Episode 4Slavery Sweets & The Nobel Prize
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Transcript

To my astonishing family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the fourth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

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Okay. Today’s episode is about another common expression that you have heard countless times, often following the feeling of satisfaction.

 

I’ve been really enjoying this scene setting, so imagine this: It’s Monday. Well, it’s literally Monday. Why does that matter? It doesn’t. But you’ve been given some exciting news, you’ve been selected as a contestant on the new hit game show, Just Desserts (even in the in our imaginative world, game show names are also expressions).

 

You go on the show. The goal is simple: complete three food related brain teasers, each getting progressively EASIER as you go along. Why easier? Simple. The creators think that depending on which challenge you make it to, you will receive the appropriate prize for your hard work. First challenge, being the hardest, uses most of your thinking and time. By the last challenge, you’re tired, you’ve used all your brain capacity and just want to finish and win. In actuality, they believe that if they eliminate you early on, they can save a lot of money. But hey, at least they’re trying something different.

 

The host begins with “Welcome to the show where each contestant will receive their… Just Desserts. I’m your host Chuck Luke Cate. Let’s start with the first brain teaser: A chest without hinges, keys or even a lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”

 

You think for a moment. A chest. Some sort of container. Doesn’t have hinges, no practical method of opening it if its locked. No lid?! Golden treasure. Yellow. By gallie, you’ve got it.

 

“Chuck, imma go with an egg.”

 

“CORRECT! Well done. You’ve passed the hardest part. It gets easier from here. Let’s go with the second brain teaser: Eat a dozen with a friend, but has no beginning, middle or end.”

 

Again, you think for a moment. What has no beginning or end? Okay, let’s start with shapes. Circles have no beginning or end. So many circular foods though… Apples, cookies, hot-cross buns. But they have middles for sure. Dang nabbit, you’ve solved it.

 

“Chuck, Imma go with a donut.”

 

“CORRECT! Good job. You’ve made it to the final round. Are you ready for the last brain teaser? Here it goes.” And as he says this, a small table is wheeled beside you with a piece of cake on a plate. It looks like a sprinkled, chocolate cake with a candle on top.

 

“Eat this piece of cake.”

 

“What now?” You ask.

 

“Eat this, piece of cake.”

 

“Come again.”

 

“I don’t know how to rephrase it. For your easiest challenge and final brain teaser, eat this piece, of cake.”

 

“Okay, you’re just pausing at different times. I literally just have to go and eat this piece of cake?”

 

“Is that your final answer?”

 

“Are you looking for a response or an action? Because, uh, so far they’ve been responses.”

 

The host replies, “I’m just reading the card. You have 10 seconds to lock something in.”

 

You think again. Aren’t these supposed to be getting easier? You think you just have to go and eat this piece of cake. But that’s so, obvious. What if it’s something deeper. Something passed the literal meaning. A candle? Sprinkled chocolate cake. Clock’s running down. My god, you have it!

 

“Chuck, Imma go with a birthday cake.”

 

“Ohhh I’m sorry, the correct response was to literally eat the piece of cake. It was that easy. I’m sorry, I have to say this. You’ve just received your, Just Desserts. Tune in next week for another scrumptious episode!”

 

Don’t worry about losing, game shows are a dying breed. Yet the expression is such a delicious one, used many times when encountering an easy problem. But, thinking about it, where is the simplicity in this fraction of a tasty dessert?

 

What is the origin of the expression “piece of cake”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from various articles and forums that have also tried to determine the origin of this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

In contrast to other expressions already mentioned in this podcast, “piece of cake" has a lot of potential origin stories that are all credited with starting its regular use. 

 

By researching this expression, there are also many expressions that are tied with cakes and other yummy desserts. Like “piece of cake”, there are also sayings like “easy as pie” and “that’s a cakewalk”. These all have similar meanings, which is the idea of completing something with very low difficulty. Other expressions are also commonly used to articulate this simplicity, such as “that’ll be a breeze”, “that’s child’s play”, “a walk in the park”, “a no-brainer” and “a cinch”.

 

There are other cake expressions in frequent use as well, like “takes the cake”, “icing on the cake”, “selling like hot cakes” and “to have your cake and eat it too”. However, all have very different meanings. “Takes the cake” usually refers to the winner of some category, but this winner doesn’t have to be a person. Sure, the 1st place finisher of a race “takes the cake” by receiving the cash prize, but your derpy cat who just fell off the bed “takes the cake” as the silliest pet of all time. “Icing on the cake” describes a non-essential improvement of a situation. Using Lexico.com’s example, because I like it so much, “Being a scientist is enjoyable, and winning a Nobel Prize is icing on the cake”. “Selling like hot cakes” is almost self-explanatory, but essentially it is the the success in a product’s sales, usually such that it is hard to keep up with the demand. Fun fact: hotcakes are a synonym for pancakes. The more you know. And finally, “to have your cake and eat it too” basically means that you are trying to have more than what is reasonable. Literally, it would be like eating your cake and somehow still having your cake. Infinite cake!

 

But I digressed. Let’s get back to the expression at hand, “piece of cake”. PhraseFinder and other sources state that the expression originated from Ogden Nash, an American poet. In his book, the Primerose Path, he writes, “Her pictures’ in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.” It is suggested that for most people, eating a piece of cake is what is easy, and thus is translated to feats that are easy to accomplish.

 

Another potential origin to the expression comes from its common usage during World War II. British soldiers of the Royal Air Force were often quoted saying that certain missions will be a “piece of cake”, suggesting that missions were as easy as eating the dessert. However, sources mention that its usage first originated from America, quoting “a piece of cake” is as American as Red Velvet Cake”.

 

So if it came from America, how did it originate? Perhaps its first usage in print was actually not its true origin story. There is actually a darker beginning to this expression, tied with the similar expression “that’s a cakewalk”, and the other cake idiom “takes the cake”.

 

Many sources have suggested that the origin of a “piece of cake” comes from the times of American slavery back in the 19th century. There was a common tradition in which slaves, during social gatherings or parties hosted by their masters, would take part in a contest that involved dancing or mocking the mannerisms of white slave owners. Slaves with get into pairs, and the most graceful pair would win the coveted prize of a delicious cake. This contest did require a bit of showmanship skill, however the expression was later adapted in the sport of boxing to describe an easy fight. This is where the expressions “that’s a cakewalk”, cakewalk being the name of this ugly contest, and “takes the cake”, describing the winner of said cakewalk, comes from.

 

And with that story, you have the potential of finding the origin of three commonly used expressions today. A truly unbelievable origin to a seemingly innocent saying.

 

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As mentioned previously, I think I’ll end each podcast with a brief note about something scientific. My next episode will be specifically dedicated to a scientific topic of my interest. But for today, I would like to speak about, you guessed it, COVID-19!!! Just kidding, today I would like to speak about one of the most well known thing the public knows about science, though many do not know much about it other than its name and its prestigiousness. I’m talking about the Nobel Prize. What does the Nobel Prize have to do with communication, you may be asking. Actually, it has a lot to do with communication. Communication of the winner to disseminate the novel information which led them to be noticed by the Nobel Prize committee. Communication via recognition of the ones in charge of selecting a recepient. And of course, communication to the public as to why their contributions permit them to receive this highly sought for accolade.

 

This topic caught my attention after reading an article written by Dr. Aturo Casadevall and Dr. Ferric C. Fang in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or FASEB, journal titled “Is the Nobel Prize good for science?” All links to the article and relevant sources will be in the description.

 

The Nobel Prize is the most recognized award in science. Throughout your own life, you’ve certainly heard about this award, given to researchers, economists, writers, and leaders in establishing peace. But do you know how it all started?

 

The awards were first established in 1895 by the Swedish inventor, Alfred Nobel. He is most commonly known as not only the creator of this coveted prize, but also for the invention of dynamite, an explosive made of nitroglycerin, sorbents (or a material used to absorb liquids/gases), and some sort of stabilizing agent. Back then, it was a powerful alternative to Black Powder, but unfortunately its conception led to the death of many people via accidental explosions, including one of his eight siblings, as well as via usage by the military. In 1888, due to an error, newspapers incorrectly thought that Alfred Nobel had passed away instead of his brother Ludvig, and printed obituaries scorning the man for “becoming rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before”. Thus, Nobel wanted to change his legacy, and allocated 94% of his capital to the creation of Nobel prizes in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and for “the holding or promotion of peace congresses”.

 

The rules or restrictions for the prize are stated in his will:

  • [the prize] shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

  • in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates

  • that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether HE be a Scandinavian or not

 

So a couple of things there have already changed. For one, most Nobel Prizes are awarded to those whose work was publicized many years ago. Of course, it may take time for the contribution to be fully realized and certainly validated by other investigators. Secondly, the “most worthy” is unfortunately very biased and subjective depending on those part of the selection committee. The invention of the Periodic Table by Dimitri Mendelev, the inventions of practically everything by Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison, propopating the progress in extragalactic astronomy by Edward Hubble… If they should not receive the highest award in Science, who else really deserves to? Thirdly, and for some reason no one has really spoken about it yet, Nobel specifies the pronoun he, possibly indicating the obvious bias towards male dominance in professions and work capable of receiving this prize. Other parts of his will also state one recipient for each prize, which has also been changed to no more than 3 winners per category. Still, which authors have stated many times throughout the article, this is the biggest problem with the prize, as it regards science as a “series of contributions by brilliant individuals rather than by the interactive, interdependent scientific community that exists in reality.” And perhaps this notion has pervaded even today’s research community, leading to less collaboration and slowing down the progress of humankind. In contrast, this hasn’t stopped incredible projects like sequencing the human genome, and the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

 

There are other problems with this prestigious award. Contributions of those that have passed are not considered for the Nobel Prize. A well known example is the 1962 Nobel Prize given to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their discoveries concerning, essentially, the structure of DNA. Dr. Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was essential for this discovery, was not considered due to her death 4 years prior. Communicating credit to where it is due is vastly important. Nobel prizes given to the discovery of antitoxins, X-rays, the antibiotics penicillin and streptomycin, and magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, are all shrouded in controversy due to the exclusion of fellow collaborators and graduate students.

 

Even recipients of the award have led to many controversies. A notable one was the 1918 Nobel Prize given to Dr. Fritz Haber for the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gas. Today, many regard him as the “father of chemical warfare”, a title so shameful it is believed to have led to the suicide of his first wife and son.

 

All this negativity, but yet the authors believe that the Nobel Prize should not be abolished, only changed in the way they are given and what happens after the recipient is named. As I’ve mentioned, you have probably heard of the Nobel Prize whether you are in science or not. And that’s good, it stimulates interest in people that otherwise might not have manifested. It’s interesting that, for example, many years ago someone discovered prions, pathogenic proteins that can irreveribly change the shape of normal proteins, leading to the discovery of neurodegenerative diseases like Mad Cow Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, leading to a Nobel Prize 30 years after the fact. And this is important to know, whether you read about Dr. Stanley Prusiner’s work in the news, or attended the Nobel Lecture.

 

I can go on and on communicating with you the advantages and disadvantages of having something like the Nobel Prize. And I am definitely aware that I am just beginning a career in science and science communication. But perhaps, this long running award, with old traditions and rules, can be modified to serve a greater purpose; to communicate the research and distribute it freely, to recognize all those who have contributed to the research, to inspire younger researchers in the form of funds and promotion, and to inform the general public of the importance and progress of scientific achievements. That would be something to aspire towards, not individually, but as a community.

 

Just think about it.

 

And thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram to be entered into the draw for that beautiful custom made mug. I will wait until the end of Sunday, April 5th to complete the draw, and announce the winner in my next episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

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