If We Ate Climate Change Data, Would We Understand It More?

If data visualization helps us understand some concepts intellectually, “gastronification” is how we could grasp it on a gut level.


At an ice-cream stand in Berlin, it will soon be possible to buy a cup of sorbet that helps you better understand the complexity of climate change.


For “experimental philosopher” Jonathon Keats, who plans to sell the dessert on November 4–the day that the Paris climate agreement becomes legally binding–the project is a first test of something he calls “data gastronification.” If data visualization helps us understand some concepts intellectually, gastronification is a way that we might be able to grasp it on a literal gut level.

Keats was inspired by researchers who are beginning to use sound as another way to represent big data (for example, to musically represent changes in an Alaskan forest caused by global warming).

“I started thinking about what other systems might be enlisted,” he says. “I guess I might have been hungry that day, and I thought naturally of my own gut. I realized that one thing about the digestive system is that it has its own nervous system–its own set of approximately half a billion neurons that process all of the incredibly complex big data, so to speak, that you swallow on a daily basis.”

In his ice-cream model of the climate, Keats started with a detailed diagram of feedback loops made by University of Toronto computer scientist Steve Easterbrook. The model shows how each part of the system interrelates; as rising temperatures make ice melt, for example, the ground reflects less sunlight, which leads to even more warming.

In the sorbet, each part of the system is represented by a different ingredient that activates a different receptor in the gut. Sugar, which activates a receptor called TRPM-5, represents greenhouse gases; citric acids represent aerosols. Cinnamon is radiative balance, the relationship between the amount of energy reaching and leaving the Earth. In total, there are 12 ingredients.

Working with a sorbet manufacturer that uses software to precisely mix ingredients, Keats is trying to balance the flavors.


“I found 12 ingredients that I hope will not be totally sickening,” Keats says. “Though perhaps sickening is what might make the most impression on people. I’m not trying to do something as base or as simple as that. The ingredients can be used together in a way that is scientifically justifiable, and that in culinary terms is not totally impalatable.”

At the ice-cream stand, he’ll be serving three variations of the sorbet at once, each representing the climate with an increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “As you eat your way through all the data, or through the model, you bring yourself by way of the enteric nervous system, closer and closer to the point of no return, so to speak,” he says.

The sorbet will be served as part of Berlin’s STATE Festival for Open Science, Art & Society, and is meant to help the public better understand climate change. But Keats also plans to work with researchers–from neuroscientists to astrophysicists–to see if representing data in this way can also lead to new insights.

In a series of workshops leading up to the festival, he’ll partner with scientists to “gastronify” their research into more sorbet and refine his methods.

“Data visualization has been in active use since the 1600s or 1500s,” he says. “Gastronifction has been in use since approximately September . . . so part of this is about validation and refinement. But I’m also hoping it can be the basis for some deeper investigation.”

[All Photos: Daniela Silvestrin]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."