces come from all over, including contact between the lead and follow, the muscles and joints within each dancer’s body, and gravity.

“A lot of the more intricate parts [of social dancing] are not something you can see… somebody needs to explain the inner workings and the mechanics of it,” says Ashwin Raju, who co-owns Aatma Dance Studio with his wife, Kristen Anne. Ashwin and Kristen have each been dancing for over a decade and teach salsa and bachata at their Atlanta-based studio from beginner level to performance-ready.

“In salsa or any partner dance, there is a lead and a follow. Whatever is in the lead’s head needs to be communicated to the follow, and the only way the follower can listen to the lead is through the body,” Ashwin explains. Forces are the words in the language of social dancing. When a lead wants the follow to move in a certain way, he applies a specific force to communicate what to do. 

The concepts of frame and connection allow the follow to interpret this force and translate it into a movement. In dance, frame refers to how you hold your upper body. Good posture as well as engaged back, core, and arm muscles are key to a good frame. When these muscles are engaged, the forces within the body make the entire torso move as a single unit, allowing subtle cues from the lead to be translated into big movements from the follow.     

Ashwin and Kristen Anne stand facing each other with their palms pressed together.

Connection describes the interaction between the lead and follow’s bodies.

Connection describes the interaction between the lead and follow’s bodies. With proper connection, the lead and follow are applying the same amount of force to each other, so that the follow has some resistance to any forces coming from the lead. “We make the leads and follows get into a palm-to-palm connection and lean into each other. Like planking against each other. We ask the ladies to close their eyes and we ask the leads to walk around the floor backward and forward without letting the follows know where they are going,” says Ashwin.

In physics, resistance is an opposition to the flow of energy. We hear a lot about resistance in circuits, but it is also important for dancing. Resistance lets us convert energy into a practical form, like a light in a circuit. A lead uses energy to apply force to the follow. A follow with “noodle arms” has little or no resistance to this energy, so her arms flail in the direction of the force without engaging the rest of the body. A follow with too much resistance applies so much counterforce that the lead is unable to move her. The right balance is learned through training and practice. 

Torque is a twisting force that can cause an object to rotate. When a lead signals for a follow to turn, he guides her arm in the direction of the turn. Because the follow is dancing with a strong frame, her entire torso follows this cue, which creates a tension (torque!) between her upper and lower body. Ashwin compares the changes in the follow’s body to that of a car going into sports mode, “once you start turning, everything kind of tightens up. All the joints are like springs and all the springs sort of tighten up. That means when one side moves, everything else reacts. Head to toe everything is connected.” The internal forces that connect the follow’s torso to her lower body cause the rest of her body to follow through with the turn. If the lead turns the follow too aggressively and she loses balance, they are reminded of another force always at work – gravity. 

When using the right technique, communicating during a dance becomes almost effortless. As Kristen explains, when connection and frame are in place “you really don’t have to think what direction you’re going in because it just feels so natural.” 

Teaching Robots the Language of Dance

Lea Ting (left) and Madeline Hackney (right)

Lea Ting (left) and Madeline Hackney (right)

Professor Madeleine Hackney at Emory University echoes this sentiment, “if you’re dancing with a skilled leader…you don’t even need to think about it at all, it just happens.” The underlying concepts of physics that dictate many aspects of partner dance mean that two complete strangers can dance without a glitch, as long as they both know the rules.  Taking advantage of this established “language”, Professors Madeleine Hackney and Lena Ting at Emory University are designing robots for partner dance in order to provide physical therapy for Parkinson’s patients. “We liked partner dance because there was already a codified sort of structure and language,” Lena explains. 

Parkinson’s Disease is a disease of the nervous system that causes tremors, muscle stiffness, slowed movement, and balance problems. Madeleine was a professional dancer before becoming a neuroscience professor, and she has used her background to adapt Argentine Tango as a rehabilitation treatment program for Parkinson’s patients: “the knowledge base that I developed as a partner dancer is super important for this because I have taught countless individuals how to move in conjunction with another person… I know the rules of partner dance — be it tango, or salsa, or swing, or any of these — and how we communicate motor goals in very, very subtle ways.” 

Tango therapy has been surprisingly effective. Madeleine has found that her tango classes can improve balance and gait in her patients. When Lena learned about Madeleine’s work, she wanted to contribute her expertise in robotics to bring this therapy to people on a larger scale. By designing robots that can lead and follow, Madeleine and Lena believe they can make tango therapy more accessible. “The idea with rehabilitation robots in general [is] you want to emulate what the therapist is doing and basically allow people to have therapy more often… and maybe in a place where they can’t normally get it,” Lena explains.  

The problem is that robots need to be programmed to give and respond to the forces we use to communicate in dance, and it is hard to define exactly what ‘natural’ feels like. “One of the problems in robotics is we don’t know how to get a robot to really touch and interact with a human being in a caring, gentle way” explains Madeleine. “That’s why it was so cool to meet with Lena because she’s got all the skills with engineering, so then by partnering with her we’ve been able to answer some of these questions.” 

Analyzing Physical Communication in Dance

Professors Lea Ting and Madeline Hackney take many measurements analyzing the distance, time, and forces associated with dancing.

As research partners, they are studying the physical interactions between people in order to better understand the communication that happens in dance. “We started on a set of studies looking at two people interacting in a stepping paradigm to understand principles of the force communications,” says Lena. They have studied expert dancers as well as complete beginners, and in doing so, they have begun to be able to define what qualities make for a good dancer. 

They take many measurements analyzing the distance, time, and forces associated with dancing. For example, they measure the distance between two people’s chests, the lag time between when the lead moves and when the follow moves, or the force a lead uses to signal to a follow. “You start to realize how powerful this communication, physical communication, is because you ask people to close their eyes and they do better,” Lena explains.

“We were surprised that experts were using greater forces than novices… but in general what’s surprising is the forces are really low… so they’re definitely not pushing people.” She goes on to say, “We think about frame, and I think that is really important, the stiffer you are… means you can have more resistive force. With the experts, I think they do that so that for a smaller movement, you get a higher force, so the signal is much higher. I think that’s what frame does; it really increases the speed of transmission of the signal.” Lena and Madeleine are working to quantify what makes a good frame, so that they can program their robots to automatically dance with the technique that might take a human dancer years to perfect. 

Ashwin and Kristen post while dancing

“When using the right technique, communicating during a dance becomes almost effortless.”

Social dancing with a partner is like a language with its own set of rules for communication. Learning how to maintain a frame and how to correctly apply and respond to forces allows us to understand dance cues quickly. Much like verbal communication, once you internalize the basic rules, you can communicate in dance almost without thinking. If you are interested in joining the conversation, consider taking salsa or bachata lessons with Ashwin and Kristen at Aatma Dance Studio, and come try it yourself at one of their socials! Also, if you or someone you know has Parkinson’s Disease or mild cognitive impairment and would be interested in participating in one of Lena and Madeleine’s ongoing studies, please reach out to Madeleine at [email protected].

Thank you to Ashwin and Kristen Anne at Aatma Dance Studio, as well as Professors Lena Ting and Madeleine Hackney! For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!


The Science of Vegan Baking

Tray of freshly made vegan apple cider doughnuts

Tray of freshly made vegan apple cider doughnuts

By Dené Voisin

By 9 PM on a Thursday night, most businesses in Atlanta’s Historic West End have already closed for the night. Business is still buzzing for Vegan Dream Doughnuts, located across the street from the Mall at West End. One bite into their gluten-free, mouth-watering donuts explains it all. They’re bursting with flavor, surprisingly light, and made without any refined sugars. Most importantly for vegans, they’re made without any animal products. Nearing midnight, there is still a steady flow of customers, confirming something that those of us without dietary restrictions might overlook- vegans have a sweet tooth too. Founder and self-taught chef Ras Izes is committed to filling that need without the excess calories and refined sugars that have come to define one of America’s staple breakfast items. “It brings people together, like, you can’t hate a donut,” he states, readjusting the quickly disappearing stock of donuts in the display case. As a Rastafarian for most of his adult life, Izes only eats ‘ital’ (plant-based) foods and has found a passion in creating delicious dishes and donuts that can be enjoyed by everyone – vegan or not.

Plant-based power

According to a Forbes magazine article, the number of American consumers identifying as vegan grew 600% between 2014 and 2017. A release from stated that plant-based food sales grew 8.1% from 2016-2017, highlighting the growing market for vegan-friendly foods. This trend has been accompanied by an increase in Google searches for ‘vegan baking’ over the last decade with upticks especially around the holiday season.

It brings people together, like, you can’t hate a [vegan] donut.” – Ras Izes

Making your grandmother’s famous German Chocolate Cake or your uncle’s buttery breakfast croissants completely plant-based may seem like a futile task, but many blogs and websites specialize in the delicate food science of swapping out animal products without sacrificing taste and texture. Vegan baking can be a highly experimental endeavor, but understanding the science behind how milk, butter, and eggs function in baking can ease the journey to sweet, sweet success. 

Move over, milk!

In recipes that require milk, its primary functions are usually moisture, sweetness, and structure. “I’m not sure milk is 100% necessary in the way that it has to be (cow’s) milk,” says baker Ashley Hay. She says it’s not that common of an ingredient in recipes and it’s much easier to replace. Hay adds, “It does have some flavor and fat content, but mostly I think it’s there for the liquid content.” A 13-year veteran baker and head decorator at Publix bakery, Ashley helps make between 15-30 full-sized cakes a day, plus smaller items like pies, tarts, and macarons. 

When its role is moisture, milk forms gluten chains with the flour to give the cake structure- a function easily filled by accessible milk alternatives. “In a box (cake) mix, they call for water, not milk,” she says. On replacing milk, Ashley notes that looking for an alternative that matches the fat content of the dairy in a recipe is a quick and simple swap out.

Whipped aquafaba

Aquafaba is made from leftover water in canned chickpeas and can be whipped into a meringue and flavored for desserts.

Heavy cream, which is higher in fat content, is mainly used in toppings as a base for whipped cream. Ashley mentions that aquafaba, the water leftover in canned chickpeas, can be whipped into stiff peaks and flavored for desserts. Non-dairy whipped toppings are becoming increasingly popular in major grocery chains, with options like ready-to-pipe coconut milk and nut-milk whipped toppings already hitting shelves around Atlanta. 

Butter, y’all?

From breakfast to dessert, butter is a key ingredient for decadent cakes and flavorful rolls to fluffy biscuits and flaky croissants. Butter and other fats function as ‘shortenings’ whose function is to ‘shorten’ the formation of gluten protein when flour is mixed with moisture. This prevents the elastic structure and resulting chewiness of breads when a ‘melt in the mouth’ feel is the desired outcome. For Ras Izes at Vegan Dream Doughnuts, coconut flour provides him a soft, ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ donut, free of the gluten chains that would require additional fats. Coconut flour is derived from the flesh of coconuts and contains a fair amount of saturated fat already. It is likely that the absence of gluten and the presence of this fat gives coconut flour a shortcut to ‘shortening’, reducing the need for additional calories while preserving the crumbly mouthfeel many recipes aim for.

For some kinds of cakes and cookies, vegetable oil, ground flaxseed, and even avocado can shorten just as well, but for many recipes, the swap is not so simple. That is because butter functions differently in a bake depending on its temperature. For example, pastries like croissants require butter to be cold and solid. 

Fluffy vegan croissant

Vegan croissants can be just a fluffy as those containing eggs

“You want the butter to laminate and form really thin alternating layers with the flour…so that you’ll have long gluten strands folding around the butter,” Hay says. Butter contains moisture, so if it is warm when folded into pastry, it can melt and seep into other ingredients rather than form layers, resulting in a bready, chewier croissant. “That’s why the butter has to be cold. When the croissant is baked, the butter will melt and flavor the dough, and the moisture will evaporate into steam and lift the pastry on its way up.”

Recipes call for melted butter when they need fat, flavor, and very short gluten chains. However, most cake recipes rely on creaming room temperature butter with sugar before folding in additional ingredients. The creaming method is the process of aerating the butter so that it fills with air bubbles that capture the gases, making it fluffy and creamy. In non-yeasted cakes, their fluffiness derives from this trapped air- expanding as it heats in the oven. Ashley says, “The oil-based cakes are really tender, flat cakes, and they don’t rise the same way that creamed cakes with butter rise.” 

Uncracking eggs

Eggs are among the hardest ingredients to replace because the jobs they do are so integral to the structure of most bakes. Eggs create stability within a batter, help thicken and emulsify sauces and custards, and can even act as a glue or a glaze. Aeration is one of eggs’ most important roles. Whisking traps air bubbles in the liquid egg product, which are surrounded by egg proteins like ovalbumin and ovomucin. These proteins are responsible for the fluffy stiff peaks that precede meringues and souffles. Ovalbumin helps trap those essential air bubbles during whipping while ovomucin has the elastic qualities needed to encase the air while the heat of baking forces it to expand. This expansion is needed for the fluffy, light texture that keeps cakes from feeling stodgy and dense in your mouth. Luckily, there are options like aquafaba that can mimic this effect. Aquafaba meringue recipes also suggest that this egg substitute handles heat well and maintains stability when baked.

Flax seed egg substitute

Flaxseed can be used as an egg substitute

Eggs also contain proteins like lecithin which are amphiphilic, meaning they have a water-loving and water-hating end. These opposing ends bind to oil and water in a mixture, reducing the surface tension between the two liquids, making mixtures more cohesive and less likely to separate. Soy and sunflower lecithin are becoming more commercially available. Usually found in the ingredient list of things like chocolate and peanut butter, soy lecithin is a popular industrial emulsifier that is plant-based and useful for mixes with added fats. Ground flaxseed and soaked chia seeds can also function as emulsifiers, though they may result in a chewier texture and slightly nutty flavor. Because of their versatility in recipes, replacing eggs may require a bit of creativity to make sure that the moisture, texture, and taste they bring to recipes will not be missed. 

For at-home bakers, learning about ways to make their favorite baked goods without the animal products they once relied on can be an exciting and experimental process. For people who still eat dairy and meat, plant-based swaps can help reduce calories and fat in many recipes, which can positively impact health, while also being more inclusive of people who may have dietary restrictions. Either way, plant-based vegan baking alternatives can help everyone have their cake and eat it too.

Thank you to Peter Antonovich and the East Point Velodrome Association! To learn more about upcoming track cycling events and training, visit

For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!


The Science of Track Cycling

Action shot of bikes on the Dicklane Velodrome track.

Credit: T.L Lawrence

By Beena Meena

It was a beautiful fall morning and I was biking with my friend Chanel on our way back from an arduous 40-mile ride when we passed the scenic Sumner Park in East Point. Chanel Zeisel started regular bike racing in 2015 and finished her first USA cycling track race in Los Angeles two years later. We entered the park, home to an oval-shaped track; it was similar to a running track but its platform was sloped. As an active road cycling athlete myself, I had heard of track cycling races, but this was the first time I had seen a velodrome: a superelevated, oval-shaped track used in the sport of track cycling.

Georgia’s only Velodrome

The only velodrome in Georgia and one of the only 22 active velodromes in the United States, the Dicklane Velodrome (DLV) was constructed in 1974 as an initiative led by a group of locals who had visited the Munich Olympics and were inspired by the sport of track cycling. One of a kind, the East Point velodrome loops a grassy island, home to an oak tree and a running creek, that provides both cyclists and spectators with a view of natural serenity that contrasts with the adrenaline rush and the thrill of the races. 

The track is  ⅕ mile with a maximum angle of 36 degrees on the banks. My eyes fell on the steep embankments, as we pulled our bikes onto the track. “How on earth can you ride a bike on such a steep surface?!” I gasped with the frightening image of a cyclist sliding down in my head. “Just start from the apron (the flat surface on the base of the track) and move on to the higher elevations gradually after each lap,” Chanel said to me from the top of the ramp, flying by at 40 miles an hour on her bike. “And don’t touch your brakes,” she yelled. Nervously, I clipped in on the pedals of my road bike and decided to stay on the apron.  However, as I gained speed, my bike started to lean towards the ground while bending along the track curves, and I found myself jumping over to the blue strip, the innermost, and the shallowest side of the banks. As I gained more speed, I would jump over to the steeper side. Soon I was riding in the same lane as Chanel along the highest elevation and steepest curves. “It’s all physics, you know,” said Chanel.

It was true, and the laws of physics are what kept me riding on the banks rather than playing out the collision I had imagined when first seeing the DLV. When we bike in a straight line the main forces involved are the gravitational pull by the earth, which is counteracted by the upward normal push by ground and the air resistance/friction that is overcome by pedaling to keep a balanced forward motion.

The physics of track cycling

Cycling on an angled surface or on a curved path is slightly more complex as it also requires an inward force towards the center of the curve to maintain the circular motion. This inward force is called the centripetal force.  A centripetal force is a force induced by a cyclist to continue moving at the same speed while taking a turn by tilting their body towards what would be the center point of the corner of the curved lane. In the absence of this force, the cyclist would end up in a straight line and then bump into a tree or a car. In other words, if a cyclist wants to make a turn at a high speed, they must lean more to create adequate centripetal force. Conversely, if they want to slowly turn the corner, they require less centripetal force and turn the corner without leaning much.

Empty Dicklane Velodrome track

Credit: Beena Meena

The centripetal force can also be experienced while taking a leisurely bike ride through the park. The faster you go, the more you have to lean to maintain speed. However, a bike can only bend so much towards the ground before the friction of the ground and gravity takes over and you lose control of the bike.  An inclined surface on the turns can help you with the lean. A velodrome is an example of such space with a closed-looped track and steep banks on each turn. These banks allow cyclists to lean towards the center of the track while maintaining their balance and staying perpendicular to the inclined surface. Given the design of the velodrome, a cyclist riding on its track is subjected to all of the physical forces previously mentioned: forward momentum, friction, gravitational pull, and centripetal pull. However, the shape and banking of the track make the relationship between these forces slightly more complex than your average ride in the park. Therefore, understanding and applying physics is crucial for professional and avid cyclists who enjoy a fast pace but want to stay safe.

How to ride in a velodrome

To successfully ride in the velodrome, a cyclist’s speed must be directly proportional to the angle of the slope and the turn radius of the turn of the track. For DLV, a cyclist can stay on the track with a maximum speed of 55 miles an hour without falling off the track! To put that in perspective, the average speed for a relaxed ride through the park is about 8-10 mph or up to 15 mph on a well-maintained road. The maximum speed for experienced and extremely well-trained cyclists can reach up to 20-22 mph. Velodromes push these limits to the extreme with maximum speeds of nearly 60-70 miles per hour based on a velodrome’s shape and structure.

The velodrome has made track cycling so captivating it has become one of the most popular sports in the Olympics. It’s no wonder that the Atlanta locals who watched the sport in the Munich Olympics were determined to build a velodrome in their own community, which is still popular among Atlanta cyclists nearly half a century later. 

Today, the Dicklane Velodrome is owned by the city of East Point and managed by a volunteer-based, non-profit organization called the East Point Velodrome Association (EPVA). I sat down with Peter Antonovich, the President, and Director of EPVA, to learn more about track cycling and DLV. Peter shares that the velodrome track provides a safe and open space for cycling without concerns of traffic, potholes, or unexpected curves.

Track cycling training

“Track cycling could be intimidating at first but the more you practice, the more you get accustomed to it,” Peter says. Even when a prospective track cyclist understands how the laws of physics apply, they still need extensive training before they can race. The DLV provides certification classes on the weekends during the on-season, which starts in March and ends at the beginning of winter. A track certificate is mandatory to participate in the races. “Newcomers learn how to ride safely on the track through lessons taught by experienced volunteers,” Peter told me. The certification course at DLV costs $60, including the cost of a bike rental. Once you earn the certificate you can join the beginner class to train and race on Tuesday nights. The races are $15 to participate, and free for spectators.

Peter explained that the track bikes are somewhat different than the traditional road bikes. They don’t have brakes and are fixed gear. The only way to control the speed is by pedaling. “You use your legs to slow down and speed up,” Peter says. The idea of not being able to break could be frightening at first, but it is actually safer while you are on the track. You must have a minimum speed in order to keep exerting the centripetal force and moving on the curves, otherwise, gravity pulls you down the slope. “You brake, you fall,” Peter warns.

Chess on wheels

“Track races demand strategic planning and tactics from the cyclists,” Peter says, emphasizing the psychological skill as well as the rider’s ability to pedal fast. The DLV provides a safe and healthy competitive place for cycling enthusiasts to train both their physical and mental fitness. “It’s chess on wheels,” says Peter, smiling.

Whether you would like to put the science of cycling into action with a relaxed ride or with a new hobby of track cycling, understanding a few basic principles of physics will only improve your experience. If you are more inclined to the former, I recommend cycling on the Freedom Park Trail and taking notice of how the winding path will require you to slow down and/or tilt your body at each turn. You can always watch the track cycling races from the safety of the sidelines! If you’re set on trying out track cycling, you can feel fortunate to live so close to a velodrome and get involved with the Dicklane Velodrome. 

Thank you to Peter Antonovich and the East Point Velodrome Association! To learn more about upcoming track cycling events and training, visit

For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

The Science Behind Urban Scooters

Photo of three electric scooters parked on a curb next to an empty intersection.

By Nkosi Muse

Although we don’t have flying cars and shiny, metallic cities just yet, technology has certainly grown and evolved exponentially in recent years. A large number of these technological advances have been in the realm of transportation: electric cars, buses, and trains. If you live in a major city such as Atlanta, chances are high that you have seen clusters of electric scooters, bicycles, and other gadgets available to help you get around the city. Public response to these vehicles has been mixed, with some people raving about the accessibility and convenience of scooters, while others complain about safety concerns and discarded scooters clogging up sidewalks.

The history of electric scooters

Manufacturer image of a SegwayThe thing is, these scooters aren’t really new pieces of technology, as companies such like Razor and Segway have been selling electric scooters for years. However, they had never been utilized at a major scale until entrepreneurs Matt Ewing, Michael Keating, and Dan Riegel founded Scoot Rides, Inc. in 2011. In 2012, they issued a line of electric mopeds for short-term rental using an app on your phone, followed by electric scooters, or “kicks,” and electric bicycles. The trend picked up, and the rise of the e-scooter industry soared after Bird and Lime introduced their line of scooters in 2017.

In a relatively short amount of time, Bird acquired Scoot Rides and has expanded to almost 100 cities globally, amassing a net worth of approximately 2 billion dollars. Its closest competitor, Lime, racked up over 11 million rides of its electric fleet in 2018, building a net worth of 1.1 billion dollars. Rideshare apps Lyft and Uber also caught on to the trend and added a fleet of scooters to the streets in 2018 to accompany their already extremely profitable driving market. This new method of transport complements the shift towards more environmentally friendly transportation, as many of these companies track their positive impact on the environment and make efforts to be climate-friendly in other areas as well. For example, Lime claims their scooter rides have helped riders avoid more than 1.2 million car trips this year, reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

Getting down with scooter science

Headshot of Perry Johnson

Perry Johnson, data scientist

While all of these electric scooter companies seem to be masters of business and economics, they are utilizing and largely benefitting from the new and rapidly expanding field of data science. Data sciences are behind almost every advanced piece of technology we access and use, especially if it interacts with the internet. This science has established programming languages as a new universal language, in which we can communicate with computers (big or small), and computers can communicate with each other.

“There is a science behind the placement and operation of these scooters in different cities.”

Programming languages also drive the apps that we use to rent and ride our scooters. I spoke with data scientist Perry Johnson who shared his insight on the data science behind the operation of our beloved (or hated) electric scooters. “There is a science behind the placement and operation of these scooters in different cities,” he says. A city’s population is a heavily weighted factor in whether a scooter company (e.g. Bird) will select it to deploy its fleet of scooters, but the data for the scooters themselves rely on something called an “application programming interface” or “API.” 

What is an API?

Think of an API as a kiosk at the airport: when checking in, the kiosk provides you with a multitude of options such as print bag tags, change your seat, or print your boarding pass. Pressing the button for the kiosk to carry out one of these actions is similar to the function of an API. An API controls what happens between the time you press the button and receive an output. If you ride these scooters, whether or not you realize it, you are using an API.

“These APIs contain scooter data from scooter latitude and longitude coordinates, to battery levels, to scooter IDs,” Perry continued. “When you open your Bird scooter app, your phone is essentially making a call to the API, which in return shows you the location of scooters around you, their battery level, and their ID.” There is also a Nest ID, which corresponds to the “nest” a scooter is placed in—a bird in its nest, if you will! If you happen to see a bunch of scooters in one place, that is most likely a nest, whose location is usually closely related to recorded scooter “hot routes,” city landmarks, and scooter battery level, according to Perry. Any scooter without a Nest ID is most likely a scooter that was taken out of its nest or randomly placed—such as when a rider drives a scooter from a nest to a random, isolated destination.

An innovative approach

The app not only uses data science for its users but for its “workers” as well. Scooter companies such as Bird hire people to charge their scooters and to place them back on the streets for use. To know which scooters to pick up, the app notifies the user which scooters in the area have low battery. When they are fully charged, the app determines where to place the scooters based on nest locations, demand, hot routes, battery, landmarks, etc.

Three Bird scooters parked in a row

Now that you know a little more about these scooters, you may be saying to yourself: “why didn’t I think of this to get rich?” Trust me, so am I. Innovations that deploy an API have become so familiar that they can sometimes seem simple, but there is usually a lot more at work within the machines, computers, and applications we routinely use and view as ordinary. However, the next time you scan a scooter’s bar code to go for a ride (with your helmet on, of course), you’ll have a better understanding of everything the device in your hand just did for you.

How has COVID-19 affected the e-scooter industry?

Like many other public amenities and resources/tools, the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic has sharply reduced the amount of scooters that coat the streets of what was once the Downtown Atlanta scooter hotspott. However, just because quarantine has limited the use of scooter application programming interfaces (APIs), it does not mean that APIs are not being used elsewhere!

In fact, if you use an app like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, an API is most likely what is gathering the information from the web server and displaying it on your phone—especially when you look for a specific tweet, profile, or hashtag. Moderating our fun and convenient electric scooter rides are just one of the ways APIs are utilized.

Thank you to Perry Johnson for sharing his data science expertise! To learn more about his work, visit

For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

How Ink Evolved: The History and Science of Tattoos

Young man with colorful tattoo sleeve.

By Audra Davidson

As most people would be, I was a little nervous. Maybe a bit more than a little. Shiny, sterilized tools loomed just below eye-level, neatly arranged alongside a crowd of sanitizing chemicals. Mind racing and growing increasingly self-conscious about my above-average sweat production, I almost called the whole thing off. The cold shock of disinfectant on my skin finally snapped me into focus; I was really about to do this. I was just glad I couldn’t see the needles.

Biting my lip and clenching my fist to feign toughness and hide my pain, I walked out of that appointment with a swollen lip, nail marks on my palm, and permanent artwork on my ribs.

While it wasn’t the most painful experience I’ve had to date, getting my first tattoo certainly wasn’t the least. According to the Pew Research Center, I was now one of the 40% of Americans aged 18-29 to have a tattoo. Body ink has become so popular in recent years that the US military has had to loosen their strict tattoo restrictions to keep their recruiting pool from shrinking. Why do so many people purposely injure themselves to create these elaborate and permanent scars? Keep reading to learn more about the history and science of tattoos.

An Artistic Rite of Passage

Ouroboros tattoo by Atlanta tattoo artist, Dustin Cramer.

Dustin Cramer puts a spin on the ouroboros, an ancient symbol representing wholeness and the cycle of life. (Instagram: @dustycramer)

“It’s like hanging your favorite art in your home, but of course permanently,” explains Dustin Cramer, a tattoo artist at SparrowHawk Studio in Atlanta. In addition to the deep artistic component, a 2015 Harris Poll showed that inked individuals feel that their tattoo makes them feel sexy and rebellious, as well as strong, spiritual, healthy, and intelligent. This modern rationale for body ink is not too far off from that of more traditional tattoo origins. A practice that has been around for over 4,000 years, tattoos are considered a rite of passage in many cultures, believed to ward off illness and illustrate physical endurance. The ritual of elaborate body inking is deeply spiritual, and studies have indicated a belief that tough bodies and minds create thoughtful warriors and leaders.

Despite the longevity of tattooing, biologists have long been puzzled by this ritual of self-injury. After all, purposefully exposing oneself to injury and risk of infection doesn’t seem like the best way to ensure survival. Yet recent theories suggest that the cultural origins of tattoos may have a biological basis in a phenomenon referred to as “costly honest signaling.”

Costly Honest Signaling

A perfect example of costly honest signaling can be found in one of my favorite movies from the early 2000’s: A Knight’s Tale. In a story about an underdog jousting crew, Heath Ledger’s character, William, must hide his humble origins to win tournaments and the heart of the noble lady Jocelyn. Due to the shady dealings of his arch-nemesis, William becomes severely injured during the final jousting match. Throwing a Hail Mary, he removes all his now ruined armor, charging ahead with no protection. This display is both costly and honest because removing armor is a potentially deadly move that is impossible to fake. While extremely risky, this dangerous act is meant to signal toughness and confidence in the character’s ability to win, shaking the confidence of his dastardly opponent. A successful attempt at costly honest signaling bolsters his romantic prospects and ultimately wins him the tournament.

With the risk of life-threatening infections and a permanent marking that is nearly impossible to fake, biologists believe ancient tattoos are another form of costly honest signaling. Like Williams’s display of bravery to capture victory and Jocelyn’s affections, body ink may have been used as an evolutionary signal to potential partners about the ability to withstand physical pain and fight off infections. By attracting mates, thus increasing chances of reproduction, the pain and risks of this ritual of self-injury may have had cultural and evolutionary benefits that outweighed the costs.

Developing Tattoo Immunity

Dr. Christopher Lynn, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, has investigated costly honest signaling theory through the lens of the immune system. Lynn and colleagues compared overall tattoo experience in American Samoans, a culture in which body ink plays an integral role, to markers of immune system response. Immune response was assessed by measuring the amount of two substances in the subjects’ saliva: cortisol and IgA. Cortisol is a hormone released during stress to suppress the immune system and return it to baseline activity, while IgA is an immune marker that serves as the first line of defense for bacterial infections and viruses.

Individuals with more tattoo experience may have immune systems habituated to frequent stressors to the skin, priming them to fight off infections.

Compared to tattoo novices, Lynn’s research shows those with more overall experience with tattoos had elevated levels of IgA in their saliva after getting a new tattoo. Therefore, individuals with more tattoo experience, such as more inking sessions or years having tattoos, may have immune systems habituated to frequent stressors to the skin, priming them to fight off infections.

Photo of a Samoan man receiving a traditional tattoo.

An American Samoan tattoo session. Tattoos are incredibly important to Samoan culture, signifying strength and honor. Traditionally, tattoos are given using the hand-poke method.

Tattoos are thought to have served as a costly honest signal of toughness and health for thousands of years. Although tattoos are likely not the cure to the common cold, Lynn’s work demonstrates that the cultural and evolutionary history of permanent body art may have biological impacts. And while it might not make me a great warrior, that just might help me fight through the pain during my next tattoo.

Thank you to Dustin Cramer and SparrowHawk Studio for their tattoo expertise! To see more of Dustin Cramer’s work, follow him on Instagram at @dustycramer.

For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!



  1. Heimlich, R. Tattoo taboo. Pew Research Center (2010). Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2019)
  2. Belyh, A. The Army Tattoo Policy: What’s Allowed and What’s Not. Cleverism (2019). Available at: army does not limit,sleeves%2C neck%2C and ears. (Accessed: 8th December 2019)
  3. Shannon-Missal, L. Tattoo takeover: Three in ten Americans have a tattoo, and most don’t stop at one. The Harris Poll (2016). Available at: Harris Poll&targetText=But one thing’s for sure,%25) have two or more. (Accessed: 8th December 2019)
  4. Krutak, L. F. Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Wisdom, Healing, Shamanic Power, Protection. (Edition Reuss, 2012).
  5. Mallon, S. & Galliot, S. Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing. (2018).
  6. Bird, R. B., Smith, E. A. & Bird, D. W. The hunting handicap: Costly signaling in human foraging strategies. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 50, 9–19 (2001).
  7. Koziel, S., Kretschmer, W. & Pawlowski, B. Tattoo and piercing as signals of biological quality. Evol. Hum. Behav. 31, 187–192 (2010).
  8. Sapolsky, R. M. Endocrinology of the stress-response. in Behavioral endocrinology (eds. Becker, J. B., Breedlove, S. M., Crews, D. & McCarthy, M. M.) 409–450 (MIT Press, 2002).
  9. Marcotte, H. & Lavoie, M. C. Oral microbial ecology and the role of salivary immunoglobulin A. Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 62, 71–109 (1998).
  10. Lynn, C. D. et al. The evolutionary adaptation of body art: Tattooing as costly honest signaling of enhanced immune response in American Samoa. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 1–12 (2019). doi:10.1002/ajhb.23347

The Awesome Science of Coffee Production

By Sydney Hubbard

During the summer of 2017, Kayla Bellman was working with Habitat for Humanity delivering latrines, smokeless stoves, and water filters to families living in extreme poverty in a remote region of Guatemala. This particular region, along with many other rural, agrarian areas of Guatemala, had a local economy largely pillared on coffee production. It was during this summer that her team hired a mason, Luis. To make ends meet, Luis worked for Habitat for Humanity and on a nearby coffee farm as a picker. Kayla soon realized that, despite having two jobs, Luis and his family were still living well below the poverty line.

How could such a large, profitable industry, like the coffee industry, leave its laborers and producers so vulnerable?

Workers at a milling and processing station in El Salvador hand-sorting green coffee for defects.

Workers at a milling and processing station in El Salvador

As Kayla continued her work with Habitat that summer, she noticed a pattern: “Most of the families that qualified for Habitat assistance had one or more family members employed as manual labor on local coffee farms. These people had full-time, legitimate employment, and yet they were still living on one dollar a day.” How could such a large, profitable industry, like the coffee industry, leave its laborers and producers so vulnerable? The dots Kayla connected that summer pointed her towards glaring gaps and severe inequities in the coffee value chain and set her on a path not only towards a more mindful consumption of that product but ultimately to a career in development.

It is a little too late in the day for coffee, so I sit with Kayla Bellman and her colleague Aelish Brown over craft beers at the Bookhouse Pub in Atlanta to discuss the fundamentals of coffee production, the coffee value chain and finance sector, and fair trade, among other topics. Kayla is a current student in the Masters in Development Practice program at Emory University and a project intern at Transparent Trade Coffee (TTC), a program at Emory University’s Social Enterprise at Goizueta Center (SEG). Aelish Brown is a program associate at SEG.

As I am a coffee novice in all senses of the word, I ask them to start at the beginning: How does coffee travel from a distant farm in a foreign country into the filter used for my morning drip? Aelish patiently explains this process, known as “bean to cup.”

Where does coffee come from?

Green coffee cherries

Green coffee cherries growing in Guatemala pre-harvest season.

Coffee is grown on trees (genus Coffea) with beautiful white flowers in tropical climates, typically in Latin American, Asian, or African countries. These white flowers produce cherry-like fruits that change color from green to red and are harvested once a year over an approximately three-month period. Inside the skin of these red cherries are several hard seeds, which will become coffee beans. Farms hire local, seasonal labor to handpick the red cherries to procure the seeds inside. If the farm is in an area with access to adequate supplies of water, the seeds undergo a “wet process” in which they are fermented in tanks of water for 24 hours to remove the excess pulp from the fruit and then dried.

Drying patio where honey-processed coffee has been laid out in the sun.

Drying patio at a milling and processing station near Ataco, El Salvador

However, if water is scarce, farms opt for a “dry process” in which seeds are placed on giant patties to dry in the sun, and then the excess fruit is removed. Once the seeds undergo one of these processes, the resulting beans, often referred to as “green coffee,” are sorted by size, graded for quality, and bagged for sale. Individual farms or cooperatives (groups of farms investing in equipment and labor together) then sell these bags to an exporter. Exporters are based out of producing countries. They typically coordinate with importers in consuming countries in the global north (United States, Europe, etc.) to move the green coffee via cargo ships. Importers and exporters coordinate putting this haul in warehouses and listing the types of coffee.

The actual roasting of green coffee takes place in importing countries. The beans are placed in roasting machines and transform into the brown beans we know, love, and purchase in stores.  At this point, a roaster will go to the warehouse, select and buy coffee, and move it to stores and coffee shops where it is ready for consumption. (For a video of the process, here’s NPR’s Bean to Cup.)

The fundamentals of coffee production

The coffee ecosystem includes the labor of farmers and their employees, as well as importers, exporters, roasters, and consumers.  Also swirling around this delicate ecosystem is the finance sector and something called the C price. “Coffee is treated as a commodity by the New York Stock exchange. The trading price of a green pound of coffee is known as the ‘C price,’ and this figure ultimately affects the price of coffee,” Aelish describes. Like other commodities, the law of supply and demand determines the C price. For example, if there is coffee scarcity, the price will go up until consumers stop buying it because it is too high. If there is an abundance of coffee, the price will drop.

The average production cost of coffee ranges anywhere from $1.05 to $1.40 per pound.

Green coffee warehouse in El Salvador, where labelled lots await the final round of milling and sorting before they are ready for export and roasting

Labeled lots await the final round of milling and sorting before they are ready for export and roasting

The C price should reflect how much coffee is available and how much people want it. However, this is not exactly how the C price operates in reality. Much of the pricing around coffee is determined via speculation of what the price of coffee will be on a future delivery date. If there is speculation that the price of coffee will drop in the future (say due to abundance), people will start selling coffee and futures contracts, and the CURRENT price of coffee will drop. Therefore, the C price is not linked to current, real market conditions but to highly variable market predictions, and this can have a severe impact on the price of coffee and coffee producers.

According to Caravela, the average production cost of coffee ranges anywhere from $1.05 to $1.40 per pound. With recent booms in coffee production, the C price has dipped as low as one dollar per pound, leaving coffee farmers in the red. Furthermore, considering that the majority of cost around coffee production is labor, farmworkers like Luis often withstand the worst of this deficit.  And it is in this way that the cycle of poverty remains at the farm level, and profits stay in the hands of large companies.

Third-party certifications of coffee products were born to attempt to fix this problem and to assure consumers the product was harvested under both eco-friendly and economically fair conditions; the most well known of these certifications is “fair trade.” Fair trade guarantees a minimum price for commodities (like coffee) to ensure that laborers in producing countries are paid a just wage. When the C price falls, they are still paid the agreed-upon minimum price for their product. In theory, this minimum price creates a safety net for farmers.

However, if the C price happens to take an upswing, under fair trade rules, coffee growers are paid the same fair-trade price (even if the C price exceeds this price). Or as Aelish put it, “When you create a floor, people will sit on it.” Basically, fair trade ensures that farmers do not lose when coffee prices fall, but they do not gain when the prices climb either. In this scenario, again, the benefits and profits often fall into the hands of large companies. 

Direct-trade coffee alternatives

Many experts in the coffee industry argue that a blanket minimum price is not the solution. Instead, prices need to be based on the real cost of production, which varies by country, and emphasis needs to be placed on transparency along the entire value chain. This is where new buying models and social enterprises like TTC enter the picture.

TTC is one of a number of organizations spearheading a direct-trade approach to the coffee industry. Essentially, direct-trade approaches cut out the middlemen. Small coffee farmers sell directly to buyers and are often paid substantially more in the process. TTC has compiled a list of “Transparently Traded Coffees” that allows consumers to see the effective return to origin, or the percentage of a coffee retail sale that goes back to farm, for each brand of coffee. This information allows consumers to know exactly how much a farmer was paid for his/her product and make their own informed choices about which coffees to buy (Transparent Trade Coffees).

In the end, the ultimate goal of third-party certifications and direct-trade approaches is to get money out of the hands of big corporations and back into the hands of small farm owners and their laborers, allowing people like Luis to provide for their families and lift themselves out of poverty.

Think before you drink

As we finished our beers and our conversation, Aelish Brown made her final call to action: “We all have that one thing we care about: maybe it’s coffee, maybe it’s clothing, maybe it’s this craft beer we’re drinking. Whatever it is, I hope that learning about the value chain of coffee and thinking about where it comes from has incentivized you to care OR at least think more critically about other products. Even if I haven’t reframed the way you think specifically about coffee, even if you don’t practice it day-to-day, I hope you can take this logic and thoughtfulness and apply it to that one thing you care about.”

Thank you to Kayla Bellman and Aelish Brown for teaching us about the incredible science of coffee production! Check out Transparent Trade Coffee for direct-trade coffee that helps support small farmers.

For more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates, follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

The Awesome Science of Music Technology


Close-up photo of a hand adjusting dials on a music mixer in the music technology field.

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller on Unsplash

By Amin Ghane

Musicians spend countless hours tweaking, calibrating, and arranging sounds and ideas to create your favorite jams. And then, of course, there are the instruments themselves that provide a conduit through which creativity can be expressed. The field of music technology develops and improves how musicians create – and how we interact with – music.

17th-century music technology

Dating from 1720, this grand piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

Breakthroughs in music technology have always led to booms in musical innovation. Consider that most ubiquitous of all Western instruments: the piano. Invented around the 18th century by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the piano was an advancement upon the harpsichord, which introduced the musician’s ability to adjust the volume and duration of the notes played. Classical and Romantic musicians took advantage of these attributes to create some of the most enduring pieces of all time. 

And the work of music technologists hasn’t stopped. In fact, advances in computation have provided musicians the power to produce, edit, and play their music with more flexibility and expression than ever before. Whereas the work of recording and editing music was previously reserved for experts who would charge a fortune for their services, now anyone with an iPad and some curiosity can get into the basics. The latest, top-of-the-line synthesizers are producing noises that grip our attention.

From the underground artist slapping together beats in their garage to the latest number one hit from Taylor Swift, music lovers of all styles benefit from this innovation. To take a look at what’s going on the front lines at the intersection of technology and artistic expression, I ventured to Georgia Tech’s School of Music, which houses one of the country’s foremost academic and research programs in music technology.

The future of music

Innovation on display at Georgia Tech’s annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition

As I walked into the J. Allen Couch Building, I was immediately greeted by the sound of violins filling the sonic space between gentle scales being played on the cello. These musical instruments are centuries old, but I’m here for what is emerging from the cutting-edge music labs on the second floor. As he leads me upstairs, Avneesh Sarwate, a master’s student in music technology, explains, “Most of those kids also spend a lot of time building synthesizers and coding. Half of them are also in the laptop orchestra.” In a discipline as ancient as music, it is eye-opening to see first hand how intimately the old and new are joined in this hub of experimental music.

In a discipline as ancient as music, it is eye-opening to see first hand how intimately the old and new are joined in this hub of experimental music.

We walk down a long hallway, passing rooms and labs that each have their own character. One room has gigantic speakers surrounding a sole computer monitor, while the next has what looks to be an entirely newly invented instrument made out of scrap metal sitting amid piles of tools and screwdrivers. Avneesh notices my confusion. “Oh yeah, that lab is working with acoustical engineers. I don’t think it’s ready yet.” I intuit that acoustical engineers, who study the control of sound or noise, must play a central role in the development and design of any instrument because they study how different materials and design elements will determine how the sound, well, sounds.

Finally, we arrive at his lab at the end of the hall on the left. As Avneesh swipes his ID card and the door swings open, I’m greeted by what looks, at first, like a traditional computer lab. On second glance, I see some clues about what goes on in here: stacks of keyboards and mixing boards around the room, for example, or the piles of sheet music strewn about on the desks.

“I was a very creative kid growing up. I played guitar and my dad did whatever he could to help me grow creatively,” Avneesh tells me as his computer boots up. “I went to school for software engineering, but I never really stopped playing music. At some point, I just figured I’d use software to help my music and that’s how I got into interactive art.” 

“At some point, I just figured I’d use software to help my music and that’s how I got into interactive art.”

When I ask what he means by interactive art, Avneesh opens a program on his computer and starts typing computer code. Just when I feel I can’t take the anticipation any longer, the speakers on either side of his desk come alive with an ethereal melody looping around a drumbeat that, while simple, demands my attention. “This is a module I wrote that lets you generate melodies with algorithms.” Then, with another line of code, the melody shifts: whereas before the synthesizer was coming out of each speaker equally, the melody now faded between the speakers, almost oscillating, creating a rather gripping effect. I was reminded of the way thoughts swirl together when one is on the cusp of sleep.

Bringing art to life with technology

Live coding in action

What Avneesh is doing is called live coding, creating art in real-time using computer code – whereas software is traditionally written, tested, debugged, and then used, live coding allows one to use programming as an actual instrument, the way you would a keyboard or a guitar. And it doesn’t stop at music.

“Yeah, I’ve actually done this with performance art as well.” He’s referring to Paradise Lost, an “immersive musical theater performance for which I developed interactive graphics.” He shows me videos of performers dancing while he live-coded various graphical effects onto the performance. In one, the dancers are given a wave-like effect while in another, mesmerizing pixelation effect reminds one of a faded memory. Bravely, Avneesh displays the code on the screen the whole time for the audience to see. “That would’ve been a bad time for a typo!” he says with a smile.

Avneesh is especially interested in developing interfaces, ways to foster connection between live-coding musicians and musicians who are playing physical instruments live. In one paper, he prototypes tools that allow traditional performers to see and understand what the coder is doing. One method uses colorful balls to represent notes, which move around in a pattern that corresponds with the code. “A big part of my work is making everything as accessible as possible,” he says. And it’s true – Avneesh has also been part of an effort to create an entirely new platform for creating computer music aimed at non-technologically inclined musicians, thereby opening new doors for creativity.

“A big part of my work is making everything as accessible as possible.”

I peer into another room on our way out, expecting some more engineering and computer equipment. Instead, there sits a lone baby grand piano in the corner facing a few rows of chairs. I smirk, thinking of where we’d be if the harpsichord had never been improved on. Thanks to the work of people like Mr. Cristofori in the 1700s – and Avneesh today – the bounds of music will never stop expanding.

Thank you to the Georgia Tech School of Music and Avneesh Sarwate for sharing their interactive music technology! Follow Science ATL on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for more Awesome Science of Everyday Life features and other science updates.