Science Book a Day Interviews Adam Rogers

adam-rogersSpecial thanks to Adam Rogers for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – Proof: The Science of Booze

Adam Rogers is the Articles Editor at Wired magazine in San Francisco, where he runs the front-of-book sections and edits features, primarily about science but also other miscellaneous geekery. Rogers was a writer and on-air correspondent for the television show Wired Science, and his feature story “The Angels’ Share” won the 2011 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. – From Adam’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Proof?

I wrote a feature story for Wired about a mysterious fungus that seems to live on the alcoholic fumes given off by aging whisky, and that led me to a bunch of other science on where booze comes from, how people make it, and how it affects the human body. That was all a longtime interest of mine, and I soon realized I’d been gathering string on the subject for years without really knowing what to do with it–my filing cabinet was full. Plus, when I went to look for a book on the science of booze, I couldn’t find one for a general-interest audience. But I wanted one. So…I wrote it.

#2 – You traced the history of alcohol from ancient days to today. What was the most surprising finding you made?

In reporting every chapter I came to moments where researchers would say, “we don’t know the answer to that” in response to what I thought were basic questions. How do different strains of yeast produce different flavors in fermentation? How does our sense of smell work? How does alcohol work in the brain? Human beings have been consciously making and consuming alcoholic beverages for 10,000 years, yet some of the basic mechanisms of the process are still mysteries.

#3 – A constant driver of alcohol development has been economic. Is it’s influence over-stated? Or under-estimated?

I can’t speak to whether people over- or underestimate the economic rationale behind fermenting and distilling, but it’s obviously important. Being able to process a field of crops into a barrel of liquid–more easily transported and of higher value than the crops by themselves–would be enough to turn just about any farmer into a brewer, winemaker, or distiller.

#4 – How much have ‘sensory scientists’ added to our understanding of the influences of the taste of alcohol? And do outside influences like pricing and marketing influence us?

Sensory scientists are doing important work in deepening what people know about why some drinks taste the way they do, and why some people prefer some drinks to others. The makers of various drinks would love to know which parts of their processes actually contribute to the final outcome and which ones they could change, or toss out altogether. Sensory scientists also are our best hope for confirming or falsifying a lot of alcohol lore–what does terroir contribute to wine flavor, do people really prefer more expensive booze, etc.

That said, pricing and marketing (and all the theater of the restaurant and bar experience) have a profound influence on how people experience their drinks. Put it this way: No one has ever shown that the shape of a wine glass has a measurable effect on how much we like a specific wine, but if you order a sufficiently expensive wine in a sufficiently nice restaurant, you’re going to get “special” glasses. And that beer you tasted in that little town in Germany in the bar you found by accident will never taste as good sitting at home in front of a “Friends” re-run.

#5 – What kind of response have you had to your book?

The response has been positive, I think. Lots of nice notes on Twitter, lots of other media interested in talking about it. Everyone wants to talk about hangover cures, which is unfortunate because my chapter on hangovers concludes, roughly, that no cure actually works. I’m most gratified, I think, by the response from the science writing and booze writing communities, who’ve been supportive.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Nothing yet. It’s possible that I have a book-writing version of a hangover. I have a couple ideas, but until I’ve written a proposal, that doesn’t really mean anything. Gotta put my typewriter where my mouth is….

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