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Atoms and Beer

As the story goes, there once was an engineer who claimed to have the best job in the world. When asked why it was so great, he replied “My work is so far-out that even my boss doesn’t understand it. When I tell him what an awesome job I am doing, he has no choice but to take my word for it.” Some of us still think of this as a dream job, while others are driven by doing something a bit more practical.

If you are like me, you are old enough to remember research labs like IBM Almaden, Xerox PARC, and Bell Labs. The first two still exist (i.e., they have websites) having made the trendy switch from “research lab” to “innovation center.” Not content to just tell the boss how great they were doing, IBM (1989) spelled out the company name in Xenon atoms arranged on a chilled nickel crystal. Google “Bell Labs” and you may land on “World Leader in Rodent Control Technology” which, while innovative in its own way, is not exactly what Alexander Graham Bell originally had in mind.

Most research establishments have one thing in common – they have a broad goal (improved computing, better vaccines, space exploration....) and little is done under the heading of “let’s try this just because we can.” These are all examples of what I call “r&D”- a little bit of research with an eye on Development.

Allow me to illustrate the difference with two examples – atoms and beer.

Ancient cultures had a notion that matter consisted of smaller, more fundamental elements, and the idea was tossed about for millennia. If you took one of those elements and chopped it in half, and then chopped the two halves in half, and so on – at what point could you no longer chop? The Greek word “atomos”, from which “atom” is derived, means something that is basically unchoppable.

It wasn’t until 1808 that chemist John Dalton put forth an amazing yet compelling proposition – perhaps all matter is made up of tiny little indivisible bits. Careful experimentation further led Dalton to the discovery that two elements (like iron and oxygen) can only combine in proportions that reduce to small simple numbers. There was one little problem – people were skeptical of something they couldn’t see.

IBM scientists may have pushed atoms around with a scanning probe microscope decades ago, but to truly understand them, you need to take a more detailed look inside. This is important because, after all, they make up everything. As recently reported in the journal Nature, scientists have solved that problem with synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy that can examine atoms one at a time, detecting the type as well as its chemical state. There may be far-reaching implications of this important work but for now, this is Research with a capital “R.”

Thousands of years ago, when philosophers were still contemplating that successive chopping thing, the practical folks were brewing beer – the oldest recorded beer recipe was traced to 1800 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians mixed yeast with water, soaked barley bread in the liquid, and let it ferment. When a few daring folks began tasting the product, they became increasingly pleased with the result. A long-lasting tradition was born and to this day, researchers often celebrate a new achievement with a trip to the local taproom.

Human nature begets continual improvement – what we call “Development” – and 3,000 years later a group of Benedictine monks in a Bavarian abbey, with some time to kill between devotionals, researched various beer ingredients. Records show that they added hops to the basic Sumerian recipe as a preservative, noting that the resulting bitterness wasn’t so bad either. Anyone who has toured a modern brewery, or brewed their own at home, will recognize that the basic beer recipe hasn’t changed – water, a fermentable starch, yeast, and hops remain the staples to this day.

There are now nearly 10,000 craft breweries in the U.S., and as in any mature industry, the focus has shifted to market share. Brewers seek attention with new flavors and additives as varied as popsicle sticks (removed before bottling), pumpkin, and cannabis. Some pursue higher alcohol content, while others feature lower ABV for social drinkers who prefer to remain conscious. There is spirited competition to create recipes that will allow smaller craft beer brewers to scale up their production without sacrificing taste.

Macro breweries (Anheuser-Bush, Coors, Carlsberg …) have a century’s worth of consumer feedback to dial in the taste of their beer. In 2017, Carlsberg worked with Microsoft on a project that used AI to detect and catalog the flavors and aromas of new beer recipes, resulting in tight controls on the finished product. Small craft brewers had no such resources - until now.

In 2021 Australian company Deep Liquid worked with Barossa Valley Brewing to create “The Rodney”, an AI-generated IPA. Each can has a QR code with which drinkers can submit their opinions on how the beer tastes. That feedback is input to an AI program that can adjust the recipe accordingly. Technology for better beer now rests in the hands of the consumer. Armed with this data, the Mom-and-Pop brewers of the world can compete with the big dogs in the beer market. Beer represents the epitome of Development.

There is no record of those synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopists celebrating their atomic triumph with a cold IPA, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Even the most dedicated researchers can appreciate the practical benefits of development.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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