Friday, 30 May 2014

Armageddon For Brewmeister

Brewing is huge in Scotland, both in terms of popularity and the sheer number of breweries producing some truly wonderful beers. We're blessed in many ways, with enormous tracts of ideal land for growing barley and a plentiful supply of crystal clear water combined with mineral geology that is second only to Burton Upon Trent's legendary supply.  The industry has a worldwide reputation which is close to that of our whisky industry.

The business has changed over the years - the post-WWII period were dark times, and the industry went into decline, but over the last few decades many new breweries have sprung up, from the (literally!) archaeological origins of the Williams Bros, through the more traditional such as Stewart's and Harviestoun, and even tiny little one-man bands like Barney's, working from a little room in the centre of Edinburgh.

And, of course, there's the big bad punks of the world, Brewdog.  This relative newcomer have caused a bit of a stir with their anarchic marketing and PR, taxidermy bottles and experiments at the edge of what can be called "brewing", producing mouth-puckeringly bitter IPAs, annoying their critics with super-low-ABV beers that still taste of something, and most notably getting into an arms race to produce the "world's strongest beer" by using freeze-distillation to remove most of the water, leaving behind "beers" which are in excess of 50% alcohol.

And now to Brewmeister, who are trying do do almost exactly the same thing.  Same "anarchic" marketing, same fringe-brewing techniques, and a couple of beers claiming to be 60%+.

Only there's a huge problem.  Brewdog know what they're doing.  Brewmeister...well the kindest thing I can say is that they're incompetent.

After suspicions were raised by many people who had tried Brewmeister's Armageddon, a self-style 65% ABV "strongest beer in the world", the man behind the excellent Beercast blog teamed up with Edinburgh craft beer pub The Hanging Bat and had a few tests run, on both Armageddon and Brewmeister's follow-up beer, Snake Venom.  The results (to the nearest percentage point) are horrific.

Claimed ABV: 65%
Tested bottle: 23%

Snake Venom
Claimed ABV: 67.5%
Tested bottle: 41%

 Rich's full blog post on the matter can be found on his Beercast site and is well worth a read.

There's so many problems here it's difficult to know where to start. Firstly there's the fact that declaring the alcohol content of drinks is mandatory, and you have to be accurate to within a percentage point.  Get this wrong and you not only face legal action, but your customers (which for a brewery includes pubs and off-licences) could end up in court themselves.  It happened to a friend of mine with a bottle of vodka that had been adulterated, the court ruled that the only defence was testing each drink with a hygrometer, which no pub has ever done and is completely impractical.

Secondly it reveals, at best, a shocking lack of control in their brewing and freeze-distillation process.  It could have been done intentionally, but I have seen no evidence of this.

Thirdly, a complete lack of control shows that this isn't experimental brewing to push the limits of the science, it's what respected US beer blogger Garrett Oliver calls "clown brewing" - simply an attempt to garner publicity through shock value.  This is from a company who's stated intention is to "deliver you to drunksville", a concept that is firmly rejected by every other Scottish brewery, no only because it breaks alcohol marketing laws but also because it's tacky, stupid and is counter to just about every principle brewers pride themselves on.  You can't taste beer properly if you're utterly smashed.

Would you believe it can get worse?  It gets worse.

 Brewmeister have replied to some of these issues in a few paragraphs in the middle of a bigger blog post.  Their implied solution to the problem?  Adding industrial ethanol.

Seriously, if their beers aren't up to ABV after brewing and then freeze-distilling then their first suggested solution isn't changing the label on the bottle, but pouring in neat alcohol.

They seem cagey on whether they've ever actually done this, but the very idea is farcical.  If you do that it's not beer anymore, it's hardly even an alcopop.  It's just industrial alcohol flavoured with an overly-expensive malt extract, and frankly that sounds foul.

 It's not brewing.  It's not even clown-brewing, it's just...well, I don't know what it is, but they need to hand their reputations in and try not to let the jugs of alcohol hit them on the arse on the way out.  They're doing unimaginable harm to the Scottish brewing industry by simply existing and the sooner they fall by the wayside the better.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What Am I?

(Random rambling brought on by reading Why Would A Fundamentalist Christian Become An Atheist)

OK, so I'm an atheist.  But I hesitate to describe myself as such.  After all, I don't describe myself as a non-stamp-collector (although, as with religion, I gave it a go as a kid),  I don't find defining myself as a lack-of-a-quality to be useful in any way.  I could try capitalising Atheism, and joining other Atheists to talk about Atheism, but if Twitter is anything to go by this ends up being the same arguments going around and around and fact the best people to talk to on Twitter about atheism tend to be the theists, as they are generally more likely to have a grounding in the relevant philosophy, Pascal's Wager and so on and so forth.

I'm certainly not a "New Atheist", they're far too pushy for my liking.  Religion is (currently) a part of humanity, we can't bully people out of it, and there does seem to be a psychological need to find an answer to "but why", which I'm guessing is why atheism and science, particularly maths, physics and cosmology tend to be associated when there's actually no logical link other than the fact that science classifies "god" as outside its remit.  On this count, living in a world where people disagree, I'm a Wheatonite.

Nor would I describe myself as an agnostic - I don't believe any current definition of "god" is good enough for me to accept as a possibility, and the standing "bigger than the universe" criterion means we won't have a good enough definition until we're finished doing science, which won't happen in my lifetime at the very least.  On this count I'm certainly an ignostic, but I find that even less satisfying as a definition than atheism, which at least defines what it is...or isn't, at least.

OK, so I'm a human, so what about Humanism?  Even then, it's a group of people who have got together and decided what a Humanist is, and written down the rules, and are probably still arguing over them.

I did toy with the idea of being Vulcan - yes, like in Star Trek - there's a lot to be said for the mentality, but I happen to like laughing till I cry and feeling overcome with beauty and all the other stuff.  Ditto Jedi and Avout - I may have bought the monk-style dressing gown, but I'm not going to buy into it 100%.

So I'm just going to stick with being Geoff.  I reserve the right to change my mind.  Your results may vary.

I'd recommend you try the same.  Not being me, of course, just being you.  You can try being me if you want, but trust me, it's just confusing.  I'm actually very happy with it, but it does (in my experience at least) take nearly 40 years of training to be me.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

How To Prove Einstein Wrong

Physics exists on a spectrum, from the incredibly rigorous, through the vague and "hand-wavy" to the borderline crackpot - and there's plenty of room at the bottom.  For some reason physics attracts the crackpot, there's no shortage of claims of perpetual motion machines, "proofs" of god and the great favourite, "I've proved Einstein wrong" - ask any physicist and you'll probably find they've received plenty of emails along those lines, almost all of which "aren't even wrong", a very specific physics insult used for hypotheses which aren't testable, well defined, or rely on the Universe doing things which would break every known and tested physical law.

Why does Einstein get singled out? Why don't we see claims of "proving Planck wrong" all over the internet? Or even Arthur Stanley Eddington, who despite being an excellent physicist had some exceedingly crackpot ideas himself and is very easy to prove wrong - and yet returns zero results?  I'd suggest Einstein's continuing fame is a major factor, everyone wants to beat the person at the top.  Add to this the fact that there's some known "issues" with Relativity, specifically the Dark Energy and Dark Matter problems, and he becomes the prime target.

But whilst the majority of attacks on Relativity lie firmly in the realms of crackpottery, "proper" physicists continue to examine, reformulate and test the theory.  A great example is Mike McCulloch's work, which I've spent some time getting my head around recently.  He's a lecturer in geomatics, the study of measuring positioning in space which, while technically and historically is a branch of geography, is conducted using GPS and other satellite based systems these days, which means you're working almost exclusively in Einstein's realm, the mathematical model of relativistic spacetime.

The theory he's developing is called "Modified inertia by a Hubble-scale Casimir effect", or MiHsC, and it's a fantastic example of a proper, non-crackpot, approach to the problems in modern cosmology.

The Problems

There are three main issues with the basic theory of Relativity, one from a theoretical basis and two brought up by observation. 
  The first is the simple fact that in the last fifty years we've not been able to mesh the two main theories of physics, General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory.  Both work, and for all everyday purposes we can pick whichever theory we need, quantum theory for anything very small (such as the subatomic experiments being conducted at the LHC) and relativity for the big stuff, like the orbit of planets or the behaviour of clocks on satellites.  We can even use them at the same time, such as the relativistic change to atomic clocks on satellites (which GPS relies on) or the way the LHC can give protons an bigger "punch" and create much heavier particles like the Higgs.  But push things too far - like the center of a black hole or the behaviour of the universe in the first tiny fractions of a second and things break down.  The graphs go off the scale, the theories don't mesh, and we end up with nonsensical results - that kind of thing makes a physicist's brain itch. A bigger theory is needed.
  The other two problems are both brought about by observation - if you take the simple, original version of relativity then it doesn't match what we see in the sky - galaxies rotate too quickly (known as the "Dark Matter" problem) and the universe is not only expanding, but the expansion is accelerating, which is the "Dark Energy" problem.  Don't let these names fool you, they're both really placeholders for whichever correction-or-replacement is needed in the current theory.

The Theory

MiHsC is a whole new approach to the origin of mass - specifically inertial mass.  It may surprise you to hear, but there's lots of different kinds of mass. The two we're looking at here are gravitational mass (the one that gives something "weight") and inertial mass, which is what makes something big more difficult to move.  The two are thought to be the same thing, something referred to as "the equivalence principle", but note that this is just a principle - plenty of experiments have been performed to check this principle, from Galileo dropping cannonballs from the Pisa's tower to the Apollo 15 astronauts dropping a hammer and feather on the Moon.  If the equivalence principle holds then dropped objects will always fall at the same speed - the inertial mass will always match the gravitational mass perfectly.  But these experiments aren't conclusive - we've not tested it in every regime, there's plenty of wiggle room for a difference to be found.
  What McCulloch is proposing is a new idea for an origin of inertial mass, and this could potentially result in the slight changes in behaviour at low accelerations, which could explain Dark Energy and Dark Matter without having to discover new particles or new energy fields, something which has so far eluded experiments.

This new origin is based on something called the "Unruh Effect" (in itself, not a proven concept, but a well developed and reasonably testable theory), which predicts that an accelerating object will "see" a field of radiation, in effect space "pushes back".  This already sounds like a form of inertia, and McCulloch develops this idea to look at what happens at the extremes.  The radiation pushing back must have a wavelength, and as the object accelerates faster the wavelength must be shorter, in the same way the Doppler effect makes a police siren sound higher and higher pitched (ie a shorter wavelength) as it accelerates towards you.  At the opposite end, for very low accelerations the wavelength must become longer and longer...which eventually gives us a bit of an issue. 
  The length of a wave can be limited - you can't have very long waves in small harbours, to steal his example, if there's a barrier of any kind then there's a limit to the wavelength, and we have a very considerable barrier at the largest scales, the "cosmic horizon".  The longest wavelength that can be part of the Unruh effect, he claims, is twice that of the diameter of the observable universe, in other words two nodes, like a guitar string being plucked with no harmonic.  To be longer than this the wave would need to originate outside our universe, to have started before time itself started, which is impossible.  This means that there's a limit to the Unruh effect at low accelerations, which means a limit to the inertia of an object - very low forces no longer perfectly obey Newton's laws of motion, there is a minimum acceleration possible, which is all starting to sound a bit like quantum theory.
Some physics-equivalent of back-of-an-envelope calculations shows that this could (to within an order of magnitude or so) provide the basis for Dark Energy - as the universe expands the cosmic horizon changes, meaning our "quanta of inertia" drops, leading to a feedback loop causing cosmic acceleration.
  Again, a rough application to galaxies shows that if inertia is reduced at very low accelerations - the outlying edges - then gravity would seem to have a larger effect than expected, which looks just like the solution to the Dark Matter problem.
So it's an attractive theory.  There's a realistic mechanism, it makes predictions which are testable within the limits of current or near-future technology and observations, and natural solutions to the two big problems within Relativity seem to just "fall out" of the theory.

Putting my "realistic" hat on there's plenty of pitfalls - it relies on an unproven effect and it's still at the "orders of magnitude" scale of development, the cosmology equivalent of a sketch.  But it's a recognisable sketch and it's a sketch doesn't rely on disproving the existence of metaphorical paper and pencils.  It doesn't prove Einstein wrong, it simply provides a slightly bigger picture which includes Einstein's work, but with subtle changes to make the limiting cases behave in a realistic manner - precisely what Einstein did with Newton's work in fact.

And so what if he does eventually turn out to be wrong?  If McCulloch didn't propose it then somebody else would eventually come up with the idea, so there's no time wasted, and the payback if he's right is huge, yet another "new view of the universe" moment.

And if we do want some crackpot in our theory? Well, it does raise the idea of blocking inertial effects in some way...


Physics From The Edge - Mike McCulloch's Blog
arXiv paper - Testing Quantised Inertia On Galactic Scales
Mike McCulloch on Twitter