ALEX’s Holiday Gift Guide 2023

ALEX in space with snowflakes.

For gift-giving this year, we’re all about experiences that make memories for you and your loved ones! Read on for ALEX’s ideas on how to add a little sprinkle of science to your holiday gift-giving.

Go Behind the Science Scene…

Give the gift of a wildlife encounter! Zoo Atlanta has lots of experiences to choose from, including encounters with pandas, lemurs, and elephants. You can also purchase a general wildlife encounter gift certificate and let your giftee choose for themselves! Or take your encounter underwater with an aquatic creature encounter for the aquarium lover in your life. Georgia Aquarium has lots of experiences to choose from, including encounters with sea lions, dolphins, and beluga whales.

Gift a Membership…to Science!

Whether your giftee likes botany, birding or building, Atlanta’s got it! A membership to the Atlanta Botanical Garden is a great gift for your favorite plant-lover that includes a nice set of benefits, including free daytime admission and discounts on educational programs. Maybe you prefer birds to plants? Try out a membership to Birds Georgia (formerly Georgia Audubon). This membership comes with access to the brand new Morgens Environmental Education Gateway: a one-stop shop for educational content focused on birds. Purchase of a gift membership includes a welcome letter, the most recent copy of Audubon’s quarterly newsletter, Wingbars, and a Birds Georgia sticker. Or perhaps your giftee is more of a doer than a watcher. In that case, give a gift membership to the Decatur Makers space! You will be shipped a membership gift certificate for your recipient. Membership comes with a key fob with 24/7/365 maker space access, access to equipment and tools, free or discounted classes, workshops, and events. Members are also allowed to bring visitors to the space!

Young boy touching a plant from a botanical garden.A Decatur Maker is process of building something!

Get Your Science Outside…

How about a “Sustainability in Action” tour with Bike Tours of Atlanta? This tour is a great way to learn more about how Atlanta has embraced sustainable practices and innovations. This experience is presented in partnership with Root Local, a local nonprofit focused on supporting collective environmental impact within metro Atlanta. Or for the nature lover, give a Georgia State Parks gift card which can be used for camping, cottage or shelter reservations, historic site admission, greens or cart fees, and retail and recreation fees. Or you can even give the gift of a year’s worth of entry into affiliated parks! Extended passes include free nights of camping, discounted lodging, and discounts on picnic shelters.

At Science ATL, we also offer maps for purchase to go on your own family-friendly science discovery walk. We partnered with a local artist to develop these six beautiful maps for you to take a self-guided Discovery Walk, each with ten intriguing science stops. Take your family and friends on a science adventure through some of the coolest neighborhoods and parks in Atlanta, including Cascade Springs, Sweet Auburn, Emory University’s campus, the South Peachtree Creek Trail, Decatur, and the Beltline & Piedmont Park. While you are purchasing some of these maps, check out our collection of shirts and stickers!

Discovery Walks: A Walking Route to Discover the Science Around You

Eat and Drink Your Science…

Remember that science is everywhere! For the grown-ups in your life, consider a class about food and drink and give them the chance to ask all their nerdy questions! Elemental Spirits offers custom experiences and tastings to let you learn all about wine and cocktails. Or send your giftee to a class on how to brew the perfect cup of coffee with Opo Coffee. Opo will be hosting special classes during the Science Festival in 2024, but you can sign up for classes like Coffee Roasting Basics or Home Espresso Making anytime! Prefer to eat your science? Dig into cheesemaking with classes from Capella Cheese. You can eat your way across Europe with a wide variety of courses from these master cheesemakers!

Lots of people gathered with coffee, listening to someone speak.People at a table with wine.

Read Your Science…

Immerse yourself in the world of science through reading. ALEX compiled a list of books written by Georgia authors (marked with 🍑), and tossed in a few from the finalist list for the 2024 American Association for Advancement in Science/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books (marked with ⭐). If you are able, stay local with your purchases. Little Shop of Stories, A Capella Books, and Virginia Highland books are some of our favorites in the metro Atlanta area.

For Adults

Life Sculpted: Tales of the Animals, Plants, and Fungi That Drill, Break, and Scrape to Shape the EarthAnthony J. Martin 🍑(more from Tony here.)

The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines, Cassandra L. Quave🍑

Big Chicken Maryn McKenna 🍑(more from Maryn here)

Wild Spectacle, Janisse Ray 🍑

A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land, Dan Chapman 🍑

Odyssey: Young Charles Darwin, The Beagle, and The Voyage that Changed the World, Tom Chaffin 🍑

For Young Adults (Grades 9–12)

The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, Moiya McTier

The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants, Karen Bakker

Wilder: How Rewilding is Transforming Conservation and Changing the World, Millie Kerr  (preorder) ⭐

Wildscape: Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and Other Sensory Wonders of Nature, Nancy Lawson

For “Middle Grades” (Grades 5–8)

Good Food, Bad Waste: Let’s Eat for the Planet, Erin Silver

How Do Meerkats Order Pizza?: Wild Facts about Animals and the Scientists Who Study Them, Brooke Barker

The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away: A Journey Through the Amazing Scale of the Solar System, Mike Vago

Superpower?: The Wearable-Tech Revolution, Elaine Kachala

For Younger Kids (K–4):

Before Colors: Where Pigments and Dyes Come From, Annette Bay Pimentel

Science of Baking (Ada Twist, Scientist: The Why Files #3), Andrea Beaty and Dr. Theanne Griffith

We Go Way Back: A Book About Life on Earth and How it All Began, Idan Ben-Barak

Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-floor Ecosystem, Melissa Stewart

And The Tide Comes In… Exploring a Coastal Salt Marsh, Merryl Alber 🍑

Bug Scouts #1: Out in the Wild!, Mike Lowery 🍑

Because of an Acorn, Lola M. Schaefer 🍑

Owly series, Andy Runton 🍑

“Hands On” Science Books (Grades K–8):

Human Body Learning Lab: Take an Inside Tour of How Your Anatomy Works, Dr. Betty Choi

Sheet Pan Science: 25 Fun, Simple Science Experiments for the Kitchen Table; Super-Easy Setup and Cleanup, Liz Lee Heinecke

Wild Child: Nature Adventures for Young Explorers—with Amazing Things to Make, Find, and Do, Dara McAnulty

The Kitchen Pantry Scientist Ecology for Kids: Science Experiments and Activities Inspired by Awesome Ecologists, Past and Present, Liz Lee Heinecke

Support Your Science…

If you love events like the Atlanta Science Festival and Science ATL LABS: Shark Dissection, please consider supporting the work we do with a donation in honor of your giftee. Your gift to Science ATL helps support our mission of cultivating an equitable community of lifelong learners across metro Atlanta connected and inspired by the wonder of science.

Science ATL’s 2022 Holiday Gift Guide

Tis the season for science! Well, it’s always the season for science; but it’s also the time for gift giving, and why not infuse your holidays with a little local science? Check out some of our recommendations for making your loved ones’ season a little more science-y.

For the Animal Lover

Our friends at the Amphibian Foundation want everyone to see the awesomeness of amphibians. Their Master Herpetologist and Junior Master Herpetologist programs offer a 100% online way for fans of frogs, newts, and salamanders to get their feet wet in this amazing world of aquatic-based creatures. Led by experienced herpetologists, the courses are designed to be a deep dive into the world of amphibians and establish a foundation of herpetological knowledge upon which students can build.

Those looking to get a little wilder can zip on over to Zoo Atlanta for their Wild Encounters. These behind-the-scenes experiences offer attendees an up-close look at animals like the Aldabra giant tortoise, who, remarkably, can hold their breath for between 20 to 30 minutes! Guests can also get to meet and feed some of Zoo Atlanta’s perfect pandas bears. Other encounters feature lemurs, elephants, and warthogs. 

For the Nature Enthusiast

A subscription to Trees Atlanta’s Acorn Club is a tree-riffic way to get kids ages six through 10 excited about the Urban Forest right in our own backyard. As a member, they’ll get four” Tree Trunk” boxes throughout the year. Each box highlights the many changes that Atlanta’s tree canopy experiences each season, along with highlighting the deeply-rooted, interconnected relationships that trees have with air, water, soil, and urban wildlife. Contents will include eco-lessons, crafts, science experiments, forest fun facts, and Trees Atlanta swag. 

Really wow your naturalist with registration to one of REI’s many upcoming classes and events. With dozens of dates and tons of topics to choose from, this outdoor retailer is sure to have something for everyone. Rock around the great outdoors with “Intro to Rock Climbing,” cruise on down to Cumberland Island for a guided backpacking adventure, or even ramp up a resume with a wilderness first aid certification course

For the Flora Fan

Make plans with plants in the heart of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens has called itself the emerald jewel in the crown of Atlanta culture since its opening in 1976. “Renowned plant collections, beautiful displays and spectacular exhibitions make the Atlanta Botanical Garden the loveliest place in the city to visit,” boasts their website. “An urban oasis in the heart of Midtown, the Garden includes 30 acres of outdoor gardens, an award-winning Children’s Garden, the serene Storza Woods highlighted by a unique Canopy Walk, and the picturesque Skyline Garden.” Annual memberships, one-day tickets, and special events like their Garden Lights, Holiday Nights winter exhibition (on display November through January) are all available for purchase, as is entry to their Gainesville location, home to the largest conservation nursery in the Southeast.

Looking for something your giftee can take home? Lush Plant Co.’s plant subscription sends a four to six inch plant plus an accessory sure to make everyone green with envy. While you could purchase a subscription for a whole year, plans are also available in three-month increments, starting at just $50 a month. Lush is not only a program partner of the 2023 Atlanta Science Fest, they’re also a Decatur-based duo dedicated to curating plant selections that thrive indoors. 

For the Local Explorer

Georgia has got tons of getaways all within just a few hours’ drive. A Georgia State ParkPass grants entry to dozens of properties and historic sites around the state, all of which offer stunning views, wildlife watching, and much more. While each park has its own unique draw, some of the most popular include Cloudland Canyon, with breathtaking views of Lookout Mountain in northeast Georgia, Sweetwater Creek, where you’ll find stunning scenes of a historic Civil War era-mill once featured in “The Hunger Games”, and Skidaway Island, with camping and trails along some of the Georgia’s most captivating coastlines. The Georgia State Park website also offers the chance to figure out which park matches your personality with an interactive quiz

For some added guidance on when, where, and how to hike some of our state’s most stunning treks, consider gifting “Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out.” Written by Dekalb County park ranger and good friend of the Atlanta Science Festival, Jonah McDonald, the book guides the reader through 60 hikes in and around Atlanta, with the furthest being just 30 miles from the Georgia state capitol. McDonald’s offerings are great for all levels of hikers, with routes ranging from less than a mile to more than 12. Each of his listings includes maps, driving and hiking directions, GPS coordinates, and even some tips on how to get there using public transit. Bonus points if you get this book from one of our favorite local bookstores, Little Shop of Stories.

For the Bookworm

Little Shop of Stories shared a few recommendations of their own, highlighting books from local authors for every age. Got a kiddo in your life? Check out Chase the Moon, Tiny Turtle by Decatur-based author Kelly Jordan. This picture book gives young readers (and parents!) insight into the birth cycle of a loggerhead sea turtle.  For older kids, Atlanta writer and scientist Rachael Allen tells the origin story of Super Villain Harley Quinn as she sets out to make a big scientific discovery and face the challenges of being a woman in STEM in Harley Quinn: Reckoning, which is perfect for both comic fans and budding scientists. As for adult readers, look no further than Emory Professor Cassandra Quave’s memoir The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines. Science ATL is thrilled to share that Quave will be hosting an event at the Atlanta Science Festival 2023.

For the Science ATL Superfan

Uncover the secret science where we live, walk, and play. Science ATL’s Discovery Walks take explorers through a self-guided tour of four iconic Atlanta locales – Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, Sweet Auburn, Eastside Beltline, and downtown Decatur. The four Discovery Walks are presented through beautifully illustrated maps featuring family-friendly journeys between two and four miles long, each with ten intriguing science stops along the way. 

Pair a Discovery Walk with an eye-catching Science Y’all sticker or official Science ATL gear and you’ll have the best gift basket on the block. Better still, get your scientist into the spotlight. Now through December 31, for a $100 donation to Science ATL, you can submit a science superstar to be featured on our website gallery and receive a custom message from Science ATL recognizing their work to make sure Atlanta is a Science City.

Proceeds from all these powerful presents go right back to Science ATL’s mission of cultivating an equitable community of lifelong learners across metro Atlanta connected and inspired by the wonder of science. 

Science of the Solstice: Why the Winter Solstice is an Astronomical Wonder to Behold

Each year on December 21, darkness envelops Earth’s Northern Hemisphere for a bit longer than normal. While what we now know to be the winter solstice has a straightforward astronomical explanation, early myths of why the solstice takes place also share insights into early civilizations’ steps into science.

So, what is a solstice?

There are two solstices that occur each year – the summer solstice and the winter solstice. Both are based on the tilt of the earth’s axis in relation to the sun. All of the planets in our solar system move in a heliocentric orbit, meaning they move in a pattern with the sun at the center. But in addition to moving around the sun, each planet also rotates on its own constantly shifting axis. Here on earth, that means that the north and south poles are not straight up and down as maps might have us believe. Summer occurs in a hemisphere when its nearest pole is tilting closer to the sun, while winter occurs when the hemisphere’s nearest pole is further away. 

Each year on December 21, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted the farthest away from the Sun, while the Southern Hemisphere is closer. While the overall tilt of earth’s axis during winter months can make days appear short and nights long, it is on December 21, when the winter solstice occurs and the winter season officially begins, that the Northern Hemisphere gets the least amount of daylight compared to any other day of the year.

“The Day the Sun Stands Still”

Before the modern era of telescopes and space exploration, early civilizations looked to the skies for an understanding of time, seasons, and even human existence. Many ascribed meaning to the behavior of the skies based on existing folk tales and cultural perspectives, believing the winter solstice’s lack of sunlight was caused by monsters who stole the sun away. Some cultures also saw the solstice as an opportunity to create light, or goodness, in the face of darkness, or evil.

History indicates that humans may have been observing the solstice since the Neolithic period, around 10,200 BC. In the Stone Age, people held rituals at sacred sites like England’s Stonehenge, Ireland’s Newgrange, and Native American Woodhenge in what is now known as Illinois, in celebration of the changing seasonal cycle.

In Finnish folklore, the winter solstice was believed to be the work of Louhi, the “witch goddess of the North”, who kidnaps the sun and moon, while both Yupik and Greek early explanations thought the solstice afforded gnome-like creatures the opportunity to hunt.

But the solstice isn’t scary in all cultures. For many, the day is a chance to worship a number of religious deities, like Tonantzin in Mexico, Cailleach Bheru in Scotland, Horus in Egypt, and Spider Grandmother by the Hopi. The winter solstice is also frequently associated with earth’s rebirth, as it emerges from the long night to the light of day, as well as the continual cycle of life and death. The Scandinavian Goddess, Beiwe, for example, is associated with health and fertility and was believed to travel through the night sky in a sleigh-like structure of reindeer bones with her daughter, Beiwe-Neia, to bring back the greenery on which the reindeer fed. In Italian folklore, La Befana is a witch who spends the solstice night riding around the world on her broom, leaving candies and treats to well-behaved children.

Events like the Pagan Scandinavian Feast of Juul, Pakistani Festival of Chaomos, Chinese Dongzhi Festival, and Roman Pagan Saturnalia, to name a few, are all also associated with lighting up the darkness that occurs on and around winter solstice. These occasions, and the stories associated with them, were powerful tools intended to not only explain what people of the time believed to cause the winter solstice, but also to reassure that the darkness would pass, daylight would return, and joy, or light, would prevail.

Mythical Meaning as a Scientific Method

The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin words “sol”, meaning “sun”, and “sistere”, or “to stand”. Just as varying cultures use language as a tool for communication, societies of the past also used legends as a way to share understandings about natural phenomena. 

While we now know that it is planetary positioning that causes the winter solstice, it is still delightful to view this day of darkness as a chance to cozy up and look forward to the light in seasons to come.

Uncovering Stories of Science in the Flint River

Flint River in Sprewell Bluff Park, Georgia

Creator: Alan Cressler
Copyright: Alan Cressler: All Rights Reserved

By Matt O’Shaughnessy

Hannah Palmer comes from a town that disappeared.

As a child growing up just south of Atlanta in Mountain View, she watched as the steady expansion of Atlanta’s airport slowly took over her neighborhood. The constant roar of jets made Mountain View one of the most noise-impacted neighborhoods in the world; as the airport continued to grow, residents slowly sold their homes to the airport planning agency and left. Soon the city itself was dissolved, removing a physical place from the map but leaving behind a vibrant, if dispersed, community.

The town of Mountain View wasn’t the only thing taken over by the relentless expansion that made Hartsfield-Jackson the busiest airport in the world and transformed Atlanta into a global city. Buried beneath the mammoth airport – under the fifth runway, to be exact – is a tributary of the Flint River, which runs almost 350 miles through Georgia until it joins the Chattahoochee River and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Palmer first discovered the Flint River when researching her book Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport. The book chronicles her search for what became of the community she grew up in – one almost entirely displaced by the growth of the airport.

The history of Palmer’s community echoes that of the Flint River, which has also been overshadowed and buried – literally – by the development of the airport. Even as the airport brought enormous benefits to Atlanta, providing jobs and connecting us to the world, it also threatened to erase the very things that connect us to the place we live.

Palmer now seeks to restore connections between the physical space the airport occupies and the communities that surround it. She sees herself as a storyteller, preserving and sharing the things that make our home more than just a physical place. Science is a central character in these stories, a constant presence in the intimate connections between physical places, the natural world, and the things that make us human. “I love to hear people who remember baptisms, or some urban legends or rites of passage that involve [the Flint River],” she says. “I love to think about times when it was more connected to our lives.”

Finding the Flint

Her research led her to Finding the Flint, a project dedicated to protecting and raising awareness of the Flint River created by American Rivers, The Conservation Fund, and the Atlanta Regional Commission. Part of Finding the Flint’s mission is to build awareness of the natural world and how it influences our communities – a task inextricably connected to science.

Indeed, Palmer sees science as a key element in creating safer infrastructure, building a sense of place, and working toward environmental justice. “How do we clean up this river? What do we do with this landfill? How do we develop alongside this runway or this highway? We can’t turn our backs on these places – they’re not isolated from the rest of the city.”

Palmer’s role at Finding the Flint is one of a science communicator, community organizer, and coalition builder. She works with scientists, engineers, architects, and planners, bringing together stakeholders from environmental groups and local governments to airport planners and Delta Air Lines. The group hopes to work with regional and airport planners to make the airport more than just an engine for economic growth, but also the basis for a thriving community – a place of its own, not just a place people pass through to get somewhere else.

The group works to more deeply involve the public in the health of our watersheds, sponsoring scavenger-hunt-like tours of Flint tributaries, cleanups in the often-overlooked natural areas surrounding the airport, and outreach to airport-area employees. A recent weekend found Palmer organizing the Southside River Rendezvous, where participants learned how to collect water samples, then scattered across Atlanta to sample water quality in dozens of creeks. Finding the Flint hopes that these types of events better connect the public with the people and organizations who advocate for the health of their watersheds, and help build awareness of the natural resources that we often take for granted.

Ultimately, Palmer sees science as a key tool in building connections between people, places, and the environment. “It’s going to be scientists who help solve these problems – who design technologies to extract contaminants from the soil, who design technologies to detect air pollution and noise pollution. These are the landscapes that we’ve inherited, and there’s a huge opportunity to think differently.”

Environmental Action, One Community at a Time

By Christina Buffo

After Dr. Yomi Noibi wrote a newsletter article about toxic chemicals in waterways, the previous Executive Director of Environmental Community Action (ECO-Action) tore it up. Dr. Noibi had written the article following the usual practice taught by his extensive scientific training – a PhD in environmental science from the University of Iowa followed by teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Lagos, and Clark University – and he had given equal weight to the communities affected and the companies producing toxic chemicals. And that’s where he had gone wrong. Most publications tended to center the companies and rarely the people affected. “We have to write our own story,” says Noibi, ECO-Action’s current Executive Director.

“Community” is central to the name for a reason: ECO-Action focuses on helping people living in disenfranchised areas across Georgia and changes priorities based on community needs. In Taylor County, they shifted from pollution-fighting to political organizing when residents told ECO-Action that there hadn’t been a local election for ten years. Many volunteers, including Noibi, worked with local organizers and outside legal experts to push for an election in a community- and Black-led initiative. This shift in goals required bringing in new expertise, ECO-Action’s specialty. According to Noibi, the key step in organizing is to “connect people to people that can bring about change.”

And bring about change they did. The combined efforts of Taylor County citizens, lawyers, and ECO-Action resulted in an election, and the voters elected the first few African Americans to the Taylor County Board of Commissioners, ensuring that the board demographics better reflected that of the county. The new board members could then act on environmental issues.

Learning Together

Organizing is always a learning process. No one person or field could have addressed all the problems in Taylor County, but a coalition of people with different backgrounds and skills had a major impact. ECO-Action does not market itself as the entire solution: it’s simply the catalyst that makes these connections, and then everything else, happen.

The importance of learning from others applies beyond doctors, lawyers, and scientists. ECO-Action hosts discussion groups for different generations of Atlanta area residents to discuss local concerns together. Dr. Noibi says that these groups are founded with the idea that everyone, from a six-year-old to her grandparents, has an important perspective on their living environment and issues present in it, and that only through learning from each other can action occur. In Dr. Noibi’s words, “We have to work and learn together. First we have to learn together. Then we have to work together.”

ECO-Action Programming

Many participants in ECO-Action’s programs, such as the Intergenerational Learning Group and the Community Watershed Learning Group, mention their surprise that environmental concerns are only part of the program.  A training or discussion group isn’t solely about sewage leaks, or tire dumping, or floodwater management. “It’s about injustice,” says Noibi. “It’s about thinking outside the box, because you cannot address environmental problems with the current framework of thinking.”

Part of the shift outside of this current framework needs to be legal. In alleged water contamination, the people affected often are legally required to demonstrate the presence of pollutants. This, emphasizes Noibi, is unfair for many reasons. First, the people living in a contaminated area may not have access to pollutant testing or the money to pay for it. Second, some chemicals may be toxic in smaller amounts than current laws suggest, and the health consequences of other pollutants may not yet be clear. Lead from water pipes, for example, was considered safe at one time. Most importantly, the burden of proof falls unjustly on the people impacted, who already suffer health damage from pollution. The brutal reality is, says Noibi, that at the end of the day, “we’re the ones exposed, we’re the ones burying the body.”

The other important step towards a more just world lies in the perception of science. Scientific training emphasizes a “science as solution” mindset at the expense of considering how science results are used. A more just outlook, suggests Noibi, would involve thinking “that science is the answer, no. Science is a tool to help get the answer. The answer is in the people.”

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

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