Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?


Natural Beauty

This is the thirty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVII: Locke, Berkeley, Hume

It is shockingly easy to forget just how amazing our surroundings are. Every so often, one needs to be reminded to look on the natural world with awe. Consider this your periodic reminder, care of George Berkeley:

“Look! are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs, that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul? At the prospect of the wide and deep ocean, or some huge mountain whose top is lost in the clouds, or of an old gloomy forest, are not our minds filled with a pleasing horror? Even in rocks and deserts is there not an agreeable wildness? How sincere a pleasure is it to behold the natural beauties of the earth! To preserve and renew our relish for them, is not the veil of night alternately drawn over her face, and doth she not change her dress with the seasons? How aptly are the elements disposed! What variety and use in the meanest productions of nature! What delicacy, what beauty, what contrivance, in animal and vegetable bodies! How exquisitely are all things suited, as well to their particular ends, as to constitute opposite parts of the whole!”

So go outside with a beer and gaze in wonder at how the trees have changed from just a few weeks ago, how the clouds undulate in the sky like foam on a freshly poured beer, or how a stream’s flow is both constant and ever-changing.

Beer of the week: Avalanche Amber Ale – An avalanche is a terrifying and devastating event, but it also has something of a Berkeley’s “pleasing horror.” Avalanche Amber Ale is not terrifying, but it is terrific. It pours with a fluffy tan head atop a dark amber beer. On the nose are bread and caramel. This ale has a surprisingly light mouthfeel and just enough hops to balance out the plentiful malt. Breckenridge seems to know what they are doing.

Reading of the week: Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley – This short excerpt from the Second Dialogue comes at the end of Philonous’ argument that matter does not exist except in the perception. Just as Hylas has been wrangled into accepting the position that material has no existence independent of humans, Philonous pulls the rug out from under him and declares that material does exist because it is constantly perceived by God.

Question for the week: Where do you look for natural beauty?

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

This is the thirtieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXX: Scientific Papers

In 1911, a mere two years after the Harvard Classics was first published, Douglas Mawson (later Sir Douglas Mawson) led an expedition to map the coastline of Antarctica. He was an adventurer and a hero, but he was a man of science first. The great proof of this is not only in his scientific achievements, but also in his very attitude toward his objectives.

In 1912, Mawson was part of a brutal race against time and weather to get back to the base camp. He was part of a three-man surveying party that had pushed over 300 miles into (quite literally) uncharted territory. Suddenly, one of the dogsleds disappeared into a crevasse. With it went one of the men, B. E. S. Ninnis, the better half of the dogs, and most of the rations. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, with little food (and no dog food) turn back to camp faced with the very real possibility that the weather and lack of supplies would thwart their attempted return.

Frostbite was a problem for them. But even worse was a condition called hypervitaminosis A. When humans consume too much vitamin A, they can suffer from adverse mental effects, hair and skin loss, and a slew of other nasty effects. And it just so happens that husky livers are chock-full of vitamin A. Of course, Mawson and Mertz did not know that; vitamin A was not even named until 1920. So when it came time to eat the sled dogs, they ate them liver and all. The results were deadly.

After nearly a month of trudging, eating stringy dog meat, and deteriorating health, Mertz succumbed. With the wind howling outside of the tent, his team members dead, and his own collection of physical ailments, Mawson considered just staying in his sleeping bag. It would be easy to just stay in the bag forever. But instead, he remembered this poem by Robert W. Service:

The Quiter

When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you’re sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and… die.
But the Code of a Man says: “Fight all you can,”
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow…
It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

“You’re sick of the game!” Well, now, that’s a shame.
You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.
“You’ve had a raw deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don’t be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it’s so easy to quit:
It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you’re beaten — and die;
It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —
Why, that’s the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each gruelling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

(Service, by the way, is known as the Bard of the Yukon. How appropriate for someone struggling for life near the South Pole to get strength from a poet of the far north.)

And those words inspired Mawson to break camp and trudge on. The day he buried Mertz in the snow, Mawson wrote in his journal: “I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice-formations, etc.; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.” See what I mean about Mawson’s attitude toward his geographic work?

Over the next thirty days, Mawson made his way back toward base. At one point, he fell through the ice. However the sled, what was left of it, wedged in the opening of the crevasse, and Mawson dangled from a rope above the abyss. Despite his weakened state, he hauled himself up, only for the edge to break away beneath him and leave him hanging once more at the end of the rope. He summoned all of his strength for one final attempt and dragged himself from the gulf in the ice.

Eventually, Mawson made it back to base camp. He returned without his companions, without his dogs, and without much of his skin and hair. What he did bring back was a great deal of geographical information, including names for two large glaciers on the Antarctic coast: Ninnis Glacier and Mertz Glacier.

Beer of the week: Alaskan Amber – Alaska has many nicknames, including “The Last Frontier”. But Mawson’s account of Antarctica makes Alaska seem relatively tame. And at least Alaska has breweries. From Juneau comes this delightful amber ale. It pours a clear dark amber with a good head. It smells mostly of roasted malt. The beer is smooth and malty, with hints of marshmallow and apricot. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie – At the beginning of this essay, Geikie writes, “From the geographical point of view… we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.” In this respect, Mawson ranks very highly among the great Antarctic explorers.

Questions of the week: As great a story as it is, is it even possible that the information gathered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was worth the human suffering and death?

Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?

Strong Language

This is the twenty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIII: Two Years Before the Mast, Dana

In the preface to Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. warns: “I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene.”

Perhaps the most extended example “strong and course” language Dana employed was in relating a telling-off that the crew of his ship received from their captain:

“Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up! You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful I’ll make a hell of the ship!…. You’ve mistaken your man! I’m F—— T——, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built down-east johnny-cake, good when it’s hot, but when it’s cold, sour and indigestible;—and you’ll find me so!”

If that is what passed for strong language in 1840, then I’ll be d—d!

Beer of the week: Independence Harbor Amber Ale – This is an ALDI house brand. It had been known as Revolution Harbor, but the name has changed for some reason. Either name seems to allude to Boston Harbor (and perhaps hint at the beer being similar to Samuel Adams). Boston, of course, is where Dana’s life as a sailor began. Independence Harbor is a handsome amber beer with a decent tan head. The aroma is of biscuit. The flavor is the same, with just a bit of honey sweetness at the finish. For the price, this is a very solid beer.

Reading of the week: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Chapter VIII – I’ve really enjoyed this book. From his descriptions of life onboard a merchant ship in the middle of the 19th century, to his exploration of Californian culture in the days before the gold rush, Dana’s paints vivid scenes. This chapter includes discussion of sailors’ slang, duties onboard, and the ship’s arrival in California. If you enjoy this chapter, the rest of the book should be, in Dana’s language, “nuts to you.” (That’s a good thing.)

Question for the week: It is often said that profanity shows a lack of imagination, but can’t the stringing together of profanities be an art of its own?

Mermaid Blood

This is the Seventeenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVII: Folklore and Fable, Aesop, Grimm, Andersen

SPOILER ALERT: This posts contains spoilers for centuries-old fairytales.

Those raised on Disney films and picture books are likely to be shocked by the original versions of the fairytales that they learned growing up. The basic formula for so many of these stories are 1) witch causes magical transformation, 2) protagonist finds true love, 3) kiss breaks the spell, and 4) they live happily ever after. In the older versions, however, there is often another important plot point: brutal violence.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Sea-Maid, there is plenty of violence that got left out of the Disney version. In the first place, the transformation from mermaid to human is extremely painful, as if she were being run through with a sword. And her new feet bleed constantly, so that every step that she takes feels “as if [she] trod upon sharp knives.” This is compounded by the fact that the prince loves to see her dance, so, for his entertainment, “she danced again and again, although every time she touched the earth it seemed as if she were treading upon sharp knives.” But at least that wins his heart, leading to the kiss that would make her transformation complete, right? Wrong.

See, in Andersen’s version, the prince falls in love with a princess and marries her instead of the mermaid. The irony is that he thinks the princess, rather than the mermaid, saved him from his shipwreck. After the prince and princess marry, the mermaid takes a magical knife and prepares to stab the prince right in the heart. The plan is for his heart’s blood to fall on her feet and cause them to “grow together again into a fish-tail” so that she she can return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to murder the prince (although she does get so far as to stand over the prince and his bride as they sleep, knife in hand.) Rather, she jumps back into the ocean and dissolves into sea-foam. There is, however, a sort of happily ever after for the little mermaid. She is given the chance to earn an immoral soul through good deeds. In a way, this is a much more positive message than the idea that being loved by the prince is the key to lasting happiness; her destiny is in her own hands rather than in his.

The Disney version of Cinderella is less markedly different from the source material, but there is still a good bit of violence left out. In the Bros. Grimm version, when the prince goes out looking for the owner of the lost slipper, the step-sisters go to terrible lengths to try to make it fit. The first sister cuts off her big toe and the second cuts a chunk off of her heel. The prince, evidently not one of the smartest characters in literature, is fooled by each in turn. Each time, talking birds save the day by telling the prince to look down at all of the blood that is positively streaming from the slipper. After he finds Cinderella and marries her, those same birds go and peck out the eyes of the step-sisters to punish them for their dishonesty, as if having mutilated feet is not bad enough.

It is constantly bemoaned how violent popular media has become, so how does one account for the softening of these violent stories? In part, it may be that the intended audience for Andersen and Grimm are not young children. Or at least not young children exclusively. Also, the violence serves the purpose of hammering home a moral lesson. The last line of Grimm’s Cinderella is not about the prince and Cinderella living happily ever after; it is about the step-sisters: “for their wickedness and falsehood they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

Next time you are shocked by how violent a movie is, remember the sea-maid hiking up a mountain as her shoes fill with blood, or the step-sisters being blinded by pigeons who are also total snitches.

Beer of the week: Blood of the Unicorn Hoppy Red Ale – Now, to transition from step-sister and mermaid blood to Blood of the Unicorn. Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Company makes this fantastic(al) red ale. In truth, the beer is dark brown with just a hint of red, which becomes more pronounced when the sediment is swirled from the bottom of the can and poured out. It comes with lots of smooth soft foam (not sea foam) and an aroma of herbal hops. Although it is plenty hoppy it also has some sourdough yeastiness and a bit of burnt caramel. Blood of the Unicorn is a very smooth, very deliciously brew.

Reading of the week: The Frog-King, or Iron Henry by The Bros. Grimm – Young king gets transformed into a frog, he finds a princess to break the spell, her kiss frees him. Right? Not quite. In this version, the princess finds the frog to be so odious that she “took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall.” Hurling a frog against a castle wall cannot be described as anything other than attempted amphibicide. Yet, somehow, that act of disgust and rage breaks the spell.

Question for the week: Why have fairytales been watered down and sweetened?


This is the third in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

We are told by Moses Maimonides that the predominant Muslim scholars of his day were atomists. Much like most people today, these mutakallimūn believe that all matter is composed of indivisible particles. More controversially, however, they also believe that time itself is composed of time-atoms. Maimonides claims that this belief is derived from Aristotle’s assertion that time, space, and motion “are of the same nature” because they can be divided in constant proportions to each other. So if all matter is divisible into a finite number of atoms, then time cannot be infinitely divisible. To maintain constant proportions to the nth degree, time must also be divisible only a finite number of times. The result of the final division is an indivisible unit of time.

A consequence of these time-atoms is that each moment must be discrete from that which precedes or follows. And, more importantly, the characteristics of each time atom adhere to that time-atom alone and do not transfer from one moment to the next. So all accidents (“such as colour, smell, motion, or rest”) lack duration. For example, the only reason that a beer is amber in color one moment and continues to be the same color in the next moment is God actively creating each atom in each moment. If we were to add green food coloring to beer (for some reason), it would probably turn green. But the “greenness” of the dye ceases to exist in the very instant that the beer comes in contact with it, and God must create the greenness anew in the beer.

Obviously, the beliefs of the mutakallimūn are not consistent with skepticism. (The fact that they are beliefs at all is a dead giveaway.) But some of their consequences certainly appear skeptical. For one thing, these beliefs implicitly deny cause and effect. The addition of green food coloring to beer may result in green beer 10 times out of 10, but the mutakallimūn attribute the change to the will of God, not to some principle of the dye acting upon the beer. This is quite reminiscent of Hume’s argument against inductive reasoning. We cannot come to a rational conclusion that some specific cause always has some specific effect, because that is merely an assumption based on our limited experiences. It is always possible that we are missing something or that some change might disrupt our supposed “law” of cause and effect.

Likewise, the idea that physical attributes do not have duration squares with a thought of Hume’s. Hume argued that to believe in causation, one would have to first identify some law that the future is always similar to the past. But even if such a law does exist, we have no way of knowing it. As a result, it is unreasonable to form any belief as to what will happen in the future, even with things that we observe to be regular and predicable. Although the mutakallimūn apparently believe that God constantly creates attributes through time to create the appearance of continuity, they, like Hume are unwilling to acknowledge any law that the future must be like the present.

The great caveat in this whole line of thought is that one need not actively deny that the addition of food coloring will change the color of the beer. We are entitled to rely on practical experience to help us through our day. The issue is whether we can, through reason, come to believe that causes will always have effects and that the so-called laws of the universe will be the same tomorrow as they are today. The mutakallimūn doubt both of those, but believe in a certain explanation of the universe and that the will of God creates the illusion of continuity. The skeptics, on the other hand, simply withholds belief outright.

Honkers Ale


Beer of the week: Honkers Ale – No doubt about this offering from Goose Island. This copper-colored bitter is quite nice. It is just a solid, malty ale with a finish that is just bitter enough to balance it out.

Reading of the week: The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides – This selection from Chapter LXXIII of Part I lists the twelve propositions common to all mutakallimūn, as well as some of the consequences of those propositions. Regarding time-atoms, Maimonides writes “The Mutakallemim did not at all understand the nature of time.”

Question of the week: How can one square the skeptic’s rejection of causation and the reasonable confidence that flicking the light switch actually does cause the lights to come on?