Sunday, 24 October 2010

It's a hard life

I just love 'New Scientist'. No subject is too big or too small for them to tackle, and their writers can make it both interesting and amusing.

This week for example they range from the question of the constancy of constants throughout the Universe to the reason people like the smell of bacon. Most folk might be more interested in the latter subject, but the former is more important if you're intending to travel any distance, say to the other end of the Universe.

The thing is you see, that we have all assumed that the laws of physics are immutable throughout the Universe. You couldn't trust anybody if salt was suddenly found to be harder than diamonds in some far-flung galaxies, or Number 27 buses travelled faster than light in others.

An astronomer called John Webb has now produced data which appears to show that a very important constant called Alpha, which is known to determine how many photons of energy an atom will absorb, changes according to the direction in which you're looking. If you're keen on that sort of thing, and you should be, you can read it in the article by Michael Brooks at New Scientist, 23 Oct. 2010, p. 33. The generally accepted value of alpha is around 1/37, but Webb has shown that if you look in a particular direction across the Universe, which allows us to view photons of light emitted by quasars several billion years ago the value is around one part in a million smaller than it seems to be here on Earth.

How big is that compared with the forthcoming decrease in child-benefits I hear the middle-class Mums murmur. Well, its the principle of the thing. If Mr. Osborne decreases your annual income by 50% you may have to forego holidays, booze or even shoes, but if Alpha changes from one part of the Universe to another, which Webb claims it does, then the normal rules of physics don't apply and life would perhaps be impossible, because if you mess about with Alpha there might be no carbon atoms, and hence no life as we know it. Just keep your wits about you is all I'm saying.

Don't let it depress you. The good news is that we now understand why sizzling bacon smells so good (same issue, p. 65). Bacon is prepared by saturating it in 'curing brine', a solution of salt, nitrites, hydrolysed corn starch etc. and when this is heated to a high temperature it causes a Maillard reaction between the sugars in the brine and the amino acids in the meat, a process analogous to the caramelization of sweetened milk when it is heated for long enough.

The intriguing thing is that there is also a letter on this mouth-watering topic from Yonatan Silver of Jerusalem, who claims never to have tasted bacon, and when he smells bacon he does not find it appetising.

I wonder if he knows the joke about the Catholic priest and the Rabbi travelling in a railway carriage together. It was a long journey, and as they chatted they began to divulge confidences to each other about their religious faith and their personal lives.
"Tell me confidentially" asked the priest "Have you ever tasted bacon?"
"Well, yes I'm afraid I did once, and it was delicious" said the Rabbi "but tell me confidentially, have you ever slept with a woman?"
"I've afraid I did once" said the priest.
"Better than bacon isn't it!" said the Rabbi.

If any of you have a thought about the Maillard reaction in this context, please try to suppress it.


  1. I wonder if the smell of bacon being cooked by the nubile young lady you met last night, after a night of horizontal jogging compares favorably to the Maillard reaction. Oops, you did warn me

  2. So it actually CHANGES when you look at it differently? Bloody hell, magick and quantum physics are really getting VERY close to each other. I bought a book on Sacred Geometry in London the other week and have only got as far as 1 becoming looking at a pencil end-on and seeing a dot, but then moving it sideways and seeing a line.

    This kind of thing hurts my brain. But I'll keep going lol!

    Ali x

  3. Thanks for these 3 comments.
    Legend- I'm not sure I have an entirely beneficial influence on you.
    Ali- Legend and I are interested in your dimensions, but 3 would be plenty. Theoretical physicists like 11 for String Theory to work but I can't see the need myself.