A lesson in buoyancy

Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, Ask Dr. Universe

Dear Dr. Universe,

How was popcorn discovered?

— Jalen, 12, Benson, N.C.

There’s nothing like popcorn in progress: the snapping kernels, the warm buttery smell, and the knowledge that a delicious snack will be ready in minutes. It gives you some good time to think and wonder: How did humans first start doing this?

To find out where popcorn came from, I visited my friend Erin Thornton, an archaeologist at Washington State University. Archaeologists study how humans lived in the past — including the things they ate.

To learn the story of popcorn, we have to trace the history of maize.

Maize is another word for what you think of as corn. Humans grow it all over the world today, but it all started in Mexico almost 9,000 years ago.

Long before maize, there was a plant called teosinte (tay-oh seen-tay). If you saw teosinte in person, you probably wouldn’t guess it’s the grandparent of your popcorn. “It doesn’t really look like modern maize at all because it lacks large cobs — instead it looks more like a weedy grass,” Thornton said.

But over time, ancient people selected teosinte plants with softer and larger numbers of kernels. Over many generations, this resulted in the plant we know as maize.

Many scientists think all the first corn was popping corn. It was very important to the people who made it. The Aztecs used popcorn for both decoration and for eating. They also had a word, “totopoca,” for the sound of popcorn popping.

The Maya even tell stories about humans being created from maize. “It speaks volumes about how important this crop was to people who lived at that time,” Thornton said.

Popcorn is easily destroyed, so it can be hard for archaeologists to find it after hundreds or thousands of years. But the oldest popcorn ever found comes from a cave in New Mexico, estimated to be 5,600 years old. (Not quite as fresh as your popcorn, straight out of the microwave.)

We don’t know exactly who first discovered that popcorn can pop. But it’s a process that would have happened when people first started mixing dried kernels and heat.

Popcorn pops through interaction with heat. If you’ve ever looked at popcorn kernels before popping, you know they have a very hard outer shell. The insides are very hard too — until heat touches them.

When heat meets the natural moisture in the kernel, it creates pressurized steam within the shell. This steam softens the kernel’s insides. That heat and pressure increases, until the kernel can’t hold it anymore. And then pop! ... It explodes.

With that pop, the pressure in the kernel suddenly drops. The steam expands. All that inner goodness puffs out. That’s why popcorn looks like a little cloud.

We don’t know if the first popcorn-makers used flavorings. But when European colonists first learned about popcorn, they enjoyed eating it with milk and sugar like cereal!

Thornton told me white cheddar is her favorite popcorn flavor. Which kind do you like best?

Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

Recommended for you