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Jack Wyrick

Why Does Carbonation Make Drinks Taste Good?

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Jack Wyrick

What makes drinks bubbly? The science is pretty simple: Carbonation is a solution of carbon dioxide gas in liquid water. If kept under pressure, the carbonation is maintained—normally, the bottle or natural spring serves this purpose.

Why it’s tasty is even cooler. When the bottle is opened, the carbon dioxide gas reacts with water to form carbonic acid. This reaction gives the drink a light acidity, but it's often eclipsed by adding stronger acids. Bubbles within the drink also convey aromatic compounds up to the drinker’s nose, thereby creating a heightened perception of flavor. The bubbles rising through liquid in the mouth also create a pleasant, tingly sensation on the tongue.

Bubbling up

When confined, the air around the liquid and the solution itself contains the same amount of carbon dioxide. If a bottle is opened or the liquid leaves the spring, the liquid is no longer in a state of equilibrium with its surroundings.

At this point, the liquid contains an excess of CO2 compared to the air around it. To restore equilibrium, the dissolved carbon dioxide will escape into the atmosphere directly through the liquid’s surface or through the bubbles that rise up. When most of the gas is expelled, the solution reaches a new equilibrium—flat.

One of the biggest factors in the rate of dispersal is the glass. Using a wider mouth glass like a coupe increases the surface area of the liquid exposed to air which allows more of the carbonation to escape quickly. On the other hand, a thin champagne flute minimizes the amount of exposed liquid, preserving the carbonation.

Within the glass, bubbles are formed through a process called heterogeneous nucleation. Nucleation means a phase change (liquid to gas) that happens at tiny, pre-existing points, which are the gas pockets. These pockets are formed by imperfections in the glass or by pieces of debris stuck to its insides. Utilizing a scratched, dirty or flawed glass will, therefore, create more bubbles.

Making a Fizz

In nature, carbonation either arises naturally (as seen in some famous natural springs) or through the process of fermentation. Since carbon dioxide and alcohol are both natural products of fermentation, many alcoholic beverages become carbonated in the bottle.

In forced carbonation, carbon dioxide is forcefully dissolved into water with pressure. Most mass-produced sodas and sparkling waters are made this way, but some beers and sparkling wines are as well.

Interestingly, few guidelines for ideal levels of carbonation exist. Sodas tend to be highly carbonated, but champagnes can often be up to 1.5 times stronger.

Hit the Lab

One of the most famous fizzy cocktails is the French 75. Depending on who you believe, this cocktail was originally made with gin or brandy. Either way, it packs as much of a wallop as its namesake, a rapid-firing and extremely accurate WWI cannon.

This beverage was most likely named by a Parisian bartender around 1915. Aside from that, its history is pretty murky. Some origin stories suggest that someone substituted champagne for soda water in a Tom Collins. Other assert that it was created some time in the 19th century when a bored member of the upper class spiked the popular champagne punch.

However it happened, the resulting cocktail most likely existed for decades before it was actually named. As a result, many different recipes and variations on it exist. Try out different styles—swap brandy for gin, serve it over ice, use different sparkling wines, and drink it out of different glasses to experiment with its carbonation.

Jack Wyrick

French 75
0.5 oz simple syrup
0.5 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1.5 oz gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously for 20-25 seconds or until well combined. Strain into a chilled champagne flute and top with one or two ounces of champagne (or the sparkling wine of your choice).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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