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Champagne Physics 101

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 21, 2012 09:23 PM

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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 AFP, 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.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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