Wine Tasting 101

NPR’s blog about food and science, The Salt, has an amusing story on wine tasting this week. Part of it is pointing out the actual science in wine tasting, which has recently been a victim of fights on the Internet*. Basically, The Salt’s post focuses on the actual chemicals present in wines and wants to help wine newbies detect by saying where we can find them in other foods. So here’s the quick lowdown

  • Whites aren’t aged in oak as often as reds.
  • Wine aged in American oak picks up more vanillin from the word than wines aged in French oak. Evidently American oaks have a higher concentration of the lactones than the French oaks. (I can’t find an explanation why, but that’s interesting) Vanillin, of course, is the primary chemical responsible for the flavor of vanilla.
  • Cabernet sauvignon and green peppers have the same chemical responsible for their smell. In cabernet, it’s strongest when the grapes aren’t ripe, so smelling green pepper would suggest a low quality wine. Aside: I definitely did not know that. I actually thought it wasn’t bad to have the green pepper scent. I also almost never drink cabernet, so maybe nothing should surprise me.
  • Diacetyl, a chemical commonly used in artificial butter flavorings (but also present in actual butter, potential chemophobes), develops in wines that have undergone a further fermentation process that converts the more sour malic acid (found in green apples) to lactic acid (found in milk).

NPR talks about sniffing all the foods with the same chemicals so you can “follow your nose”, if you will.

We went there.

They even suggest putting the good things in a cheap wine and comparing it’s smell to a more expensive one so you can find the similarities. But maybe I’m just taking the wrong lesson from this article, because I want to spray Pam into a wine glass and add some vanilla flavoring after pouring some Two Buck Chuck in and seeing if that tastes good.

*Just a quick thought on the “wine science wars”. I don’t think wine critics view themselves as scientific arbiters of wine, but I do think they present themselves as having far more precision than the studies suggest they do. Wine blogger Heimoff asks why we never see a headline saying that restaurant reviews are all junk science. Because they don’t claim to be picking up 12 distinct flavors from a single component, unlike a wine reviewer who honestly said a single wine had flavors of “red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins, red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, whole black peppercorn” (perhaps take that review with a grain of salt, since the story sounds like it is coming from an ad almost).

I also think they do have a harder job than the restaurant critics. At a restaurant, you get to examine multiple things: the food, the service, the atmosphere, etc. Heck, even if you only focus on the food, that still leads to several different things to examine, whether that’s multiple courses at a Michelin-rated restaurant or just the multiple ingredients in a sandwich. A wine critic has one thing to look at, and they try to go into intense detail. But humans aren’t meant for analytical chemistry. I think things like this Salt article are perfect. It does show what people can appreciate in a wine and what the industry tries to create.

Atoms in the Spotlight

We can now settle that your high school chemistry teacher did not lie to you when talking about atomic structure and (perhaps if you were lucky enough to get that far) molecular orbitals. Recently, scientists have been able to observe the actual electron orbitals of a hydrogen atom  and see the rearrangement of atoms in chemical reaction.

Being able to observe the different orbitals represents a new sort of “resolution” record in physics. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) can show you individual atoms and even the atomic bonds between atoms, but that is probably hitting the absolute limit of what we can do with AFM techniques. Why? Because AFM is basically like poking something with an atom and you can’t resolve features that are much smaller than whatever you’re poking with. And since the electron cloud basically makes up the whole force that prevents atoms from overlapping, AFM could never look at the orbitals in a detailed way.

So how did this impressively multinational team (seriously, there are universities from five different countries) do it? Think of an atomic scale projector, or maybe like an old cathode ray TV.  In the original paper, it’s called a “photoionization microscope”. Ionization is giving an electron so much energy it leaves the atom it is attached to, photoionization is doing this process with light. The figure below shows a schematic of the experiment.

The experimental set-up of Stodolna, et al. Source: Physical Review Letters

The experimental set-up of Stodolna, et al, to view hydrogen orbitals. Source: Physical Review Letters

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Maybe They Could Bottle It

The Atlantic, once again, proves to be a source of weird and wonderful science stories.  And I am learning I love Rebecca Rosen’s reporting/blogging significantly more than Alexis Madrigal. The LA Times interview goes into a bit more detail. Dr. Barbara Lollar and her group from the University of Toronto found water trapped underground in a copper mine in Ontario that has basically been isolated from the rest of the Earth for at least a billion years. And it’s gotten kind of… ripe after being stuck in dissolvable minerals after all this time. Lollar describes it as having “the consistency of a very light maple syrup”. And it has so many minerals dissolved in it that contact with air starts to turn the water orange.

And yet that still seems less weird than this new water at Harris Teeter

And yet that still seems less weird than this new water at Harris Teeter

Evidently it is also very salty. There’s no numbers listed for that. Lollar just mentioned that she tasted it and said it was the saltiest water she ever tried. Yeah, so evidently she not only drank a sample of this, but she semi-regularly drinks other ancient water samples to get a feel for the mineral content. But she won’t let her students sample the most vintage H2O ever. What amuses me most is that Lollar and others say the water could support life and yet she still drinks it. This just sounds like the set-up of a terrible sci-fi B movie about an ancient microbe infecting a person in the present to take over Earth in the present.*

*Yes, I know, the odds of a 1 billion year old microbe being able to infect a modern human after their environments are  separated and they evolve separately are slim. But we do still have instances of invasive species being able to thrive in environments they weren’t native to. And it seems slightly more likely that a billion year old microbe will find something it could attack in a eukaryotic cell, since eukaryotes (the giant group of organisms with cells that have nuclei and organelles that includes plants, animals, and fungi) have been around for an estimated 1.6 billion years, than the few hundred million year old mammalian immune system having any idea how to respond to that.

Optics Can Be Magical

Prepare to have your mind blown by some crazy perspective… graphical perspective, that is.

The sky, exactly opposite a sunrise.

io9 has a full (but short) explanation of why we see it this way. If you don’t want to go over, here’s the even quicker version. When you’re looking at the horizon, all parallel lines along your line of sight converge to a point (one-point perspective). All the rays from the Sun hitting the Earth are roughly parallel, so when the sun rises, you see those rays fan out in all directions due to the perspective. If you turn around and face opposite the rising sun, the rays are still truly parallel, but again, the perspective forces them to converge to an opposite point.

I wonder what you would see if you looked straight up into the sky. Our brains process the sky as a sort of shallow salad bowl (the black dots)  instead of a hemisphere (white dots), so would you see some trippy ellipsoidal equivalent of lines of longitude?

A Day Without Satellites

The BBC has a short fictional piece about what would happen if all the world’s satellites stopped working. While that is unlikely, it’s an interesting look at how much satellites are integrated into everyday technology. For instance, while the Internet is mostly an Earth-based affair with undersea cables connecting continents, I didn’t know that that the atomic clocks on GPS satellites were used by data centers and Internet exchange points to timestamp Internet data packets. One thing I’m a bit confused by is how much the article claims international telephone calls would be disrupted. I could see things like aid workers and military units who are in areas with little landline or mobile infrastructure being affected, but I thought most international calls on landlines and regular cell phones were done through the undersea cable network.

While this article may be drastic, it is important to note that our satellites are increasingly at risk of damage and it’s an issue that increasingly concerns industry and governments.

Technology’s track record, past and future

Following up on my rant on technical solutionism, I wanted to add a bit more about why I do think technological optimism is justified and also something I wish more Silicon Valley commentators understood. First, it seems worth pointing out that if we try to recognize where contributions to quality of life over the last century or so have come from, then the biggest contributor would be technology. Social and political changes are important, but a lot of them end up being enabled by technology. Second- and third-wave feminism were greatly helped by birth control enabling women greater control over their own bodies. When I was in immunology for two weeks before deciding double majoring in biomedical engineering and physics was crazy, the professor said the pre-meds and pre-public health students should thank their engineering major friends for water distribution and water treatment systems. Or consider how much technology goes into the actual treatment of disease. And a great deal of technology ends up having unexpected uses. So technologists have a good track record to justify their thinking they can innovate solutions to things others may not consider major problems.

The other thing I never hear come up in mainstream commentators’ discussion of Silicon Valley’s tech solutionism is the source of a non-trivial (heh, I suppose that word would have to make it into the blog at some point, though I’m surprised it isn’t in the context of math) amount of this thought: transhumanism. To put it (too) simply, transhumanism is broad movement that advocates the use of technology to augment and expand human abilities to reach a “posthuman” status. If you’ve heard of people giddy for brain uploading and/or the technological singularity, they come from one strand of transhumanism (that’s a bit premature, in my mind). The movement started in California, and while it’s definitely spread out, it still has a relatively high concentration in Silicon Valley. Transhumanist publications seem to often write about the movement’s popularity in the tech hub region and it seems to be spreading. One of the big steps seems to be the establishment of Singularity University to bring together people from various backgrounds to help them understand and develop new technologies. Notably, Singularity U founding companies include Google and Genentech. So why is this relevant to the talk of tech solutionism? Because it seems only natural that some aspects of transhumanism diffuse out into broader society, especially in a place as connected to the movement as Silicon Valley. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s hope that Facebook will change how people interact socially struck me as more than just capitalist hopes for his business; it also showed a kind of latent embedding of a transhumanist goal that I don’t think Zuckerberg even realized (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even really know that transhumanism is a thing).

Maybe the New York Times Should Require Algebra

One of the New York Times’ political bloggers has posted about a new study looking at how globalization, innovation, and social welfare are related. In particular, the study claims to find that global economic growth would slow down if the United States were to adopt a Scandinavian-style welfare state due to it’s role as the leading technological innovator. I don’t have much of an economics background, so I don’t feel qualified to say much directly about the paper. The NYT blog post points out that other economists disagree with this analysis. What struck me most, though, was that Thomas Edsall, the journalist who blogged about the article, said he couldn’t comment  on the article. I can understand that, as he also lacks an economics backgrounds. But I’m a bit peeved at his explanation for this, since his reponse is basically “ain’t nobody got time for that”. He says

 Here is Acemoglu, Robinson and Verdier’s first assumption:

and here is their subsequent thought:

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