The Tri-umph of beer

Week three: the Modern


This semester, Kings College is offering a course titled "Brewing Science: The History, Culture and Science of Beer," taught by professor Gordon Mcouat, an instructor in King's History of Science and Technology program.

I managed to get myself enrolled in the class, and so will be posting regular updates on its progress.

Okay, I’ve been giving Mcouat a hard time the last couple of weeks, but I take it all back. His lecture this week was a stellar performance, demonstrating just how much he knows about this subject, and more, how to relate it all to a room for of college students. Or, at least, to some random guy off the street who’s gonna hit him up for a beer after class.

First, Mcouat outlined the problem with the scientific revolution. As we saw in Week One, the Greeks were pretty big on the divide between intellectuals thinking about the natural world and artisans making stuff. The cause of the artisan’s product, they said, is external to itself---it’s constructed---but nature has inherent causes, within. Aristotle went so far as to dis the mathematical examination of nature as “abstracting” nature’s nature. But with the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, nature begins to look a lot like an artifact: it’s mechanical, mathematical, measurable. So: how’d that happen?

Mcouat credits beer.

Through the Medieval period, he said, almost all cultures had some form of beer and brewing. In Europe, that brewing took place in three places: the monastery, the home and the alehouse. (Mcouat said we’d deal with the alehouse in some depth in a later class.)

The monastery had been the centre of brewing for over a thousand years. “They consumed enormous quantities of beer in the monasteries,” said Mcouat. “I don’t know how they could keep quiet after drinking all that beer. In one abbey, the monks were given a ration of more than one gallon of beer, each.”

People were brewing a lot in their homes and alehouses, as well---in the year 1300, 75 percent of the households in Devonshire, England were brewing and selling beer. In the town of Halesowen there were five male bakers, compared to 25 (mostly female) brewers.

Brewing was a gigantic industry. In the 13th and 14th centuries beer was exceeded only by grain as a traded product. And over the next few centuries that trade grew larger still, and with it came the industrialization of brewing, standardization of measurements and the inevitable introduction of regulation and taxation. Mcouat pointed out that along with all that proto-democracy stuff, the Magna Carta also drew up the first rules regulating brewing, and in 1445 Henry IV granted the brewers of London a royal charter.

The process was helped along when hops were introduced in the 15th century, because the boiling of hops required large capital expenditures for equipment, and then again with the Reformation as large-scale brewing left the closing monasteries and went out into the wider world.

There is, said Mcouat, an old-school, simplistic view of what brought about the scientific revolution, which involved a bunch of really smart guys thinking about the world in new ways, and that new thinking trickling down to the stupid common people. Like me, you probably learned this tale in high school: Copernicus turned the universe upside down by knocking the Earth out of it centre-of-the-universe seat of privilege and making it just another rock spinning around the sun. Descartes brought logical thinking and that x-y graph dealy. Galileo dropped things off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and discovered the rules of motion. Newton brought it all together, the picture of rationality. All that taken care of, why not have an industrial revolution?

But there’s an entirely different take on the reasons for the scientific revolution, which has it the other way around: there was a fundamental shift in the realm of thought that originated in the crafts, and especially in the brewing industry as it responded to the challenges of industrialization, measurement, regulation and taxation.

This story was first told by the historian Edgar Silsel in the 1930s, who argued that brewing is what brought two previously distant social groups---academics and craftsmen—together for the first time in a major way for a common pursuit. Another historian who was big on this idea was a local fellow named Richard Hadden, a prof at SMU who in 1994 published a book about the scientific revolution called On the Shoulders of Merchants.

The poster child for the new attitude was Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society of London, the first real scientific society, in 1660, not so coincidently the same year the world’s very first beer tax was levied. This was a few months after all that messiness with the English civil war had been straightened out with the restoration of Charles II, and the Royal Society took the view that the study and pursuit of knowledge should be completely separate from politics and religion, a battle we’re fighting to this day, as a glance across our southern border will attest. Boyle held the view that God was a machinist, a technician, tinkering with the cogs and sprockets that control the motion of the cosmos.

One of Boyle’s greatest inventions was what he called his “bubble,” a hydrometer initially used to measure the specific gravity of liquors, so that merchants could determine if the booze they were buying was watered down. The instrument also was, tellingly, used to discover counterfeit coins. So you see, the beginning of the this new world view was tied up with early capitalism, and specifically with the beer and liquor trade.

I’ll skip ahead a bit and get to Mcouat’s tour de force, which was his explanation of Kepler’s gigantic conceptual leap. Kepler, you might recall, was the fellow who finally figured out how the planets orbit the sun, what we know call the three laws of planetary motion: the first being that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one foci; the second being that the planet travels faster when they're close to the sun, slower when far away, and there’s a mathematical formula to describe that speed; and the third being too damn complicated for me to understand, much less describe to other people.

Kepler’s new ideas were all the more remarkable because in his earlier work he was still relying on the old Platonic shapes to explain the universe---the orbits of the planets were circular, and were defined by a steady progression of perfect shapes: circle, cube, and so forth. So what got him thinking in the new way?

You guessed it: beer.

As Mcouat told it, Kepler was at a wedding---“it might have been his own”---and was watching the workers who had brought the beer for the guests, as they were measuring the contents of the barrels by poking a dipstick in them and comparing them against various charts. (Mcouat let on that it was actually wine in those particular barrels, but we’re not going to let the facts get in the way of our perfectly good storyline.) This set Kepler to thinking: how do you measure the contents of a barrel?

For the occasion, Mcouat had brought a small barrel, which was at the front of the class, and explained how this vessel was “the cardboard box of the period”---used to transport just about everything. It’s a remarkable creation, he explained, because of the way it all fits together, with the metal rings holding together the wooden staves, which press outward against each other as the barrel is filled. The problem, however, is that the barrel has an irregular shape, thicker in the middle and narrower at the ends, which presents a seemingly impossible puzzle for anyone trying to measure what’s in it.

Kepler, said, Mcouat, approached the problem as follows: If you took a horizontal slice of the barrel, from (say) the top half of it, you would have a circular slab, with the top edge of the slab being somewhat smaller than the bottom edge of the slab. But if you took the radius of the slab at its centre and ran a standard volume calculation (pi times the square of the radius times the thickness) you’d get a rough idea of the volume of that particular slice. You could add that to all the other slices of the barrel, and you could figure out the volume of the barrel, or something close to it.

But, noted Kepler, the smaller you made each slice, the better approximation you would get. And the absolute best calculation would be to use ever more infinitesimally small slices.

Hey! This looks familiar. Even my beer-addled brain recalls that this is pretty much the foundation of calculus.

Kepler took this insight, applied it to the planets, and voila, out pops his masterpiece, Nova Sterometria Vinarium, which explains all things planetary.

“Kepler,” explained Mcouat, “takes that big step from beer to the universe.”

Let’s all lift a glass and toast what was truly a wonderful performance all the way around, from both Mcouat and Kepler.

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