Science as Food : Is it a Pancake?

Many people are confused when they hear that I related 'pancakes' to 'science'. It helps to remember that although I work in Code 671 (Solar Physics), I'm actually considered to be technical support; my Masters degree is in Information Management, which falls under Library & Information Science (LIS), but I can still relate 'pancakes' back to dealing with issues that those in the hard sciences will come across.

The Background

Language is imperfect for communication. It requires a shared understanding, but we often have the same word or phrase that has multiple meanings. In some cases, we have homographs, which are two different words with the same spelling, but other times, we have polysemy -- the word has multiple similar but different meanings. Polysemy is a particularly problematic situation, because we can have a conversation and we assume that each participant has the same understanding of the conversation. As all parties recognize the word, and the context in which it is used, typically neither side will ask for clarification.

Years ago, in one of the first workshops to discuss searching for science data across disciplines, we couldn't agree if we should share descriptions of our holdings at the 'data set' or 'data product' level. I pushed for the 'data set' level, while someone from the earth science community disagreed, and wanted to shared at the 'data product' level. What we didn't know is that we were using the terms differently. For solar physics an individual image is a 'data product' while the collection of images is a 'data set'; for the earth sciences the meanings of the terms are reversed. We both wanted to share descriptions at the collection level rather than for each individual file, but because of different terminology, we wasted half a day.

Last year (2011), I was answering questions on a Q&A site for cooking, and one of the questions was about how well pancake batter could be held before cooking. Being an American, I recommended making sure you were using a 'double acting' baking powder, so that you had at least some rise when heated, even if those bubbles created from the initial moisture was lost. They asked what I was talking about, and why you would put baking powder in pancakes. What I didn't realize initially is that the person asking the question was British -- and British pancakes are unleavened.

Pancakes are particularly interesting as there are at least four major classes of things called 'pancakes' in different cultures:

American & Scottish pancakes
a leavened batter, cooked on a flat surface
British & Dutch pancakes
an unleavened batter, cooked on a flat surface (more crepe like)
German pancakes
an unleavened batter, baked in a pre-heated pan (more popover like); (note that this is not the only type of 'german pancake')
Shredded vegetable pancakes
a mix of shredded vegetables and optional binder, fried in oil (more fritter like)

We also have classes of things that are pancake-like:

Omelettes, frittata and Spanish tortilla
eggs and other stuff, cooked in a pan
dough rolled flat and cooked on a flat surface on both sides

And in the U.S., we have a number of 'equivalent terms' -- words or phrases that for practical purposes are the same general category, but there may still be a few subtle differences: hotcakes, flapjacks, hoecakes, griddlecakes, etc.

The problem is that you can tell anecdotes about communication difficulties, but it's hard to get people to see the problem first hand ... which is where the pancakes came in.

The 'experiment' (presentation):

I presented 18 pancake or pancake-like items. Some were selected as "typical" pancakes, while others had attributes that I believe would result in people disagreeing if they were a pancake or not, and others were selected that I don't believe were pancakes but enough of a similarity to one of the other items that I felt it likely that people would select broad enough definitions that they'd occasionally be grouped in with the pancakes. (see appendix, below).

As people gathered, I attempted to get them to define what a "pancake" was, without looking at the table. Sometimes it was individually, and sometimes the definition would come from a group of people. No two groups gave identical definitions. People focused on different aspects:

leavened (or unleavened); leavened but not yeast; eggs, milk and flour
flat or disk-shaped; thickness; round
How they're made
batter vs. a dough; cooked on both sides, on a flat surface, in fat
What they're not
not a waffle, not a crepe.
How they're used
must be edible; breakfast foods
Completely Arbitrary
delicious / tasty; sweet (on their own, or as served?)

Depending on the size of the crowd, I'd either run through how their definition affected the inclusion of the items on the table, or I'd just call out specific items and mention why it was excluded or included in their definitions or ask them for clarification if that item should be included. In some cases, people would ask to change their definition; other times, they'd answer one way, but then remember their definition and change their response for the item.

In one case, one of the participants, when I pointed to the latkes insisted that they weren't a 'pancake' but they were a 'potato pancake'. I asked for clarification if a 'potato pancake' is a subset of 'pancake', or if it was like the ICSU's definition of 'dwarf planet' which is considered to not overlap 'planet'.

After I had managed to get people thinking about the how difficult it is to define 'pancake', if a new crowd hadn't started to form, I'd then discuss some of the problem terms that we have to use in science -- 'data', 'data set', 'archive' vs. 'repository', and how these have slightly different meanings to different communities and the problems caused by assuming that everyone is using the terms to have the same meaning. I'd then direct them to a poster on my effort with Todd King, "Vocabulary for Virtual Observatories and Data Systems" in which we have been attempting both to come up with agreed-upon meanings for some terms and to identify problematic terms that should be qualified or explained when used.

It's evolved over the last year, and we're currently on our third versioned release; the first at the 2010 Fall AGU (American Geophysical Union) Meeting, the second at the 2011 RDAP (Research Data Access and Preservation) Summit, and the third at the 2011 HDMC (Heliophysics Data & Modeling Consortium) workshop:


I got quite a bit of information about people's attitudes on pancakes. I knew we had an international crowd, so I was expecting there to be a group who included the Dutch pannekoeken and the British pancake but excluded the fluffier American styles as a type of scone. I was surprised in that so many of them were then unwilling to accept German pfannkuchen and Yorkshire pudding (being baked and non-flat) but that can be made with a batter identical to British pancakes.

I was also surprised as how many people said that kaiserschmarrn was not pancakes. Some ruled that way because it wasn't a breakfast food, but the majority excluded it because it wasn't flat. I tried explaining that it was cooked flat, but you then tore it up and cooked it a second time -- no one was willing to change their response and include it as a pancake, and one even commented that it 'used to be' a pancake. They likewise disqualified both Dutch poffertjes and Danish aebleskiver, both of which are cooked in special pans that are not flat. Those who were still there at 3pm agreed that all three qualified as delicious even cold, though.

There was also an attempt to disqualify the Spanish tortilla de patatas solely on its non-flatness, so I had to explain that I had forgotten to bring the pan it was cooked in, so it should have been more flat than the way it was presented, and people were willing to change their mind and include it. None of these groups had this flatness problem with the pannekoeken, which I presented rolled up instead of perfectly flat.

In the 'possibly arbitrary' test cases, I don't believe that anyone was willing to accept a potato kugel as a pancake, although they were accepting of those same ingredients made into a latke. I also managed to convince more people to change their mind to include pfannkuchen as a pancake than Yorkshire pudding, even when they didn't have 'breakfast' as a qualifier; I suspect that the round vs. square pan was a factor. A large number were willing to accept a Mexican corn tortilla as a pancake after I explained that it was the same ingredients as some recipes for jonnycakes. Many people were willing to exclude Ethiopian injera for seemingly arbitrary reasons that I wasn't able to pin down; in some cases, I think it failed their 'tasty' test, but it may have also been that it fell into the 'utensil' use rather than being the main item being eaten.

Future Directions

If I were to do this again, I'd make the following changes:

  1. Make two sets of poffertjes, cooked both using a poffertjes pan and a flat griddle so they're more like the american 'silver dollar pancakes', to see if that is a significant factor. Alternately, include 'silver dollar pancakes' along with the hoecakes, griddlecakes and flapjacks.
  2. Include Indian dosa, so there is an item that meets most qualifications of 'pancake' but is not soft; the latkes were still soft in the middle.
  3. Include bo bing (Mandarin pancakes / moo shu pancakes), even if it requires buying them. They were the item most frequently called out for not having been included. (and, they're a flatbread that's cooked, then split)
  4. If someone brings up the 'potato pancake' distinction and insists they are a separate category and not a sub-type of pancake, ask them if the French matafan / matefaim should be moved into 'potato pancake', remain in 'pancake', or be a member of both groups. Also, ask if the tortilla de patatas is a 'potato pancake', and how to classify the Japanese okonomiyaki which has more similarity to a latke than an American or British pancake.
  5. Test the 'flat' distinction by including "pannenkoeken met spek en kaas" (dutch pancakes with bacon and cheese), and see if people try claiming it's a pizza.
  6. Include something non-edible. Ideally it would be some plastic realistic looking pancakes.

There has also been discussions with the EPO community to discuss if we could create something to show how people's previous experience may affect how they think about things. Pancakes may not be the best alternative, as most school age children won't have the international aspects. Other alternatives could be:

Include birds that don't fly (penguin, ostrich), other animals that fly (pterodactyl, bat, insects), animals with bird-like attributes (platypus), and processed items (chicken nuggets, things made with feathers)
Include polo, rugby and dress shirts; t-shirts, vests, tank tops, sweaters, etc.


The full list of 'pancake', with the reason for inclusion. (Note: the numbering here does not match the table's numbering; links go to recipes or resources that I used, if they weren't from cook books):

1, 2 & 3Hoecakes, Flapjacks & Griddlecakesto represent the standard American chemically leavened 'pancake', with the only difference between them being size. Used to represent the many different names other than 'pancake'.
4 & 5Dutch Pannekoeken & British Pancaketo represent unleavened pancakes; the pannekoeken also aren't necessarily a breakfast food.
6Ethiopian InjeraFermented (not chemically leavened), does not include eggs, dairy or wheat flour, and it only cooked on one side. Also isn't a breakfast food, it's more a utensil. (note, this was the one item I didn't make myself)
7Dutch PoffertjesYeast leavened, and made from buckwheat. Also is a snack / street food. Not typically cooked on a flat surface.
8Danish AebleskiverClose to an American pancake in composition, but cooked in a special pan so that they come out spherical. (or they would have, if I was better at cooking them)
9JonnycakesMade from corn, not wheat. Don't necessarily have egg or dairy in them.
10Mexican TortillaCan be made from the same ingredients as Jonnycakes, but is made with a dough.
11Potato Latketo represent the 'shredded vegetable' class of pancakes, but it's shallow fried.
12Potato Kugelthe same ingredients as Latke, but baked in a pan.
13French Matafananother 'potato pancake', but made from mashed potatos and leavened with an egg white foam, so it looks very similar to American pancakes.
14Spanish Tortilla de PatatasSimilar ingredients to the latkes, but a much different preparation.
15Japanese Okonomiyakianother 'shredded vegetable' pancake, but not fried, and not primarily starch.
16German PfannkuchenBecause it translates to 'pancake', and to represent the baked popover type 'pancakes'.
17British Yorkshire PuddingAs it's almost the same as Pfannkuchen, but savory and not a breakfast. It also gave me an opportunity to make a non-round item.
18Viennese KeisershmarrnBecause it's a dessert, not a breakfast, and is an eggwhite foam, not chemically leavened. The fact that so many people disqualified it because it was no longer flat wasn't planned.

Update: for the 2013 SED Poster Party, I threw together a poster presenting the results, which includes some analysis of the responses that I collected. Also gave a talk at the 2012 Ignite @ AGU that discussed some of the results.