Champagne and the Experimental Method

winebottleThere is a belief, common in France anyway, that the fizziness of an opened bottle of champagne can be preserved by placing a metal spoon, handle down, in the mouth of the bottle.  Both my wife and brother-in-law, both French, believe that this a sure way to better enjoy an opened bottle the next morning, or even the morning after that.

But is this belief true?  Examining it critically is an excellent, non-technical way of understanding the experimental method.  In brief, the method is a way of separating the possibly true from the definitely false.  We, as citizens, need to do this just as much as does the scientist in the laboratory.

So let’s have at it.  What arguments pro and con are there for the spoon-the-bottle hypothesis?  On the pro side of the ledger is that people I know and respect believe the hypothesis. Also in favor is that the belief is shared by many others, and has been around for a long time.  This is a version of the Argument from Authority.

What about the con side?  When I first heard about this use of a spoon — after half-finishing the second bottle of champagne with friends — I objected that “it just didn’t seem right.”  Pressed to explain, I questioned the mechanism: how could the spoon stop bubbles from forming in the liquid below, then escaping though the neck, passing around the spoon, which “obviously” did not form real barrier.

We argued back and forth, but these theoretical arguments failed to convince my drinking companions. To decide the issue, I proposed an experiment.  We would half-drink two more bottles of champagne so as to have three identical bottles, A, B, and C, then proceed a follows:  re-cork bottle A, put a spoon in the neck of bottle B, and do nothing to bottle C.  All would be placed in the refrigerator.  We would test the three bottles the next morning and for two mornings thereafter.

My proposal was accepted, and we set about preparing the experiment.  The next morning, not so many hours after putting the bottles in fridge, there was not much difference among the bottles.  I thought B and C were a bit stale, but my companions disagreed.  The next day there was a considerable difference, with bottles B and C definitely stale, definitely lacking in that bubbly tang.  B and C seemed equally stale. The day after it was clear to all: B and C were quite flat, while A retained its fizzyness.  The spoon had done nothing.

This little tale illustrates the essence of the experimental method in science: formulate a precise question, then design and carry out experiment to answer it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Simple, effective, and useful in everyday life.

One more thing

There is one more thing.  You do not have to accept my judgement of the spoon-in-the-bottle hypothesis.  Rather than accepting my authority, you can carry out the experiment yourself.  If you get the same results, or similar once, this confirms the hypothesis.  A good experiment is repeatable.


Barnes and Noble, in Memoriam


A few days ago my son Dylan came to give me the sad news: Barnes and Noble had closed.  Forever.  Not the whole chain of stores, thank goodness and not yet, but the one where we had spent many afternoons after school, sometimes staying till closing time: our hangout, the store on Tremont road in Columbus, Ohio, midway between my house and the high school.  The tradition of going to Barnes and Noble began early, certainly by age seven or eight, when Dylan still lived Mexico.  We would visit the big store in Tribeca, where Dylan got to know one of the store managers.  He always recognized Dylan when he came to New York, and he saw him grow from a little boy to a young man.

The routine was always the same.  I would find a few books and would go to the cafe to read and work.  Dylan would disappear into the stacks to collect a shopping basket of books, sometimes two, that he found interesting.  When he was quite young, I would be called to carry the baskets, now quite heavy, to the cafe.  Dylan would then sort through the books, reading a bit from each, narrowing down his choices.  I would be asked to make my independent evaluation.  Then came the hard part: deciding what to buy.  “Dad, how many books can I get today.” Me: “two, maybe three.” Eventually the choice would be made.

This process, called “editing,” was occasionally carried out on the floor of the store, where it was much easier to sort the books into categories and make a choice.  And also much easier to get into trouble.

We visited B&N wherever we traveled or lived: New York, Columbus Ohio, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Miami, are the cities I remember.

This year, the year of our beloved store’s demise, is Dylan’s gap year.  We are spending it in Paris, where we have discovered an excellent bookstore, Librairie Gaglignani, at 234 rue de Rivoli.  No editing there, as we were politely told, but the selection of books is superb, and we have taken many prize finds home, much to Nicole’s dismay: how will we transport our new library back to the US?

We carry the habits established at Barnes and Noble wherever we go.  On our father-son bonding trip in August, we visited bookstores in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and Helsinki, finding small treasures in each, and lugging them back to Paris.  Of course, we haven’t read all these books, though Dylan is doing much better than am I.  But we have stored riches for the future.  And if another pandemic forces us to stay at home, we are immunized from that most dreaded of diseases: boredom.

The Reason Why

Bubble chamber image showing muon neutrino traces. Jan. 16, 1978, at FermiLab

In the beginning, at the instant of creation, there came into being numerous particles: quarks and antiquarks, protons and and antiprotons, electrons and antielectrons, each kind paired with its opposite. Thus was matter and antimatter created in equal measure. But when particle met antiparticle, an exceedingly frequent occurrence in those early times, the encounter was brief, violent, and almost always fatal, as both were destroyed, their substance vanishing in a flash of  pure energy. When the great annihilation came to an end, there were few survivors of this many-fold decimation: no more than one in a billion remained.  They were all of one kind, the kind we now call matter.  It is of these particles that all we see about us is made, from the grains of sand on the seashore to the trees to the sun, the stars, and to the most distant galaxies.  The clue for our improbable and miraculous existence is hidden in the image above, an image of muon neutrino traces in a bubble chamber, the paradoxically huge microscope that physicists use to probe the smallest realms. In the laws that govern us, it turns out, there is a small asymmetry, a kind of distinction between right and left, charge and anticharge, which are otherwise equal mirror images of one another. Neutrinos, born of the annihilation of particle and antiparticle, of the explosions of stars which create the iron and nickel of which our earth’s core is made, of the proton-proton reactions which power our sun,  carry to us the message of this tiny discrepancy, the reason for our existence.

(Draft #1)

Article by Dennis Overbye, New York Times

Physics note: Neutrinos are ghostly particles that interact very weakly with matter.  The proton-proton reactions that power the sun send out a huge stream of neutrinos.  Each square centimeter of the Earth’s surface is bombarded by roughly 100 billion neutrinos per second.  Almost all of them pass through the Earth, exiting unchanged on the opposite side.

On Pencil and Paper

Book about shapes for Dylan
Book about shapes for Dylan

I’ve had a pencil in my hand ever since I can remember.  On the floor, under my grandmother’s table, scribbling away.  On the SS United States returning from a year in Bad Kreutznach, Germany, where my father had been stationed during the Korean war. I can date the voyage precisely because one day, March 5, 1953, my mother, reading the ship’s paper at breakfast, announced that Stalin had died.  I asked “who is Stalin.” A very bad man, she said. Paper on the ship was in short supply and we quickly ran out.  My mother somehow managed to find a thick stack for us. A precious possession, it was rationed a few pages at a time. But this too soon ran out, after which the days became long indeed. The boredom was terrible, and we must have driven Mom crazy.

Much, much later, my own son started his drawing career, following much the same path that I and all other children follow.  First random scribbles, carried out with great gusto and whole-arm motion, preferably in color, and not necessarily just on paper.  Later circles of a sort appear, and soon one can find eyes, a mouth, ears, and hair — often wild, wild hair standing straight out or straight up.  Arms and legs sprout from the circles, and there stand at last are human figures.  Animals soon follow.  About this time, I started making little picture books for my son, some with text, others pure imagery.  All could be colored, and Dylan did that with enthusiasm, not necessarily respecting outlines.  Why should one?

Giraffe in Picture Book for Dylan
Giraffe in Picture Book for Dylan

Throughout my life I enjoyed making  doodles and drawings.  They also helped me think. About all sorts of things, but especially about mathematics and physics.  There is a very visual element to much of these subjects.  A gas is thought of as a container full of hard little balls zipping this way and that, bouncing off the walls and thereby creating what we experience as pressure.  If we need more detail, we imagine arrows attached to the balls, short if they are moving slowly and long if they are moving fast.  There is a fancy name, vector, for these arrows, and they can be described by a triple of numbers giving their velocities in the east-west, north-south, and up-down directions.  Vectors even have their own little algebra. But what is fundamental, despite the power of the mathematics, is the mental picture of the balls zipping to and fro.

Scratch work for a computer project
Scratch work for a computer project

Lately my interests have turned to applications of functional programming languages such as Elm to problems of parser and compiler construction. Such languages are made up entirely of pure functions.  These are like the functions in mathematics: what is computed depends only on what information is given to the function as an input.  Naturally, as a mathematician, this kind of language appeals to me.  Again, as with mathematics or physics, visual thinking plays a role.  On the right, for example is some scratchwork for a recent project — developing a configurable parser for a family of block-structured markup languages, if you want to know the buzzwords.  Such work uses what are called parse trees, which look like what you see in the drawing.  I had to figure out how manipulate these trees, detaching subtrees, changing them, and then reattaching them in just the right place.  I tried pure thought, with eyes closed, but that didn’t work.  Many sketches later, however, I had working code.  It may very well be, and  probably is, that other people working on the same problem don’t need to draw pictures.  For me, it is essential.


I want to end with a comment.  Though one can do a great deal with computer tools — word processors, graphics programs, etc — there is a difference both in the thought process and the physical experience when one uses pencil and paper.  Thinking, for me at any rate, is much less constrained.  (That is also why I prefer unlined paper.  The lines are like a prison.) One can write diagonally,  vertically, or in a curve, changing letter sizes from small to large and back again. One can doodle, and one can draw diagrams, even miniature works of art.  There is also the physical experience of pressing the pencil against the paper, the ritual of sharpening the pencil, and even the smell of the pencil shavings.  And one more thing.  Consider a page of hand-written text, written in pencil or perhaps ball-point pen. Run your fingertips over it.  Though you cannot read the text this way, you feel the letters.  It is  a thrill.  It is a comfort.

Things Change

As any of you know who have experienced fatherhood for long enough, there comes a time when the role of the father, so long a teacher of the child,  begins change.  Such is my case in many ways.  Long ago it was “Papa, why does the moon follow us as we walk along the path?”  Today it was “Dylan, could you help me set up this blog?  I can’t figure it out.”  But technical advice is the smallest part of it.  As I write these pages, I find my words forming in a strange stylistic echo of the writing in Dylan’s blog,  This all came about because of a lunchtime conversation a few days ago, when Dylan showed me his first posts. “Dad, you should do this too.” Things change.