How crafters are using Peeps to explain science

The 1903 Frank landslide, as depicted by Peeps.
Dorien Gunnels

What do you know about marshmallow Peeps? Perhaps, as I learned from the history of Peeps Tanya Pai wrote for Vox two years ago, you know that the original yellow chick version of Peeps is still the most popular, despite the fact that the bunnies are so much more fun to eat (you do their ears one at a time). Perhaps you know that an estimated 1.5 billion Peeps are eaten every Easter.

Maybe, if you are lucky, you already know that some people use Peeps to make elaborate craft projects, including chandeliers, wreaths, jewelry, and recreations of romantic films. But did you know about the brand new contest to make the best science-themed Peep diorama, currently ongoing, and that you can still vote in it? It’s true! There are 50 submissions this year — the first year — and the “Peeple’s Choice Awards” voting is open until April 14.

The contest, presented by the science journalism nonprofit The Open Notebook, was the brainchild of Joanna Church, Helen Fields, and Kate Ramsayer — friends who had a storied history of winning general Peep diorama contests themselves. They were briefly internet famous for making a Hamilton-themed diorama that got retweeted by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The entries memorialize such historical events as the first operation with ether, Grace Hopper’s coining of the term “bug” to describe computer glitches, and Matt Damon’s arrival on Mars. (Science fiction was permitted, as was gene editing, which involves Rice Krispies treats.)

What don’t I love about this Peep science contest? A Museum of Natural Peepstory with a mastodon made of Peeps? No, I love it. A diorama of Peepola Tesla which was, according to its description, made by “two teens” with “no input or assistance” from any adults? No, I love it. A replica of the Apollo 11 lunar module surrounded by Peep astronauts, created by “Ben (age 7)” and the entry is captioned, “All peeps and marshmallow material were safely retired into Ben and his little sister’s stomach”? No, I love it!

Nikola Tesla, as a Peep bunny.
H. Piper, J. Piper
“The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt Van Peep”
Linda Vista

The Open Notebook co-founder and editor-in-chief Siri Carpenter tells Vox the submissions were “a fantastic array of geology, and subatomic physics, and computer science, and anthropology and chemistry and anatomy,” that it will be a challenge to choose a winner, and that she does not think any other candies have the same “magic” as Peeps. First of all, they taste better stale. Second of all, they are easier to craft with when they’re stale.

Also, they have personality: “They only have one facial expression but they come out of the factory each one looking a tiny bit different from the next,” she explains. “You can look through a package of Peeps and find one that looks a little fatter than another one or one that looks a little more adventurous than another.”

Tiny Peep bodies form one large Mastodon Peep body.
Anna Rothschild, Shaena Montanari, Sarah Kaplan, Maryam Zaringhalam, Kate Furby.

In a 2015 history of Peep dioramas, the New Yorker’s Sarah Archer traces candy-based crafting back to the sugar sculptures of the Middle Ages, pointing out that sugar is “an effective natural preservative, making it ideal for artistic endeavors.” (Peeps themselves have only been around since the 1950s, when the mechanized process that makes their identical little marshmallow bodies was invented by a candy maker named Bob Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.) She also writes that dramatized Peeps “sit, wide-eyed, at the intersection of consumerist kitsch and a surprisingly earnest engagement with current events and history, to say nothing of the meticulous craftsmanship required for their construction.”

They do not have wide eyes — they have little pin-prick eyes, which is their main feature — but Archer’s general point still stands, that modeling historical events with the help of cartoonish candy is a fascinating and a little bit confusing thing to do. This is particularly true when applied to examples like a Peep-ified version of the Crucifixion or a modern political protest.

For the first annual Peep science contest, Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist and disaster researcher, submitted a cross-section of a landslide that took place in the town of Frank, Alberta, in 1903. “At 4:10 AM on April 29, 1903 on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, 30 million cubic meters of rock slammed down Turtle Mountain,” reads the horrifying description of the deadly event that, when acted out by Peeps, looks charming and delicious. “The 17 nightshift coal miners buried beneath the slide couldn’t reopen the sealed shaft, but instead dug along a coal seam. Just three withstood the increasingly toxic air to break free into the rubble, dragging the others to safety despite their shock over the altered land.” And true, there are 17 Peeps, all heroes.

Peeps, rescuing each other in paper hard hats.
Dorien Gunnels

“The problem with working with disasters is that it doesn’t always fit in light-hearted ideas,” McKinnon tells me. “If you’re going to do death and doom and destruction and Peeps, you have to find a way to do it that’s respectful to the situation and to history.” She chose the Frank landslide because it happened more than 100 years ago, and because in the midst of all the death and destruction, those quick-thinking coal miners managed to pull each other out of the dirt.

“Landslides are fairly unknown disasters, they don’t tend to get much research money, people don’t talk about it much,” McKinnon adds. “The Frank slide is a very interesting location and we’re still using it as a field station to test out landslide monitoring equipment and hazard prediction.” Peeps are a good way to talk about geology because they’re a cheap and accessible craft supply, you can eat them as you go, and they have precious little bodies, which you can supplement with paper hard hats.

“It’s okay to be curious as an adult and learn new things as an adult, and not everything needs to be serious and sterile,” McKinnon says. The winners will be chosen by a secret panel of judges, and the Peeps will get eaten. It’s the circle of life — which was not depicted in this year’s contest but may well appear in the next.

Update: This article was updated to reflect the extension of Peeple’s Choice voting.

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