Friday, December 15, 2023

Taking tea with a grain of salt - the Boston tea party

Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the day protesting American colonists dumped 42,000 kg1 of tea into Boston Harbor. That's enough to make about 21,000,000 cups of tea. While that might sound like a lot of tea, several billion cups of tea  are drunk across the world  every day2. Each year humans drink enough tea to to fill Boston Harbor end to end. That's a bit less than half a cubic kilometer (which in those terms I confess does not sound like very much - but Boston Harbor).

The tea, once dumped in the harbor, was unusable due to contamination not only by the salt water, but by the sewage that surely polluted the bay. (I was fascinated to find that a vial of the tea leaves purportedly collected from the harbor still exists.)

Salt would seem to be the last thing you want in your tea, but in the eighth century manuscript Classic of Tea, the tea master Lu Yu recommended adding a dash of salt to water before using it to brew tea. Salt, actually the sodium ions in it, suppresses our perception of bitterness. A small amount of salt, not even enough to taste, reduces the bitterness in a cup of tea. Other ions will do this too, including zinc. Beware, zinc also interferes with the perception of sweet!

1. If you prefer this in Imperial units, that would be 92,000 pounds.
2. At this point I'm apparently contractually required to tell you that tea is the most popular beverage in the world. Virtually everything I read about tea made sure to make this point early and often.

If you want to know more about the chemistry behind tea, my book Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea comes out from the Royal Society of Chemistry Books in January 2024. You can sign up to hear me talk about the chemistry of tea on February 15 with Chemistry World.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Vampire diaries

On Tuesday morning I had a procedure on my eye which left me as sensitive to light as a vampire and with very blurry vision.  I came home and spent the afternoon like a Victorian lady with the vapors. In a dim room propped on many pillows, eyes closed while someone read to me. It lacked only the cool compress on my forehead and some smocked white lawn dress to be a woodcut right out of a 19th century novel, well that and my intrepid book reader was not the vicar's daughter but my iPhone. 

No email, no desultory browsing the news, no list of household chores to get through, I drifted along to the voice in my ears, letting someone else choose the pace at which the story progressed. All in all it was a tiny retreat, a meditation on surrender and control.

By bedtime I could see well enough to pray Compline, “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.” Two Advil (the local had worn off) and indeed I slept in peace, and rose in gratitude to a less blurred day. 

Monday, September 04, 2023

The season for changes

green caterpillar on a grey wall
It's September, the season has changed from summer to fall (though the temperature feels anything but fall-like today). Classes start at the college tomorrow, and I am thinking about changes. (If you also now have David Bowie's Changes as an earworm, I apologize, or consider it the soundtrack to this blog post.) 

Like the caterpillars, so much changes for me at this point in the year. My schedule changes. Inflexible classes plant themselves in my calendar, meetings sprout like weeds around them. My tasks change, too. I need to find time for office hours and grading and class prep. I will have new students and new colleagues. I am teaching a new class this year and team teaching general chemistry for the first time ever (in this my 40th year of college teaching). My office was renovated over the summer, so that's a change, too. (My door opens on the other side and the light switch has moved. I keep swiping at the wall when I come in. Habits are hard to break.) So many little changes.

office flanked by bookshelves
But I'm also thinking about longer-term changes. What would it be like to retire? A big change that will cascade into many small changes. What's the next big writing project I want to undertake? It feels so odd to be looking at space in my calendar that doesn't have "writing" in it, after all these months of working on the book on tea. There are more changes to come, I expect.

Photo of new office, just like the old office, but with fewer books. (Really.)

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Indexing habits


I just finished Dennis Duncan's Index, a History of The: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. It was a great read, accessible and with lots of lovely word play to enjoy. I enjoyed his capacious definition of an index, large enough to encompass the arrangement of kitchen cabinets to allow its users to reliably locate items. I reflected to Math Man that we use that sort of index when we are at the shore. There is always a designated key and beach pass bowl established near the door. Going out for an early morning pastry run? No need to shake out everyone's pockets looking for one of the two sets of keys we were issued, they are in the bowl. 

These days I leave my phone in the bowl, too. Mostly. Today after a long beach ramble I put it down on my shoes while I unlocked the door, thinking to myself, "Don't leave it here!" Door open, I dropped the keys in the bowl. Two hours later, headed to lunch, I grabbed the keys and wondered where I left my phone...argh. On my shoes. Outside the door.

Practice good indexing habits!

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sensible of conditions

I looked out at the beach yesterday, the water dotted with white caps, sand shimmying itself into tiny dunes and turned to Crash, "Did they teach you the Beaufort scale?" (He is taking a sailing course in London this summer.) He checks the waves and says, "Beaufort 6?" "It's been too long since I thought about it," I admitted.

The Beaufort scale describes the intensity of the wind in terms of observable conditions. Beaufort 0 is so calm that smoke rises vertically.  At Beaufort 2 the leaves can be heard to rustle and you can feel the breeze on your face. Beaufort 6 is a "strong breeze" in which it is hard to raise an umbrella, and white caps are widespread on the waves.

If I wanted to know the current wind speed at the nearby weather station I could check my phone, but there is something about being sensible of the conditions where I am standing that I find appealing. It calls me to be present, to listen and to look and to feel what is around me.

For the record, the conditions were Beaufort 5, a fresh breeze, windspeed 20 mph. Crash and Math Man demonstrate!