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(if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible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?

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Gods and Devils

This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1

Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.

The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.

For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.

Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.

Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.

Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?


The Impressionists That I Get

Not so long ago, I took a two month vacation to travel across Russia and explore Europe. Naturally, there were a number of amazing sights and adventures. I spent seven straight days on a train. I was detained at the boarder between Belarus and Poland. I went down the Danube in a high-speed catamaran. I was physically accosted by Spanish protesters. I held a 3,000 year-old Athenian coin in the palm of my hand. (I am still awestruck at the idea that Socrates or Plato or Aristophanes might have held that very coin. And then, presumably, spent it on wine.) And, of course, I drank a lot of beers.

The beers I drank in Europe ranged greatly in quality, even in within each country. In Russia most of the beer was not great, but once I accidentally bought kvass (a beer-like soft drink brewed from rye bread.) It was delicious. In Austria and Belarus I happily drank liters of local beer in small restaurants while noshing on delicacies such as blood sausage and stuffed potato pancakes dripping in oil. In England I drank pint after pint of real cask ale, as well as pint after pint of cheap lager mixed with cider. And Belgium… well, words can’t even describe it.

But my appreciation for beer was well honed before my trip. My appreciation for fine art, however, was severely lacking. Sure, I visited the great churches and cathedrals in every city I visited and was thoroughly stuck by the beauty of the architecture and decor. It wasn’t until Amsterdam, though, that I really started looking at the art. After a night of throwing back Heinekens with an Australian backpacker, I decided that I should see the works of Van Gogh. To my dismay, the Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovations. This was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. Because the museum was closed, most of the paintings were on loan at The Hermitage Amsterdam. So instead of just seeing the works of Van Gogh, I got to see an outstanding exhibition of the Hermitage’s impressionist paintings side-by-side with contemporary works in more traditional styles preferred by the French Academy.

In a single day, I learned more about fine art than I’d ever known. Monet, Laurens, and Renoir were transformed from “painters I’d heard of” into real people expressing deep and meaningful scenes across the ages. Works that I recognized from posters or book covers were suddenly put into their proper context. And by placing the works of the impressionists next to those of their contemporaries, I finally saw how impressionism was more than just a new style, it was a movement.

After that day I was hooked. From Amsterdam I went to Paris then on to Italy, spending hours and hours in their amazing museums. (musea?)  Don’t get me wrong; I am still no expert. As much as I loved seeing all of those amazing works, I am still mostly ignorant about fine art. In fact, when I got to the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, I realized my greatest accomplishment as a student of art: I had seen original works by each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Beer of the week: Short Straw Farmhouse Red Ale – This beer is part of the “Expressionist Collection” from the Blue Moon Brewing Company. The label is pretty obviously inspired by Van Gogh. If I remember the brochure from the museum, Van Gogh is considered “post-impressionist” rather than “expressionist.” But I don’t really know what that means, so I’ll just review the beer. Blue Moon beers are brewed by MillerCoors, but mass-production does not always mean low quality. Unlike Blue Moon’s signature Belgian White, this beer is reddish-amber in color and very clear. The carbonation level is rather high (as the picture shows.) The aroma is a bit yeasty and floral. The taste is quite good. It is a little on the sweet side, but that is balanced nicely by a tart finish. The bottle mentions that the brewers use hibiscus, coriander, and white pepper. It may just be a trick of psychology, but after reading the label I found that I did taste a hint of pepper, especially on the back of my tongue. Overall, I think this is a pretty good beer.

Paintings of the week: Impressionists and Their Contemporaries: Six-Pack of Paintings – In lieu of a reading this week, I have selected a few of the paintings I was lucky enough to see on my trip. I have followed the Hermitage’s idea of placing impressionist paintings alongside roughly contemporary neoclassical and romantic paintings. Pour yourself a beer and really have a good look at these paintings. Notice how Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro present scenes that are absolutely complete, even without the extreme detail of the paintings by Gérôme, David, and Laurens. Marvel at the mastery Laurens had over light and shadow. Seriously, spend some time looking at each. When the David painting looks as blurry as the Renoir, you’ve had enough to drink.

Question of the week: Aristotle and others have philosophized on aesthetics. Horatio Greenough was both a sculptor and essayist on the subjects of art and architecture. And of course, Leonardo da Vinci did everything. Are there any fine artists who are also well known for their philosophic writings?


Isn’t it ironic?

P: Did you hear about what what Miley Cyrus did?

M: I could could care less!

P: Don’t you mean, “I couldn’t care less!”? If you could care less, then you do care at least a bit.

M: I’ve never thought of that! You are so smart! And so good at recognizing sarcasm.

P: I know; tell me about it!

M: Don’t you mean, “I know; don’t tell me about it!”? If you really know, then you don’t need me to tell you about it.

P: No.

I suppose that in the main, people say “I could care less” without any further thought. As is the case with the use of most idioms, the use of this phrase is usually done artlessly. However, if said with a thoroughly ironical tone, the meaning is clear. And I could care less whether you agree.

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Beer of the week: Boulevard Irish Ale – This lovely red ale from Kansas City is just a bit cloudy, probably from the secondary fermentation. There are sweet notes in the aroma, including toffee or caramel. Although this beer is quite malty, it is also rather crisp. In the finish, there are hints of caramel as well as a pleasant tingle of carbonation and peppery spice. At the bottom of the glass is some sediment that provides an earthy finish. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift – The Irish have given our culture more than just delicious beers. A Modest Proposal is one of the greatest works of satire ever written. Swift’s use of irony is impeccable and the ability to write with a straight face (so to speak) is astonishing. He walks very fine lines, does Swift, and he does it effortlessly.

Question of the week: Some hold that the word “sarcasm” should be reserved for insults. Would that be an effective way to differentiate sarcasm from other irony?