The Spoon and the Wine Bottle

This mock essay illustrates many of the toos used to write text using Asciidoc markup.

Introduction

This document can be read in two ways: (a) as a semiserious essay on science, belief, champagne, and related matters, or (b) as an example of how one writes documents for Scripta.

Scripta is the web authoring and publishing app that you are looking at right now. It uses Asciidoc, a markup language, to structure, shape, and render the authors words. For the essay itself, read on. For more information on Asciidoc, click on the red text below, or click on the letter G above (in the menu bar). It will take you to the User Guide.

Asciidoc: Sample document
As a training document, the present essay shows how to use the Asciidoc markup language for common writing needs: section titles, italic and bold text, footnotes, quotations, links to web pages, etc. The basic idea of any markup language — markdown, LaTeX, whatever — is that you add little "codes" to the actual text to shape its structure and appearance. To best understand this, Click on the X button in the the view selector control bar as illustrated in the figure below; This way, you will be able to view the source and rendered text at the same time. The source text is what you write. The rendered text is what you offer your readers. By comparing them, you will quickly get the hang of it.

Navigation

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Figure 1. View selector

Use the view selector, as illustrated in Figure 1, to choose the document view that is best for you. Hover over a button in the view selector to see a description of what it does. Or better, just click on it. The experimental method in action! Where is the real view selector? Look to the upper left:-)

The Investigation

champagne and spoon original

In some parts of the world, it is commonly believed that putting a spoon in the neck of a half empty champagne bottle will preserve the fizziness. Of course, the same should be true for a bottle of soda, or anything that has bubbles in it. In this essay we ask first: is this urban myth true? We will examine what others have done to investigate it, and our inquiry will lead us to think about the nature of the scientific method on the one hand and the persistence of belief on the other. Our essay illustrates one further point: silly questions such this have an odd way of leading one to deeper, more significant questions. Treating deep questions in the light of bubbles and champagne is an enjoyable way to do philosophy.

Does it work?

The first question to ask about the spoon technique for preserving carbonation is whether it really works. This should not be hard to determine. Get two bottles of champagne, invite some friends over, uncork them simultaneously, and drink half of each.[1] Put a spoon in the neck of one bottle and leave the other bottle open. Put them side by side in the refrigerator, wait 48 hours, and compare them. Is one fizzier than the other? Which one? If both bottles are equally fizzy, we conclude that the spoon had no effect. If the bottle with the spoon is somewhat fizzier than the bottle without the spoon, we conclude that the spoon technique works. If the bottle with the spoon is much fizzier than the bottle without the spoon, we conclude that the spoon technique works very well.

We now pause for the reader to conduct the experiment. In order to preserve the scientific integrity of this endeavor, a written record with dates, times, and observations should be kept. It should contain all relevant observations up to the final examination of the bottles However, it is considered inadvisable to record observations more than five minutes after the first glass of champagne has been consumed.

The Scientific Method

Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

— Jules Verne
Voyage to the Center of the Earth

Our investigation of the spoon method is a miniature demonstration of the scientific method. We had a question — one associated with a certain degree of controversy, at least at the level of, say, a dinner party somewhere in Paris. Some people think that the spoon method works, others don’t. Some advance arguments for it, saying "I tried it — the bottle was definitely bubbly two days later." Others say, "Yes, my father used this method, as did his father. I use it, and it works." Still others argue against it on theoretical grounds: "The bubbles come from dissolved carbon dioxide. The spoon is no obstacle to the gas in these bubbles leaving the bottle. It can’t possibly work."

The invitees of our dinner party can talk, relate anecdotes and expound theories, and drink as much champagne as they wish, but there is really only one way to settle the question: do the experiment. In the case at hand, the experiment is easy to conceive and easy — even enjoyable — to carry out. In other cases, it may take great imagination and enormous technical resources to conceive of and carry out the experiment. Think, for example, of J.J. Thompson’s oil drop experiment, in which he showed that the charge on the electron comes in certain discrete units, the "elementary charge". You can, for example, have 1, 2, 3, or 27 elementary charges, but you cannot have half or a third or 0.001 of an elementary charge.

J.J. Thompson’s experiment was a masterpiece of the scientific method. Our investigation into the spoon method was far more modest, but it used the same principle: Ask a question of Nature, and let it be the judge. This is a sure-fire way of separating the ideas that we think might work from the ones that actually do. It is a way of gradually building up a reliable body of knowledge. In that quest, scientist make mistakes. They come up with wrong answers and ideas that may seem appealing but simply don’t work. The scientific method — ask a question of Nature, and let it be the judge — is a way of discarding those wrong answers more quickly and more definitively than would otherwise be the case.

The Persistence of Belief

It turns out that the spoon method doesn’t work. See the references for past work on this question. But better yet, do the experiment yourself. If you are underage, use soda instead of champagne — it cheaper anyway. We are thus lead to another question: if the spoon method doesn’t work, and if it is so easy to show that it doesn’t, why do so many people — in France, for example — believe that it does work? This is a question of human psychology and education. One can imagine a variety of answers:

  1. Many people are unfamiliar with the scientific method.

  2. Most people are familiar with the scientific method, but it is not something that they naturally apply to questions of everyday life.

  3. Evidence and argument are not persuasive to most people. Instead they rely on hearsay and anecdote.

There may be other possible explanations — these are the hypotheses of which the traditional treatments of the scientific method speak. We will not investigate other hypotheses here, but instead end with the comment that this is another opportunity to formulate a question for Nature to answer — this time not a question about physics and the behavior of dissolved gases, but rather a question about the nature of humans, individually and in groups.

Remarks
  • One of the points that the textbook treatments of the scientific method often miss is that it takes imagination and insight to formulate good questions and good hypotheses. Formulating hypotheses is part art, part intuition, and part magic.

  • The same observation applies to experimentation. It often takes profound knowledge, insight, and even inspiration to come up with the idea for an experiment: witness J.J. Thompson’s work. And it may take enormous technical skill — the engineering, the workmanship, the patience — to carry the experiment to conclusion. Any one who has done experimental work knows that it is messy, that things go wrong, often repeatedly, and that only through perseverance can the objective be attained — if at all.

References

  1. John Matson, Fact or Fiction: Does a Spoon in the Bottle Keep Champagne Bubbly?, Scientific American, January 4, 2013.

  2. Lisa Hoover, Keep Your Champagne Bubbly with a Spoon, Lifehacker, December 18, 2009.

  3. The Millikan experiment, expository article at the Nuffeld Foundation.

  4. What is Science?


1. If you are under the age of 21, use sparkling cider or soda pop instead.

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