Pancake Physics: How perfect pancakes are improving blindness treatments

Pancake Physics: How perfect pancakes are improving blindness treatments

Glaucoma affects 3.54 percent of the global population aged between 40 and 80, making it the number one cause of irreversible blindness. There’s currently no cure for the eye problem – treatments are either focused on managing the condition, or preventing further damage.

Most of the damage to the infected eye is caused by a fluid collecting, building pressure in the eye. Surgery is one way to alleviate the pain. In order to help figure out how to improve surgery for glaucoma, researchers led by Ian Eames, professor of fluid mechanics at University College London, are experimenting with an unusual medium.

Published in the journal Mathematics Today, Eames has been cooking pancakes to learn how to treat glaucoma more effectively.

Confused? Well, it’s a bit more than preparing the breakfast table staple. They’re studying the physical processes pancakes undergo when they are being cooked.

“Pancakes come in many shapes and sizes and everyone has their favourites — some prefer a small, thick pancake with a smooth surface whereas others enjoy a large, thin crêpe with ‘craters’ and crispy edges,” Eames said.

“We’ve discovered that the variations in texture and patterns result from differences in how water escapes the batter during cooking and that this is largely dependent on the thickness and spread of the batter.”

Understanding how the water escapes from the pancakes gives clues as to how flexible sheets, such as the human retina, interact with fluids and vapours, such as those that occur in glaucoma.

For their unusual research, Eames’ team took 14 pancake recipes and started cooking. They analyzed the pancake’s aspect ratio, or its diameter to the power of three in relation to the volume of batter, and the baker’s percentage, or ratio of liquid to flour in the batter. The only difference between pancake variations was the amount of milk used.

The thickness of batters varied, which is important. Thick batter tended to trap the water vapours, causing irregular craters on the bottom of the pancake. Medium batters released vapour smoothly from underneath as they cook, creating an even colour and texture. And the thinnest batter wicked the vapour away smoothly as well, but the bottom of the pancake was speckled with dark spots.

But how does the delicious research relate to human eyes and sight?

“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,” explained co-author Peng Khaw, director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.

“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 the medical treatments of the future.”

In other words, the varying thickness of the batter represents the flexible sheets of the human retina. How that interacts with the other vapors and fluids – ie. milk – is what Eames’ team hopes to discover with their pancake process, eventually improving eye surgeries.

This is one science experiment researchers probably have no problem cleaning up afterwards (see: free breakfast).

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