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Explorit: Curds, whey … and spiders

This article appeared in the May 11th 2012 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Lisa Justice

Special to the Enterprise

“Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey.” We all know the old nursery rhyme, but do you know what curds and whey really are? Let’s do an experiment to find out.
You will need a microwaveable bowl, 1 1/2 cups of milk, four teaspoons of white vinegar, a spoon for stirring, a microwave and a strainer.
First, pour the milk and vinegar together in the microwaveable bowl and heat it in the microwave for about a minute.
Remove your concoction from the microwave and observe. What has happened to the liquids you put in? What usually happens to liquids when you heat them up?
Now, use your spoon to stir the mixture thoroughly, but be careful because it’s hot. What do you see happening?
You’re probably noticing white blobs forming in the bowl. The vinegar that you added has sparked a chemical reaction in the milk that has separated the solid and liquid parts of milk.
Before combining with the vinegar, the milk had lots of tiny solid fat particles swirled around in the liquid. The vinegar made the solid particles gather together and separate from the liquid.
The solid clusters are the curds from Little Miss Muffet’s nursery rhyme, and the liquid is the whey. So Little Miss Muffet really was just eating separated milk!
Once your white blob has cooled, strain off the liquid whey. Now you have a white curd blob to play with. Can you mold it into the shape of a spider? If you leave it out to dry, it will harden.
You may be surprised that the familiar nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet and the spider that sat down beside her and frightened her away is almost certainly referring to a real little girl, Patience Muffet, whose father, Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), was a physician and a naturalist who studied spiders and silkworms.
But why was Miss Muffet frightened away when the spider came? Spiders are helpful animals and people all over the world have found ways to put them to good use.
Spiders are carnivorous; they eat insects, and so are increasingly valued as an alternative to chemical pesticides on certain crops. The Chinese use them to control leafhoppers, planthoppers, caterpillars and moths in rice paddies.
In Britain, they help to protect fields of winter wheat from aphids. In your garden, if there is enough ground cover for their comfort, spiders will happily help reduce the numbers of annoying insects.
So the next time a spider tries to sit down beside you, don’t be frightened away. That spider might turn out to be very helpful.
Join Explorit in investigating the spiders in our world. Visit to get started.

* Explorit’s newest Exhibition, “Forces of Nature” is open 1 to 5 p.m. June 2 and 3, featuring some of the best of Explorit’s past exhibits.

 — Explorit Science Center is at 3141 Fifth St. and is open to the public on the first full weekend of every month. Its current exhibition, “Forces of Nature,” will be open from 1 to 5 p.m. June 2-3. For more information, call (530) 756-0191 or visit
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