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The treat helping to advance medicine

Stack of pancakes

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the traditional feast day before the start of Lent. Also known as Pancake Day, many people will be digging out traditional recipes or experimenting with the myriad of options available for this versatile treat. But you may not realise pancakes are helping to advance medicine. Here we revisit some interesting research.

Muriel Cozier

25 February 2020

As with many things that seem simple, delving into the science can reveal a complexity which in turn can lead to greater insights that are of benefit. Pancakes have proved to be a source inspiration for researchers at University College London (UCL), UK.

In a study that was published in Mathematics Today, researchers found that understanding the textures and patterns of pancakes helped improve surgical methods for treating glaucoma. The appearance of pancakes depends on how water escapes the batter mix during the cooking process. This is impacted by the batter thickness. Understanding the physics of the process can help in producing the perfect pancake, but also provides insights into how flexible sheets, like those found in human eye, interact with flowing vapour and liquids.

The researchers compared recipes for 14 different types of pancake from across the world. For each pancake the team analysed and plotted the aspect ratio, i.e. the pancake diameter to the power of three in relation to the volume of batter. They also calculated the baker’s percentage, the ratio of liquid to flour in the batter.

It was found that thick, almost spherical pancakes had the lowest aspect ratio at three, whereas large thin pancakes had a ratio of 300. The baker’s percentage did not vary as dramatically, ranging from 100 for thick mixtures to 175 for thinner mixtures.

Dr Yann Bouremel, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, and co-author said; ‘We found that the physics of pancake cooking is complex but generally follows two trends. If the batter spreads easily in the pan, the pancake ends up with a smooth surface pattern and less burning as the vapour flow buffers the heat of the pan. We found a thin pancake can only be created by physically spreading the batter across the pan and in this case the vapour tends to escape through channels or diffusion.’

Co-author Professor Sir Peng Khaw, Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology said; ‘We work on better surgical methods for treating glaucoma, which is a build-up of pressure in eyes caused by fluid. To treat this, surgeons create an escape route for the fluid by carefully cutting the flexible sheets of the sclera. We are improving this technique by working with engineers and mathematicians. It’s a wonderful example of how the science of everyday activities can help us with medicinal treatments of the future.’

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