The scientific mind is a curious thing. It probes what others take for granted, including, on one night in 1950, a multilayered chocolate cake. Some of America’s brightest scientific minds were focused on that cake at the home of James Van Allen, who was to become famous as the discoverer of the earth’s radiation belts and who was hosting a dinner for the eminent British geophysicist Sydney Chapman. With admirable attention to detail, the collective scientific intellect verified that the cake had twenty-one layers. That cake did much to put the scientists in the kind of mood from which expansive conversation flows and big ideas are born.
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