Grape And Grain


How’s the head? Hope you didn’t use the Festival of Mammon to hit the electric sauce too hard.

Our ability to process the ethanol present in alcohol (at least, in moderation!) has been regarded as a relatively recent evolutionary characteristic of Homo sapiens. After all, the first evidence that man knew how to brew alcohol  – clay pots found in the Neolithic village of Jiahu in China contained residues of tartaric acid, one of the main acids present in wine – dates back to as recently as around 9,000 years ago. We owe a lot to those Neolithic farmers who made the happy discovery that a mixture of fruit and honey could make an intoxicating beverage. Without the exposure to liquids containing more ethanol than would be found in fruit our bodies wouldn’t need to produce an enzyme to break it down.

However, scientists from Santa Fe College investigating the evolutionary history of ADH4, the gene which produces an enzyme to break down the alcohol in our bodies, say that it has been present for the last 10 million years.

Taking data from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates, to track the gene’s evolutionary history they believe that the defining moment was when primates started to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Down on the forest floor they would find mushy, fermented fruit lying on the forest floor. Such fruit would contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on the branches. And so the bodies of the primates over time adapted to be able to process the ethanol present. It was this which morphed into the rather handy gene, ADH4, which allows us to break down alcohol.

It also probably explains why the tree-dwelling orang-utan is still unable to metabolise alcohol – a handy thing to know if you get the opportunity to share a bottle of wine with you – whereas chimpanzees and gorillas can.

If you believe some archaeologists, then Neolithic life was a bit of a blast. Some, like Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, claim that prehistoric communities grew wheat, rice, corn, barley and millet primarily to produce alcoholic beverages, supplanting their diet with a swill which was half-fruit, half-wine. Seems as though we have missed out somewhere along the line!


Keep Away From Fire


I bought some new underpants a few weeks ago – an event which occurs with slightly more frequency than my taking a bath. Nice they are too, comfortable in a boxer short style and bearing a pleasant chequered pattern. The sort of underpants which if you were wearing when you suffered a major coronary or were knocked over on the street you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in.

Anyway, I was sitting on the throne going about my business the other day when my attention was caught by a label on the inside of the rear of said boxers. I looked at it more closely and saw that as well as bearing the country of manufacture – China, inevitably – it had the stark warning “Keep away from fire”.

This set me thinking. In what sort of circumstances would you deliberately expose your underwear to a naked flame and does your daily occupation dictate the sort of underwear you buy?

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to expose myself to flames. I now, of course, have the perfect excuse to avoid those dreadful corporate team bonding days that consultants are so fond of. Walking across hot coals – sorry, I’ve got the wrong type of underpants on. Can’t take the risk.

If you are a fireman do you have different types of underwear depending upon whether you are on your window cleaning rounds or whether you are on call to put out a fire? The last thing you would want when your house was up in flames was a crew of firemen come along all snuggly dressed in their flammable Chinese BHS underpants and turn round and say to you, “Sorry mate, we’ll have to let it burn. Wrong type of underpants”.

These are scenarios under your control but what about the unexpected? Can you take the risk of wearing these boxers when there is the possibility, remote as it may be, that you may be trapped in an inferno, cursing your choice of underwear that morning.

And there is a philosophical dimension to consider. What is fire? Some activities – I will leave it to your imagination, dear reader – may result in some frictional activity in the nether regions. Does engaging in such pursuits whilst wearing these benighted undies add an unanticipated and unexpected danger? What if you had had a particularly fierce curry the night before?

I was quite shaken when I had finished considering all these possibilities. Suffice it to say, the boxers have been consigned to the bin and I have resurrected my elderly collection of safer underwear from the bowels of my wardrobe.

After all, you can’t be too careful!

Merry Christmas to you all!

Book Corner – December 2014 (2)


Augustus – John Williams

Readers of this blog will know that the author John Williams who has risen to posthumous glory was my literary find of 2013. His three books are chalk and cheese in terms of era, environment and even genre, ranging from the wild western adventure of an idealistic young man who tries to commune with nature only to end up with a bunch of madmen annihilating a large herd of buffalo (Butchers Crossing, 1960) to the life, loves and frustrations of a Mid-Western professor (Stoner, 1965) to a book in epistolary form about the man who avenged the death of his adopted father, Julius Caesar, and became Emperor of the Roman world (Augustus). Augustus was William’s most successful book during his lifetime winning him the National Book Award on its publication in 1972.

The book falls into three parts – the first telling the story of his rise to power and the way he avenged Julius Caesar’s death, the second part deals principally with his relationship with his daughter Julia whom he loved dearly but whose disreputable lifestyle forced him to exile her and the third is when Augustus is on his deathbed. We only get to hear Augustus in the third part, save for an extract from his official Res Gestae at the end of the first.

I am not normally a fan of the epistolary novel because I always find the artifice of using letters to move the story on and to give an insight into the characters’ thoughts and motivations a preposterous literary conceit. However, Williams carries it off – just – and the different voices and perspectives build up a compelling picture of the intrigues, struggles and strengths of the eponymous hero. And hero is what Augustus is in William’s rather sympathetic portrayal of a man most historians characterise as being just the right side of Hitler and Stalin.

The central crux of the book revolves around the conflict between the individual and the institution, of the role of power in impacting relationships and how experience rather than innate feelings influences our characters. It is part of Williams’ genius that the struggle between Augustus and Julia is brought down to human terms and can be viewed as the strained relationship between a father and a daughter pushing at the boundaries, a not uncommon phenomenon in everyday life. Augustus is forced to do his duty as he perceives it, much as the consequences pain him.

And it is a masterstroke to leave the voice of Augustus to the third part. On his deathbed and writing a long letter to his would-be biographer, Nicolaus of Damascus, he is in a reflective mood, anxious to explain and put the record straight. He is portrayed with immense sympathy and understanding.

The book is littered with all the characters you would expect – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Agrippa, Maecenas, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Cicero – and some you might not such as characters from the artistic world including the poets Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Catullus and Horace. Augustus was a great patron of the arts and the poets’ perspectives build the picture of a softer, more complex character.

It is a fine book and an interesting take on Augustus but in my view a lesser work in comparison with Stoner and even Butchers Crossing.

Steady Hand


It is the so-called festive season – frankly, a time of year that I dread, what with all that false cheeriness. As someone who believes that a pub is for all the year and not just for Christmas I don’t take kindly to my favourite watering holes being invaded by carousers. As well as offending my curmudgeonly disposition the increased attendance in the hostelries introduces some logistical problems not normally encountered (at least where I drink) during the rest of the year.

Queuing for an inordinate amount of time to be served – more than 10 seconds, I find – adds nothing to my equilibrium and then you have the problem of carrying your hooch back to your table, weaving your way past the merry-makers.

The prefect pint should be filled to the brim with a head of between 12 and 15 millimetres, no more and no less. It takes the discerning toper an age to train the bar staff to dispense the nectar of the gods in the requisite fashion. The more obstacles there are between bar and table, the more likely you are to spill some valuable – both from a monetary and a sensory perspective – liquid.

In the festive season what is the best drink to order to minimise the possibility of spillage? Fortunately some physicists at Princeton University led by Alban Sauret have shed some light on the toper’s dilemma. It is all down to the head (or foam) on the top of your drink and liquid friction when the bubbles in the head rub against the walls of your beer glass. The rubbing expends a lot of energy which means there is less likelihood that the liquid will spill over the glass.

To prove the point, the scientists poured freshly brewed coffee which has no head at all, a Heineken and a Guinness into standard pint glasses until they were just over half-full and placed them on a plate. The plate was then programmed to simulate the movement associated with something being carried whilst walking and then jerk as if the carrier had come to a sudden halt. The wavy motions on the surface of each of the three drinks was filmed using a high-speed camera.

What the scientists found was that the coffee, even when only in a half-filled glass, spilled over the rim. Both the beers with their heads stayed in the glasses and the Guinness moved least.

This all makes sense and explains why it is devilishly difficult to carry a cup of coffee without spilling it – I had put it down to the shakes, so this is welcome news. If you have a fair way to travel between bar and your table you might be best off with Guinness but any bitter with the appropriately sized head should survive a reasonable journey intact.

Isn’t science wonderful?!


Discovery Of The Week (2)


In that most saccharine of Christmas Carols, Away In A Manger, the cattle are lowing and the newly born infant awakes. I’m sure, like me, you have regarded lowing as one of the things that cattle do, along with releasing mega quantities of methane into the atmosphere, and there is nothing more to it than adding a bit of colour to the Nativity scene.

Not a bit of it. The cattle would have been having a conversation, if some research that came to my attention this week and led by Dr Monica Padilla de la Torre from the University of Nottingham is to be believed. Astonishingly, they spent 10 months studying the way cows talk to their young.

Two maternal calls were identified – a low one emitted when the mother was close to her calf and a higher pitched one when they were out of visual contact. Calves called out when they wanted to start suckling. The most important finding, at least in the eyes (and to the ears) of the scientists, was that all three calls were individualised. This means that a particular cow could recognise and respond to her own calf’s calls.

Extremely useful when you are competing against a cacophony of bleating sheep and goats, the braying of donkeys, a heavenly host complete with trumpets and wise men and their entourages.

Isn’t science wonderful?!