The oldest honey ever found was unearthed in Georgia, and dates back over 5,000 years. So, if you found yourself in possession of some 5,000 year-old honey, could you eat it? Well. . .
Chemical Properties of Honey
Honey is a sugar. You may have heard all sorts of things about the health benefits of substituting honey for sugar, which may or may not be true. While honey isn’t the same as regular, granulated, white sugar, it’s still a sugar. And sugars are hygroscopic – they don’t contain much water in their natural state. And very few bacteria and microorganisms can live in the resulting low-moisture environment.
Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at University of California, Davis says, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” The fact that organisms can’t survive long in honey means they don’t get the chance to spoil it.
Another thing that sets honey apart from other sugars is its acidity. Honey’s pH is between 3 and 4.5 (or, more precisely, 3.26-4.48), which also kills off anything trying to make a home in honey.
And there are a few factors behind honey’s low moisture content, including:
First, bees contribute to the low water content of honey by flapping their wings to dry out nectar. Second, the way bees get nectar into honey combs is by vomiting it there. This sounds really gross, but the chemical makeup of bees’ stomachs also contributes to honey’s long shelf-life. Bees’ stomachs have the enzyme glucose oxidase, which is added to the honey when the nectar is regurgitated. The enzyme and nectar break mix to create gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide is also a hostile force for anything trying to grow in honey. (Although, maybe not that effective in your cuts.)
This is important. The fact that honey is hydroscopic means that it has little water in its natural state but can easily suck in water if its exposed to it. If it does that, it could spoil. So the final key to honey remaining unspoiled is making sure it’s well sealed and stored in a dry place.
So crystallization doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with your honey — but if you don’t like it, the big tip is to not put your honey in the refrigerator. Below 52 °F, crystallization slows down, so feel free to freeze your honey. And at temperatures above 77 °F, honey resists crystallization best. But honey crystallizes most quickly at temperatures of between 50 and 59 °F. So, if you want to avoid having to heat your honey to remove crystals (apparently slow, indirect heat is best for that, by the way), avoid the refrigerator.
So, yes, honey mostly doesn’t spoil. However, honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum. This isn’t harmful to adults and children over one year old, whose gastrointestinal tract is developed enough to deal with the spores. But children under one are at risk for infant botulism, so honey is not for your infant.
So could you eat 5,000 year old honey? Well, if it’s spent that time sealed and stored against moisture, sure. If it’s crystallized, it’s not spoiled, just heat it up and put it in your food of choice. Unless you’re under one year old. Then you’d have to wait.
For artist Ariana Page Russell, a light scratch on her body turns into swollen, reddish, raised skin. This allergic reaction is due to a medical condition known as dermatographia. Rather than shying away from her affliction and seeking to conceal it, Russell exposes her skin disorder in a visually arresting way for her series titled Skin.
The artist explains: “[I have] a condition in which one’s immune system releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and welts to appear (lasting about thirty minutes) when the hypersensitive skin’s surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results. Even though I can direct this ephemeral response by drawing on it, the reaction is involuntary, much like the uncontrollable nature of a blush.”
The temporary skin designs that Russell manages to source on her own body exude a sense of vulnerability. The artist uses her physical sensitivity to create a very personal form of art that presents both abstract patterns and text. The images she captures of her inflamed, bare skin are intimate portraits of a woman who has come to terms with her body’s involuntary reactions.
The twentieth century Soviet space program will always be remembered as one of the greatest in the world. And these posters reveal that it also came with one of the world’s most beautifully-designed propaganda campaigns, too.
This is one of seven pages of plot notes that horror author H.P. Lovecraft produced while planning his 1936 novella “At the Mountains of Madness.” The writer, who had fallen on hard times, used a deconstructed envelope in an attempt to save paper.
The novella, written in 1931 and published in 1936 in the pulp magazine Astounding Stories, is one of Lovecraft’s best works. Narrated by a traumatized geologist, William Dyer, the tale is framed as a warning, and reads like a cross between an expedition report and an exorcism. Dyer tells of an Antarctic trip that he took with a group of fellow scientists (most of whom perished on the trip), and reports on the horrors that he found hidden in the ice. He pleads with the world not to send any more explorers south, fearing what they might unleash.
In Lovecraft’s mythology, ancient beings of profound malevolence lurk just below the surface of the everyday world. “Mountains” featured several species of forgotten, intelligent beings, including the “Elder Things.” These star-headed, sapient creatures, not quite plant and not quite animal, were first introduced in this novella.
The sketch on the right side of this page of notes, with its annotations (“body dark grey”; “all appendages not in use customarily folded down to body”; “leathery or rubbery”) represents Lovecraft working out the specifics of an Elder Thing’s anatomy. As Lovecraft’s narrator was a scientist, the description of the Things in the novella is dense and layered; here we can see the beginnings of that detail.
The exhibit “The Shadow over College Street: H.P. Lovecraft in Providence,” which includes this page along with other Lovecraftiana, will be on view at the Providence Athenaeum through September 22, with a satellite exhibit at Brown’s John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library through October 24. Thanks to Brown University Library curator Holly Snyder for her help, and to Steven Lubar, whose Twitter feed tipped me off to this find.
Welcome to rural Sweden, sometime in the late ’80s. Citizens go about their mundane lives and children explore the countryside. But something isn’t quite right. Robots and hovercrafts are commonplace, and decaying science facilities sprout from the harsh Scandinavian landscape. There’s even a rumor circulating that dinosaurs have returned from the dead after some failed experiment.
This is the world that exists in artist Simon Stålenhag’s mind, and it’s only accessible through his paintings. The alternate universe he’s created is inspired by the sci-fi movies he watched as a kid growing up in the rural areas around Stockholm. As he explains to The Verge, “The only difference in the world of my art and our world is that … ever since the early 20th century, attitudes and budgets were much more in favor of science and technology.” So boxy Volvos, Volkswagens, and Mercedes share the landscape with robots. But science has lost some of its luster. In Sweden, a massive government science facility (equipped with an underground particle collider, of course) is long past its glory days in the field of “experimental physics.” Despite developments in robotics and “anti-grav” technology, the difficulties of the modern human experience haven’t changed.
The artwork is impactful as a result of this juxtaposition between the harsh realities of life and the sci-fi technologies of our dreams. It’s reminiscent of worlds like the one so effectively portrayed in games like Half-Life 2, and like such great video games, the universe created by the artist seems to continue beyond the edge of the canvas.
Simon Stålenhag used a Wacom tablet and pen to digitally paint the works below. More of his work, including prints and shots of some of the paintings below in detail, are at his website. All images used with permission, and copyright Simon Stålenhag.
The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British Museum is the key to a supersensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.
The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.
The ancient nanotech works something like this: When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position. Gang Logan Liu, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has long focused on using nanotechnology to diagnose disease, and his colleagues realized that this effect offered untapped potential. “The Romans knew how to make and use nanoparticles for beautiful art,” Liu says. “We wanted to see if this could have scientific applications.”
When various fluids filled the cup, Liu suspected, they would change how the vibrating electrons in the glass interacted, and thus the color. (Today’s home pregnancy tests exploit a separate nano-based phenomenon to turn a white line pink.)
Since the researchers couldn’t put liquid into the precious artifact itself, they instead imprinted billions of tiny wells onto a plastic plate about the size of a postage stamp and sprayed the wells with gold or silver nanoparticles, essentially creating an array with billions of ultra-miniature Lycurgus Cups. When water, oil, sugar solutions and salt solutions were poured into the wells, they displayed a range of easy-to-distinguish colors—light green for water and red for oil, for example. The prototype was 100 times more sensitive to altered levels of salt in solution than current commercial sensors using similar techniques. It may one day make its way into handheld devices for detecting pathogens in samples of saliva or urine, or for thwarting terrorists trying to carry dangerous liquids onto airplanes.
The original fourth-century A.D. Lycurgus Cup, probably taken out only for special occasions, depicts King Lycurgus ensnared in a tangle of grapevines, presumably for evil acts committed against Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. If inventors manage to develop a new detection tool from this ancient technology, it’ll be Lycurgus’ turn to do the ensnaring.
My beloved aunt Anna Grace passed away several years ago, but before she died I promised I’d look out for her son Arthur, who has some trouble making his way in the world. He lives in Menlo Park, CA, just an hour away from San Francisco, so my husband Richard and I visit him, help him with errands and usually take him out to lunch at his favorite restaurant. When my sister Terri was going through some family photographs she found a number of Anna and Arthur, so I made him a little photo book. Here are some of the photos, which I scanned before I sent.
Anna worked at Marine World in Vallejo, CA in the 1970s (now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) and Arthur was part of a staged event there: he volunteered to feed a dolphin, “fell in,” and was given a life jacket and towed to shore by the dolphin.
Anna was a great lady, and Arthur and I miss her a lot!
From a 17th-century fish sauce, ketchup evolved into a patent medicine, a carcinogenic health hazard, and eventually, a non-Newtonian fluid. Here’s how ketchup’s rich history is reflected in the design of a bottle of Heinz.
What do you think about when you see a glass bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup on a table? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t pay very close attention to it. It is a means to a hot dog’s end, unremarkable except for its ability to spread a thick, sweet-and-sour tomato puree on some item of food. Otherwise, what is there to say? But even commonplace objects have been designed, and seemingly simple questions about the design of something as unremarkable as a bottle of ketchup can have remarkably deep answers.
How deep, then, is a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, really? What is the meaning behind the “57 Varieties” label wrapped around the bottle’s mouth, and why is it there? Why is a bottle of Heinz Ketchup transparent, instead of opaque? And why does the bottle make such a point of emphasizing that it is specifically full of tomato ketchup, when ketchup is synonymous with tomatoes?
Why Tomato Ketchup?
Although we most closely associate ketchup with tomatoes these days, ketchup was around for hundreds of years before anyone even dreamed of chucking a tomato in the bottle. In fact, that most American of condiments isn’t even American. It’s Asian.
The long history of ketchup in the Western world extends back to the early 16th century, when British settlers in Fuji were introduced to a sauce used by Chinese sailors called ke-tchup. Local recipes for ke-tchup varied, but the first recipe on record dates back to 544 A.D. and instructs any prospective condiment maker to “take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter.”
By the time the British discovered ke-tchup, the recipe had been simplified into a pungent, amber-colored liquid made out of salted and fermented anchovies. In a very real way, the original ketchup wasn’t ketchup at all. It was fish sauce, pretty much identical to the fish sauce you can buy by the bottle in any Asian supermarket. When British traders headed back to England with a taste for the sauce, they attempted to re-create it, Anglicizing it with the addition of (what else?) beer. Eventually, anchovies were taken out of the sauce entirely and replaced with walnut ketchup (Jane Austen’s favorite kind) and mushroom ketchup (which tastes similar to Worcestershire sauce).
In fact, even as they experimented with every other variety, the English enjoyed ketchup for close to 200 years before anyone thought of chucking a tomato in the mix. The resistance to tomato ketchup can largely be chalked up to the widespread misconception among Europeans that tomatoes, which looked nearly identical to deadly nightshade berries, were poisonous. Tomatoes were largely considered an ornamental curiosity for gardens ever since Cortez had brought them back from the Americas in the 1500s, but they weren’t meant to be eaten.
The English enjoyed ketchup for close to 200 years before anyone thought of chucking a tomato in the mix.
Despite its status as a native fruit, Americans inherited Europe’s aversion to tomatoes. There were, of course, tomato advocates. In 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, stood on the steps of the local courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes to prove they weren’t poisonous. By and large, though, it wasn’t until the 1830s that America got hip to the fact that tomatoes could be delicious. In 1834, an Ohio physician named Dr. John Cook Bennett declared tomatoes to be a universal panacea that could be used to treat diarrhea, violent bilious attacks, and indigestion. Pretty soon, Bennett was publishing recipes for tomato ketchup, which were then concentrated into pill form and sold as a patent medicine across the country.
By 1876, tomatoes had undergone a remarkable turnaround in the court of public opinion. Tomato ketchup was not only popular, but because of the teachings of an influential quack promulgated by the patent medicine trade, tomato ketchup was actually considered to be a sort of tonic, a condiment that was actually healthier than normal ketchup.
At the time, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
Why Is The Bottle Transparent?
“Filthy, decomposed and putrid.” These were the words that cookbook author Pierre Blot used in 1866 to describe the quality of commercial ketchups being sold at the time. Of course, prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (and as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously showed), the food manufacturing business as a whole could largely be described with these same memorable adjectives. But ketchup was particularly bad. In fact, when you opened a bottle, the contents could literally kill you.
The reasons ketchup was such vile, potentially deadly slop are varied, but start with the shortness of the tomato season. Lasting from mid-August until mid-October, ketchup could only be made fresh for two months out of the year. However, by the late 19th century, Americans were used to expecting ketchup year around. A year’s worth of ketchup could not be made in two months, so manufacturers preserved tomato pulp to meet yearly expectations. It wasn’t a bad strategy, except for the fact that they did so with the same carelessness, filthiness, and lack of quality control that was endemic in the food manufacturing industry at the time. Entire barrels of pulp were stored so badly that, when open, they were found to be filled with mold, yeast, spores, and deadly bacteria.
At a time when no one else cared, Heinz was obsessed with making his products as pure as possible.
The result was that commercial ketchups in the 19th century were disgusting filth from the get-go, and only got worse in processing. To prevent the ketchup from moldering further, ketchup makers filled their batches with harmful preservatives, including boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzoic acid. Then, because ketchup with the pulp sieved out is actually more yellowish than anything else, coal tar was added to dye the ketchup red. To put this particular additive in its proper perspective, coal tar is flammable enough to fire boilers, is commonly used to coat asphalt in parking lots, and in concentrations above 5% is considered a group 1 carcinogen. Still worse: Many ketchups were cooked in copper tubs, leading to a chemical reaction between the copper and ketchup that could actually make the concoction poisonous to consume. How bad were the ketchups of the time? In a study of commercial ketchups conducted in 1896, 90% of all ketchups on the market were found to contain “injurious ingredients” that could lead to death.
This was the sorry state of ketchup when Henry J. Heinz released his first bottle in 1876. But Heinz was a visionary, a morally strong man who believed that “heart power is better than horse power.” Under his leadership, the H.J. Heinz Company was truly ahead of its time. The factories were models of progressiveness. Not only were Heinz employees given free life insurance, death insurance, doctor and dental services, but also access to onsite cafeterias, dining rooms, medical stations, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and roof gardens. The workers were also encouraged to be meticulously clean. At a time when many factory workers didn’t even have running water at home, Heinz provided fresh uniforms, a free laundry service, and even an in-house manicurist to help them keep their nails immaculate. In fact, Heinz’s factories were such models of cleanliness and happiness that 30,000 visitors were allowed to tour the factory every year. Heinz felt he had absolutely nothing to hide.
Heinz wasn’t just driven to make his workers happy and healthy, though. At a time when no one else cared, Heinz was obsessed with making his products as pure as possible. It was a principle that had always guided Heinz in his business dealings. In fact, when Heinz began his career selling horseradish, he refused to sell it in the brown opaque bottles common at the time. Instead, he used transparent jars, so that buyers could see his horseradish’s purity for themselves before they gave him a penny.
That every bottle of Heinz is see-through is no accident. It’s a design statement: purity through transparency.
But the recipe to make his ketchup as pure as his horseradish eluded Heinz for nearly two decades. It wasn’t until 1904 that Heinz’s chief food scientist, G.F. Mason, was able to find a good preservative-free recipe for ketchup. Before then, Heinz used many of the same preservatives as his competitors, even coal tar to dye his ketchup red. By 1906, though, the nut had been cracked, and Heinz was producing five million bottles of preservative-free ketchup every year.
If there was one principle that Henry J. Heinz valued more than any other, it was purity and transparency. “It is always safe to buy the products of an establishment that keeps its doors open,” Heinz once famously wrote. That every bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup sold is see-through is no accident. It’s a design statement: purity through transparency.
Each bottle of Heinz ketchup somewhat mysteriously brags about the company’s “57 Varieties” in a small label wrapped around the neck. That there are actually 57 varieties of Heinz products has literally never been true. Inspired by an advertisement he saw on a train for a company that made “21 varieties” of shoes, Heinz combined his favorite number, 5, with his wife’s number, 7, to brag about his company’s own breadth of products. When he first began to put the “57 Varieties” label on his ketchup bottles, the H.J. Heinz Company already produced over 60 different products.
So “57 Varieties” has literally always been playful nonsense. But the small label that circles the mouth of every bottle of Heinz ketchup sold? No nonsense there. It’s purely functional.
One interesting fact about ketchup that everyone should know is that it’s a non-Newtonian fluid. Naturally, ketchup is rather thin and watery, because the tomato pulp that gives it consistency is sieved out. As a result, commercial ketchup makers add a small amount of xanthax gum to their ketchup recipes to thicken it. But this ingredient has another side effect: It turns ketchup into a shear thinning fluid. In other words, how quickly ketchup flows depends upon the stress that is being placed upon it.
The positioning of the Heinz’s “57 Varieties” label is deliberate: It’s a target.
That ketchup is non-Newtonian is the main reason why getting it out of a glass bottle is so slow. Allowed to flow naturally, ketchup only travels at a speed of 147 feet per hour. The only way to speed it up is to apply force, which through the principle of shear thinning decreases the ketchup’s viscosity, and thus increases its flow rate. This is why you have to thump a bottle of ketchup to get it flowing from the bottle. The concussive force makes it flow faster.
But despite common opinion, the bottom of a bottle of Heinz Ketchup isn’t actually the best place to thump it. If you apply force to the bottom of a bottle of Heinz, the ketchup closest to where you smacked will absorb most of the force of impact. It will flow freely, but the ketchup that is viscously clogging the neck and mouth of the bottle won’t, leaving you no better off than you were before. The solution is to trigger the shear thinning effect at the top of the bottle, not the bottom. That unclogs the mouth and lets the ketchup below to freely flow.
So while the substance of Heinz’s “57 Varieties” label may be just a fanciful whim on the part of the company’s creator, its positioning is deliberate. It’s a target. By simply tapping the label with two fingers, you create the optimal conditions for shear thinning, transforming non-Newtonian ketchup into a free-flowing liquid. Physics!
Of course, these days, most ketchup is sold in squeeze bottles. Even Heinz’s competitors have figured out how to make ketchup that they aren’t ashamed to sell in transparent containers. Tomatoes are synonymous with ketchup, and you’d be hard-pressed to find even the most grotesque, lunatic quack recommending ketchup as a cure-all.
None of that matters, though. A bottle of Heinz isn’t just a container of ketchup. It’s a design classic because of everything besides the ketchup it manages to bottle up: not just the history of a condiment or an object lesson in non-Newtonian physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent. And also, perhaps, tasted pretty good on a plate of fries.
A big shoutout to my friend John D. Berry, whose bookHanging by a serif has just been released. Click on the pages for a closer look.
Hanging by a serif
A few words about designing with words
Text & design by John D. Berry
A small book of epigrams, insights on the nature and practice of typography and design, Hanging by a serif presents each statement on its own page, the text juxtaposed with a single graphic element: an enlarged detail of a serif, each one from a different typeface. The playful presentation belies the underlying seriousness and usefulness of the advice.
Hanging by a serif is available in two forms: as a booklet, where the epigrams are composed in double-page spreads; and as a set of cards, with each epigram on its own separate card. The booklets are saddle-stitched and printed on Cougar Opaque; the cards are printed on a heavy, textured card stock and bound together with a paper belly band (a “book obi”) that can be removed. Both are digitally printed, with a trim size of 4.75″×7″.
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