Inhalable chocolate, drinkable cocktail clouds and cutlery that alters the taste of meals were on the menu as two engineers from both sides of the Atlantic provided food for thought about the link between engineering and the arts.

Speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering's Tasty spoons and drinkable clouds lecture on 5 December, Professor Mark Miodownik, co-founder of the UCL Institute of Making in London and Professor David Edwards, founder and director of The Laboratory at Harvard University and Le Laboratoire in Paris, demonstrated the impact that creative thinking can have on our daily lives, including the way we understand food and taste.

Professor Miodownik explained his research, which focuses on assessing how the material of a spoon affects the taste of food. He talked about how blind taste tests with spoons electroplated with different metals demonstrate that there is a strong correlation between the types of spoons that people prefer when eating different foods. From the initial experiment, Professor Miodownik’s team is now exploring potential medical applications of their research, such as whether a spoon could be developed that tastes different when someone is developing a particular disease.

He said: “The idea that cutlery could be used to diagnose ailments is not completely strange – we’ve been to the moon!”

He attributes the discovery and creative thinking to his team who are from a mixture of professions. “You can’t predict where the next discovery will happen but you stand a better chance of innovating if there is a diverse group of people. Often the first parts of discovery are about play,” he said.

Professor Edwards talked about Le Laboratoire and his aim of mixing art with science, engineering and innovation. As a result of his research, he has developed and launched ‘Aeroshot’, a product that delivers “inhalable food”. He later developed ‘Le Whaf,’ which produces a flavoured cloud dense enough that it can be sipped through a straw. This innovation is now used by top chefs in Europe, one of whom has a signature parmesan cloud.

Professor Edwards also demonstrated his ‘wiki cells’ to the audience. These are cell-inspired foods consisting of a liquid in an edible package; for example, ice cream in a chocolate flavoured shell, or orange juice wrapped in a membrane.

Both professors believe in the process of innovation with a team of people from diverse backgrounds. Professor Edwards said that his team at Le Laboratoire starts with a “big dream” before they attempt to make it a reality.

He said: “We must make it clear to young people that we are prepared to bet on their dreams. We need to teach calculus and Shakespeare, but kids’ ideas matter too and we need the educational infrastructure to support that."

Professor Miodownik believes that spaces for playing and making things have shrunk away and that it is unlikely that people will have innovative ideas simply sitting at their desks. “People need a place where they can make ideas happen,” he said.

Notes for editors

  1. Mark Miodownik is Professor of Materials and Society in the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department. He received his PhD in turbine jet engine alloys from Oxford University in 1996. His main research area is self-organising and self-healing materials on which he has published more than ninety papers. He is the Director of the Institute of Making which is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to clothes, furniture to cities. Mark is a broadcaster and writer: he gave the 2010 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and presented a three-part BBC TV series on materials science called How It Works, which was broadcast worldwide in Spring 2012.
  2. David Edwards, a creator, writer, and educator, teaches at Harvard University and is founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. His work, which spans the arts and sciences, has been featured prominently in the international media, and is at the core of a network of art and science labs in Europe, USA and Africa (ArtScience Labs). David’s work includes new approaches to treating infectious diseases, as pioneered by the pharmaceutical company Pulmatrix, and the nonprofit MEND; it includes new ways of eating, such as Le Whif and Le Whaf, as commercially developed through the FoodLab of Le Laboratoire; and it includes new ways of cleaning the air with plants, such as Andrea, commercialised through the cultural incubator LaboGroup. David’s work also includes new approaches to experimental learning through art and science creation including the ArtScience Prize, and the Idea Translation Lab. David lives primarily in Paris, France, while he teaches at Harvard University in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and is a member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Beyond his scientific publications, for which he was made the youngest member of the US National Academy of Engineering in 2001, and later a member of the French National Academy of Engineering (2008), he has written widely on creativity in the arts and sciences. For his essays and novels and notably his work as founder and director of the art and design centre in Paris, Le Laboratoire, David became a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of the French Ministry of Culture in 2008.
  3. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0655