Science is all around us: in our skies and oceans, our cars and computers, even in our glasses. For most of us, bellying up to the bar for a pint of beer or a shot of whiskey isn’t the start of a scientific investigation. For Adam Rogers, an editor at Wired magazine, it was. Even before he came of age, the bottles in his parents’ liquor cabinet roused his curiosity. His new book, Proof: The Science of Booze, aims to answer the very essence of the question, “What are you drinking?”
Ever wonder about the physics behind getting the head just right on pint of Guinness? Proof has the answer! It all comes down to what makes beer foam: beer bubbles contain certain molecules made of sugar and protein that keep them intact – unlike champagne bubbles, which dissipate.
Perhaps you’ve pondered just what it is about being drunk that makes you slur. Proof has that answer, too! Ethanol has supra-segmental effects, which means it numbs the tongue, can slow the overall rate of speech and change pitch and tone. Or, maybe you’ve always been curious why a bender causes you to feel like utter shit the next day. Actually, for that last one, Proof doesn’t supply a concrete answer.
“You wish that the science was there,” says Rogers over the Bluetooth on his morning drive to work. “So far, a lot of the research is only what hangovers aren’t.”
Wait a minute, hangovers aren’t just the universe’s way of teaching you a lesson? Not exactly. According to Rogers’ research, 23 percent of people don’t get hangovers. For the rest of us, the assumption tends to be that a hangover is little more than mild poisoning and dehydration. But, while alcohol does cause dehydration by suppressing the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin, the dehydration doesn’t cause the hangover. As for the poisoning, it turns out that hangovers are worse when levels of acetaldehyde, the toxic byproduct of ethanol, are lower. More on hangovers: there’s good reason to believe that vodka causes fewer of them than red wine; hair-of-the-dog might actually be the most sensible cure; and, if you drink enough, no hangover cure is likely to work. OK, so you probably already figured out that part on your own.
How many hangovers did Rogers suffer researching his book on booze? “Not that many,” he swears, adding that alcohol and writing don’t mix well for him. Except for the chapter on hangovers, that is – he had to get pretty trashed to test the best cures. The experiment largely failed: see above regarding drinking too much.
“My hangovers have only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older,” says Rogers. “I tend to regard them as a signal that I really screwed up the night before. It’s not the cost of doing business. It’s a mistake.”
Are there certain types of booze that cause worse drunkenness or hangovers than others? According to Rogers, the answer is: probably not.
Alcohol is made up primarily of water and ethanol. The latter gets you drunk. No research has yet to show that any of the other molecules in alcohol impart psychoactive effects on the drinker. A drinker’s perception of a given tipple, however, can have a tremendous effect on how it affects him or her. In other words, absinthe didn’t make 19th century French literati crazy because it contained some hallucinogen. It just made them super-drunk: the stuff could be up to 140 proof. But believing that this stuff could make them extra-crazy might have influenced people to actually act that way.
Proof is full of fascinating little nuggets ideal for sharing over a drink. Or, to shove down the throat of your favorite drinking buddy once you’ve had one too many, smart ass.
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