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5 March 2004

I do like physics. Not school-physics, not the tedium of learning laws and doing ‘experiments’ that are not at all experimental, where the outcome has been known for centuries and repeated by endless generations of bored and inky children who only want to play with the bunsen burner; what I like is the grand elusive stuff that they make documentaries about, that I understand perfectly for the exact length of time that the documentary lasts and then is lost forever, as though I had neglected to save my understanding before I switched off the TV.

But I also like the real thing, what I live with, genuine experimentation where you do something to see if it works and then go “Oh, hey, that was science, that was...” when it does.

As, for example, I was making chilli-oil a few weeks back, and I did a foolish thing (and knew it to be foolish at the time, and still did it, and I do hate that...). There I am with a pan of searingly hot oil, and a Kilner jar full of dried chillies. I might have put a star anise in, for added flavour; I did not. I poured the oil into the jar, and it all seethed and hissed in a very satisfactory way, and I stood watching for a while and then I closed and sealed the jar. I did. As I did it, I thought, “I wonder if I should be doing this? Maybe I should wait until it’s cool...” but I went ahead and did it anyway.

And came back a couple of hours later to see that the level of oil in the jar had dropped back a couple of inches from the top, tho’ I’d filled it right to the brim before. All that seething, I guess, or else the oil’s just oozed into all the wee hollow spaces in the chillies. Better top it up, then; cold oil would be fine. So I fetched the oil, and went to open the jar.

After five minutes, I entirely gave up; that jar was not going to open. And I did know why, and Roger confirmed it when I was grumbling at him later: “You’ve created a partial vacuum in there,” he said, which was the exact phrase I had in my own head, tho’ I don’t think I entirely understand it. And then he suggested heating the jar up to the same temperature it had been before, which was the question I’d had in my head, whether that would work; not everything can be undone by recreating the conditions of the original error (ask anyone who’s tried to save a relationship by going back to the place of first love, he murmured cynically).

So anyway, I left the jar sitting around on the worktop for a few weeks, while I glowered at it; then yesterday I put it into the oven on a low heat and with low confidence. And long before I expected it, while I was still pottering around with the washing-up, there was a soft phut! of a noise, and when I opened the oven door the jar was sitting there with its lid up, easy as anything.

That’s science, that is. And the oil’s terrific.

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© Chaz Brenchley 2004
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.