The Chinese Food Problem

Christopher A. Welty

Computer Science Dept.
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604-0462
Tel: (914) 437-5992
weltyc@cs.vassar.edu

The philosopher sat in his favorite armchair, gazing with satisfaction at the opposite wall, covered as it was with many and diverse indications of his accomplishments. In the center of the wall, reverently placed so no passer-by could miss it, was his most cherished award, whose red and gold ribbon blared like a visual foghorn.

He recalled, as was his wont, the public debate which had merited that prize: some foolhardy scientist had dared to call into question an obscure reference made to support a point. He chuckled at the remembrance, as was also his custom; the scientist had merely been unlucky that day - of the several obscure references used in the dialog, only that one had been real.

The philosopher put down the copy of A Brief History of Time by Steven Hawking, placing the bookmark about two-thirds of the way through the book. He heaved a great sigh and thought to himself that he was reading it at about the speed Professor Hawking must have typed it.

He then began to prepare himself for his day's work. His hands gripped the well-worn armrests as a syllogism began to reach clarity within his clearly existent conscious. He reached over and hit the record button on the nearby dictophone.

"Now that I fully understand quantum physics, I can understand the workings of the entire universe..." he paused, imagining the room filled with tiny bundles of energy, probabilistically bound together in a state conveniently referred to as matter. The pause was long enough for the voice-activated recording device to stop.

He hadn't realized, before he began recording, that the syllogism forming in his head only had one step. He looked around the room for something his newfound understanding could be applied to. This was, after all, his occupation. His predecessors for over two thousand years had been celebrated for their ability to take science and show how it tied back in with the real world.

He was proud of the company and the tradition which he upheld. He shifted slightly in his armchair, and gazed about him at the real world. His eyes were drawn once again to the book he had just put down, and his thoughts turned to wondering whether he should actually finish the book before relating its many implications to the world around him.

His eyes wandered undaunted, however, and came to rest again, this time on a document under the book. It was a proposal given to him by a colleague at the university, whose family had just immigrated from China, and were looking for financial support to open a restaurant.

He picked up the short proposal and began to peruse it. His eyes were this time caught by a phrase within, "A delectable experience to delight senses."

"THE senses," he mumbled. Suddenly his mind began to visualize the experience, but his new understanding of the world crept in and altered his visualization. Tiny bundles of energy interacting to create...

Of course! He picked up the microphone and continued, "...and though I have never eaten in a Chinese Restaurant, imagine the process of eating there. For the sake of simplicity, let us consider only the activity occurring in one single taste bud on the tongue.

"Energy, in the form of matter, in the form of food, comes in contact with other energy, in the form of matter, in the form of a taste bud. How could such an interaction result in taste at all? It could not, of course, therefore the food must be bland."

The philosopher controlled his excitement as a proper analogy began to make itself clear. He immediately phoned his colleague.

"Imagine, if you will, a bustling marketplace called 'tongue square.' There are two kinds of people in the square, sellers and purchasers. The sellers and purchasers each have different shaped baskets filled with oranges. The only difference between different people are the number and the shape of the oranges."

"What are you talking about?" his colleague answered.

"Oh, sorry, I'm talking about quantum physics. Wouldn't you say that's a fair analogy?"

"Hmmm....I suppose."

"Well then, buyers and sellers interact by trading oranges, thus changing the size and shape of their orange bundles. This, you see, is the interaction of sub-sub-atomic particles."

"Hmmm. I'll have to think about it, but it sounds like a clever analogy."

"Thank you. Now, consider this, if we are talking about the processes involved in converting this behavior of energy-as-matter (the baskets of oranges) to taste, something goes wrong."

"What goes wrong?"

"What indeed. If the sellers are trading oranges with the buyers, WHAT ARE THEY GETTING IN RETURN?"

"Huh?"

"Don't you see? Either they are getting oranges back in return, thus neither the buyer nor seller changes the size and shape of his bundle, or the trade is not equal. Of course if we recall the laws of conservation, we know that all trades must be equivalent, therefore the result of any interaction between buyer and seller does not change the state of the system."

"Errrmm..."

"I thought of this when reviewing your relative's proposal for a Chinese Restaurant, so I hope I've caught you in time."

"What has this got to do with the restaurant?"

"The food! It's BLAND! The system doesn't change state!"

"What?" his colleague said incredulously.

"Bland. Chinese food is bland."

"But ... you ... I mean ... have you ever tasted Chinese food?"

"What? No. But that doesn't matter. It follows necessarily from quantum physics. Chinese food is bland. Don't open the restaurant, it would be a waste of time and money!" The philopsopher breathed out, as if in relief. "Saving people from that kind of waste is one of the most satisfying parts of my job."

There was a pause. "Just what exactly is your job?"