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Brainiac

Paint a bird on it

Adam Doyle

Writing at his always excellent arts website, Colossal (www.thisiscolossal.com), Christopher Johnson interviews the painter Adam Doyle, who has painted a beautiful series of birds using a minimal color palette and visible, dynamic brush-strokes. They look a little like Japanese wood-block versions of Audobon’s famous bird prints; the swirls of the brush strokes create the impression of feathers.

“With my paintings,” Doyle says, “it does take quite a bit of working and reworking to arrive at the place where every brush stroke fits into a fluidly flowing whole. It’s important to me to find a balance between an elegance of form that holds both visible marks of paint and a representation of ‘energy within.’ ”

A fine vintage, with optimal sphere volume

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A glass of champagne is a lot of things—a symbol of celebration, an enjoyable (if expensive) way to kick off an evening—but a physics experiment? It is, if you’re the right physicist.

Writing for the Agence France Presse, Richard Ingham profiles the French physicist Gerard Liger-Belair. At age 41, Ingham writes, Liger-Belair has “arguably the best job in all of physics”: He’s an expert on the way bubbles form, travel, and disperse in glasses of champagne. His research has practical implications for the way you drink and enjoy bubbly.

Liger-Belair’s 2004 book, “Uncorked: The Science of Champagne,” was published by Princeton University Press and won prestigious awards, as both a food book and a physics text. By using high-speed camera equipment, he’s been able to capture the bubbling of champagne in action. The bubbles form around tiny scratches or bits of fiber inside the glass (the sort left behind by, for example, a dish towel). When a bubble reaches the surface and pops, Liger-Belair explains, “It explodes, making a tiny crater on the surface. The crater closes up and then ejects a thread of liquid, which then breaks up in droplets that can fly up to 10 centimetres (four inches).” That, Ingham writes, is one reason why drinking champagne is so much fun: “As you bring the glass closer to your mouth, the bursting of bubbles at the surface will release tiny droplets to your face and aromatic molecules to your nose, adding a discreet, sensual feel,” even before you’ve tasted it.

The kind of glass you use matters, too. Drinking champagne out of a plastic cup is always a let-down because the plastic the cups are made of repels water; that makes the bubbles cling to the side of the cup, instead of popping at the surface. The worst sin of all, he’s found, is drinking champagne out of a coupe—one of those shallow, broad glasses you might have seen in a movie like “Marie Antoinette.” All that surface area ends up wasting the bubbles, whereas a champagne flute keeps them bubbling for as long as possible, prolonging your enjoyment.

How to read a leaf

During the spring and summer, we pay attention to flowers; during the fall, we pay attention to leaves. Just in time for autumn, Rob Dunn has written a fantastic essay about leaves for National Geographic magazine. The shape and structure of a leaf, Dunn writes, can reveal a lot—about the climate it’s designed for, the evolutionary history of its species, even the size and vitality of the plant to which it belongs.

Different kinds of environments, Dunn explains, push evolution to favor different kinds of leaves. Rain-forest plants, for example, tend to have long, narrow leaves with “drip tips” on the end, to help drain away the deluge. If a plant shares an ecosystem with lots of leaf-munching animals, then, over evolutionary time, the textures of its leaves may change. “Grass blades,” Dunn writes, “evolved the ability to accumulate the silica from the soil—becoming like tiny glass slivers, which ruin the teeth of browsers like cows one bite at a time.”

The veins that line a leaf are a clue about the plant to which it’s attached. The veins carry water to the plant’s chloroplasts, the intra-cellular organs that power photosynthesis. The more water a leaf can transport, the faster it can photosynthesize; that, in turn, allows the plant to grow faster and higher. The more veined a leaf is, in other words, the bigger and taller its plant is likely to be. That’s why, Dunn writes, the veins of a maple leaf are “like the roads of a city.”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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