I went in for wine tastings, and left with a view into wine science

I’m not a wine connoisseur, but through visits to various vineyards this spring, I not only took home delicious new wine varieties but also caught a glimpse of the intricate choices in wine making that shape our wines.

With a tasting menu in hand, I awaited the winery staff to ask the exciting question: “Which wine would you like to try?”

1703I would usually reach for the classic white wines and red wines, but deferring to the wineries’ recommended specialties, I was pleasantly surprised by their varieties of ice wines, fruit wines, and rosés.

Though ice wines often can be excessively sweet, Lulu Island Winery offered a unique Pinot Gris which let me savor the distinct ice wine flavor without the heavy sweetness. Meanwhile at Paumanok Vineyards in Long Island, New York, their award-winning 2014 Semi-dry Riesling and Vin Rosé became my new favorites.

Since a rosé was not on my radar much before then, I asked, “What makes a rosé wine?” One casual question led to another, and in the developing discussion with the winery experts, the wine making process became much more imaginable.

  • Starting with the basics, using only the pulp of grapes makes a white wine, but leaving the grape skins on slightly longer into the wine making process makes a rosé. Also compare the amount of grapes in one bottle of wine: the 750ml bottle of Pinot Gris I tasted was made from 3-5 pounds of grapes, whereas the same size bottle of their ice wine uses 30-35 pounds of grapes for a white ice wine, or 60 pounds for a red ice wine variety (12 – 20 times more grapes!). For ice wines, harvesting the grapes later into the freezing days of winter ripens and concentrates the grapes, and allows to compress a lot of grapes’ sweetness into one bottle of ice wine.
  • Those are the broad types of wine, but every step of wine making affects a wine’s finish: from handling the crop plant and soil, to adjusting the subtle flavors and aromas with different ingredients and fermentation processes, and to bottling and sealing.
    Knowing the chemistry and processes of wine making, can wineries consistently make their great wines like the Lulu Island Pinot Gris, Paumanok 2014 Semi-dry Riesling, and Vin Rosé? Here is what scientists have done for us to help advance wine making; without them, we won’t have the wines we enjoy today. Yet, as Paumanok Vineyards credited their great harvests in winning the New York Winery of the Year of 2015, consistent processes also depend on the source materials. 
  • Also, a wine’s flavor is not only based on what we can analyze with numbers; the flavor is affected by human perception. Lulu Island Winery’s white ice wines came in two flavors: a Riesling Chardonnay with honey flavors and a Viognier with mango flavors. Interestingly, most people naturally associate honey with a sweet taste, so even though scientifically the sweetness rating is higher for the mango flavored ice wine, the honey feels more sweet and heavy, and the mango more refreshing.
    A more in-depth look of how scientists study the relationship between taste, smell, and our personal perception and tolerance to different tastes is covered in this article on wine tasting.

Comparing different flavors of wine is also comparing wine makers’ careful choices in the wine making process and our tastes. The science behind delicious wine is better learned with tastings, isn’t it?
I welcome stories about everyone’s favorite wine tastings! 


In the cockpit of a Boeing 747 – the shift to digital

Photo by Maki
Flat screen control panels in the flight simulator. Photo by Maki

A low rumbling filled the room as Kelvin walked into the flight simulator.

Three flat screen monitors glowed in the dark, each the size of a regular office desktop computer. Only a thick brown curtain sectioned off the flight simulator from the rest of the store, but the vibrations sounded in Kelvin’s ears and echoed through his body as if he were boarding a plane.

Kelvin is at Flight City Enterprises, his local aviation store at the edge of the Vancouver International Airport grounds. After a long day of work, a Groupon gift ticket had brought him to try a 45 minute pilot experience in a commercial aircraft flight simulator.

“This is essentially the day one training program for all Boeing 747 pilots,” the instructor who introduced himself as John explained with a smile. “You’re the pilot, I’m the copilot.”

As John seated himself to Kelvin’s right, he pressed a few keys on an iPad and made Kelvin’s monitors flicker with fluorescent green, pink, and yellow gauges. A few more buttons made a fourth big screen above them change from displaying a sunny flight track to a rainy image of the Vancouver International Airport. The rumbling sound blended with soft clicks and splatters of rain hitting the plane body.

But something seems to be missing. A pilot’s cockpit brings to mind images of panels full of buttons and knobs like this to control the plane:

Link to original image in wikimedia commons
Boeing 747 cockpit built in 1977, photo by NASA/Tony Landis

Kelvin scans across his equipment and there are no physical buttons to press or switches to flip. Maybe a lever or joy stick? With the exception of one steering lever in between his legs, all he has is the flickering lights from the flat screen monitors, with a digital image of a throttle moving on its own inside the screen.

More aircraft cockpits are switching to have an increasing digital control with flat panel screens like this:

Link to original image in wikimedia commons
Boeing 747 cockpit in 2006, photo by Darryl Wilkins

Newer models of Boeing 747 have in their cockpits sleek flat panel screens and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner recently incorporated glass overhead displays that overlay digital images onto the window of the cockpit.

According to manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, automated controls are beneficial since software is more light-weight and cost-effective to maintain compared to hardware and are re-programmable to various aircraft types and to further technological advances. The ability to type in exact numbers instead of manually adjusting controls allows for more precise control, thus affecting safety.

However, despite the widespread use, there are some issues to sort out in advancing computerized flight control. Some aircraft will have a mechanical backup where pilots can manually control the plane in case of an electronic failure, but this article in Flying Magazine more fully evaluates this advancement in digital flight, also coined “Fly by Wire.”

Today, first steps of flight training can be done entirely on digital flat panel screens (see Flat Panel Trainer for Lufthansa planes), and yet it quite closely reflects the actual controls on modern aircraft. As Kelvin began to adjust the monitor controls in the pilot’s seat, the excitement quickly took over. He is about to take off on his first digital “flight.”

Photo by Maki
Pilot’s seat in the flight simulator. Photo by Maki


10 Selected Talks from 2015 – Part 1: Discovery and Inventions

Reflecting back on the researchers and science communicators I encountered in 2015, I selected a highlight of 10 topics that I have not yet elaborated on this blog. Part 1 focuses on discoveries and inventions.



Nature created berries with an amazingly vivid metallic blue color that doesn’t fade for decades, as I covered in this previous post. The following two studies also led to discoveries that help us learn something new about ourselves and our world.

  • Nobel prize winner Dr. Richard Schrock‘s discovery in double bond chemistry has a surprising application that prevents insects from mating. Using “olefin metathesis” (as a more efficient and greener way to synthesize new compounds, explained in detail here), chemists can artificially produce pheromones that would confuse male peach-tree borer flies such that they can’t find a female mate, allowing to get rid of fruit-tree eating larvae without strong pesticides.


In a previous post, I covered an invention of super gels that tackled the challenges of creating tough gel polymer materials. Here are a few more examples of discovery leading to creative new technology in our daily lives.

  • Like the organs created by 3D-printersDr. Kelly BéruBé has “built” a lung from live cells, but they are virtually fully functional – the surface structures beat rhythmically and chemical reactions occur just as in a lung in a human body. Dr. BéruBé’s man-made “living” lungs may allow scientists to test the efficacy of drugs and impact of pollutants on human health without human or animal subjects.
  • Biofuels – alternative energy sourced from plants – is a growing field. (More about biofuels on Inside Science news). While our current biofuel industry struggles to fully utilize a compound called lignin from plants, Dr. Gregg Beckham looks to soil microbes that naturally use lignin to fuel their metabolism. These microbes can help us invent “biological funnels” where ideally we can feed lignin to soil microbes and extract compounds that are more maneageable for us to turn into valuable biofuels. Red more in the paper published in PNAS.
  • Paper and tape – sounds simple, cheap, and light to carry around. With paper, tape, and some teflon ink printing, Dr. Frédérique Deiss crafted petri dishes to grow cells and conduct diagnostic lab tests. It may offer low cost options to reproduce diagnostic tests at remote sites and in developing countries where state of the art equipment is not available or too costly to transport. Read more in University of Alberta’s news coverage here.


Referenced talks:

Brumer, H. (2015 Mar). Sweet and Savory: Understanding biological systems through structure-activity relationships between carbohydrates and enzymes. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.

Schrock, R. (2015 May). My role in elucidating the catalytic reaction that led to a Nobel Prize in 2005. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.

Beckham, G. (2015 Oct). Lignin valorization via biological funneling and chemical catalysis. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.

BéruBé, K. (2015 Mar). Alternative for Particle Research: Stuck Between a Rat and a Hard Place. Webcast, Vancouver, BC.

Deiss, F. (2015 Jan). Bioanalytical platforms from paper and imaging fiber. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.

The summaries in this post is a personal selection of highlights from each of the talks and they do not necessarily reflect the overall idea delivered in each respective talk. 

Water x Chemistry: Strong, Colorful and Walking Super Gels

A new technology studied at the University of Tokyo makes a clear gel walk across the floor without you touching it, or makes one block of gel cycle through the colors of the rainbow. Even if the gel is majority (98%) water, when shaped into cylindrical pillars, it can hold up a metal weight on shaking ground instead of crumbling or splattering like jello.

First of all, water-based gel material, or hydrogel, has been around for some time, however, Prof. Aida’s lab at the University of Tokyo discovered a unique combination of water (98%), clay (2%), and organic materials (<0.2%) to make an unprecedentedly tough hydrogel that would stretch and spring back, could be easily molded into various shapes, and would reattach after a fresh cut (“self-healing“). The group made an even greater advance when they found that when this hydrogel is combined with titanium nanomaterials, the resulting new gel material demonstrates even more eye-opening properties:

  • “Walk across the color palette”: is how Prof. Aida described it. Take the hydrogel-titanium nanosheet mix, remove the excess salts, and you can create “photonic hydrogels” that can reflect colors of the visible spectrum. First the hydrogel may look red, but pressing on the gel will then mechanically change the distance between the layered titanium nanosheets and thus the wavelengths and colors they reflect (similar mechanism as in this image). You can watch the gel change through all colors of the rainbow and its gradients. (Work in progress with student Mr. Koki Sano)
  • Walking hydrogels (video above): Hydrogels are temperature-sensitive; they respond to warming and cooling by shrinking by dehydration and swelling, respectively. However, titanium nanosheets can help prevent complete shrinking and swelling, instead causing the hydrogel to contract and expand. Aida lab member Ms. Younsoo Kim ingenuously molded the hydrogel into an L shape, so that when you place it upside down and change the temperature up and down, the stretching and contracting makes it walk across like an inch worm!


Personally selected highlights from talk by Prof. Takuzo Aida, “Stimuli-Responsive Soft Matters towards Artificial Intelligence.” September 15th, 2015, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. Dr. Aida was a great speaker, and he delivered a great talk with entertaining animated slides and “how-to” videos!

Build a window workshop

Link to original photo on flickr.
Cutting out the sun. Photo by Sam Hughes.

There’s more to window technology than putting together sheets of glass. Some claim you can feel 10°C cooler inside with more efficient windows…how do they do it?

I moved in to a great new apartment with big windows and bright rooms. Unfortunately, summer and west-facing makes a dreading hot room in the evening.

That’s why some big bold letters “feel 10°C cooler” caught my eye. It was advertising a new window product that effectively turns a normal window into a double-paned (or double-glazed) window. Another exaggerated ad, I thought. Sunlight through a window is like pouring boiling water into Continue reading

September 3, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

3 incredible facts about leeches

The thought of leeches would gross some people out, as it is a type of worm that attaches itself to various animal prey and feed on its blood (I do not suggest a google image search of leeches!). However, some incredible characteristics of leeches attract biologists, mathematicians, and doctors.

  1. Link to original image on flickr
    Leopard in hiding. Photo from flickr by SafariTails.com

    DNA from blood in leeches are used to study shy or rare animals that are hard to encounter. Many animals in tropical forests are difficult to find due to their shy or cryptic nature, and this becomes a problem for endangered mammals that need to be closely monitored. Instead of going through the trouble of searching for the mammals or collecting traces of them, scientists turned to leeches. Since leeches feed on blood from other animals, scientists can extract DNA of whatever was prey to the leech within the last 4 months. With this information, scientists were able to better confirm the existence or distribution of threatened species, study genetic characteristics, and even discover new species.

  2. Link to original image on publicdomainpictures.net
    Reimaging of a heartbeat on Public Domain Pictures.

    Leeches have a weird pattern of heart beats! The human heart pumps blood around the body as its 4 chambers – 2 on the right, 2 on the left – contract in turns. In contrast, the leech heart has a row of 10-15 chambers on each side (right and left) of its body. As Ian Stewart describes eloquently in his book Mathematics of Life, all the right side chambers first beat in sync. At the same time, the left side chambers take turns, sending a wave of pulses from the back to the front of the leech. After 20-40 beats, the left and right side patterns switch, so now the left chambers beat together, while the right chambers beat in sequence. At any moment, one side of the heart is beating together, while the other side beats in a wave. Extensive studies model the neurological driving forces of this odd heart beat, but scientists still don’t know why they beat this way.

  3. Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
    Surgery room. Photo from wikimedia commons.

    The chemicals that leeches secrete are helpful in surgery. When a leech attaches itself to its prey, it secretes a natural anaesthetic and anticoagulant that keep blood from clotting and allow it to keep flowing until the leech is full. To surgeons, this makes leeches useful tools to allow a healthy blood flow while amputated parts of the body are reattached. Records from as early as 2500 years ago suggest that leeches were used for medicinal purposes to draw blood out of a patient to cure various illnesses. Though these older methods are no longer supported by scientific evidence, the legacy of the “medicinal leech”, Hirudo medicinalis, carries on to modern medicine.



Ask the moss about heavy metals

Surrounded by atmospheric scientists at work, I imagine this type of equipment for air quality monitoring:

Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
An air quality monitoring station. Photo from wikipedia.
Link to original image on Flickr
Air pollutant monitoring equipment by Barnaby Smith / Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on Flickr

but apparently, moss like these –

Link to original image on wikimedia commons
Sphagnum moss. Photo from wikipedia.

are inexpensive and efficient tools for monitoring heavy metals in the atmosphere.

People have known for a while that moss are able to absorb these pollutants. Norway has a cool map of heavy metal concentrations and the changes over the past 40 years, all using moss as a source of data. See the map of lead, for example.

Plants with roots take up nutrients from the soil, but moss lack roots and instead absorb their nutrients directly from the air moisture. Moss also lack a continuous protective cuticle layer that makes moss tissue more permeable to gas exchange. This makes them better indicators of air pollutants. Continue reading

Wasabi alert: the Ig Nobel Prize-winning alarm

Link to original wasabi image on flickr
Wasabi – Photo credit Steven Depolo

A silent alarm that emits a stinging smell of wasabi may be life-saving for the hard of hearing.

You might be familiar with the green horseradish paste that comes with sushi: wasabi. Scientists in Japan used the pungent smell of wasabi as an alarm to alert people of a fire. This idea seems incredible, but it was motivated by efforts to create an alarm system effective for people with hearing difficulties.

Japan’s news station NHK reported the progress of this project that has started to produce hopeful results as early as 2008 (for Japanese readers, here is the original NHK article). A mix of wasabi and other mints create a bitter and stinging smell that stimulates the mucous membrane within the nose. This smell is collected into a pressurized can. When the fire alarm bell rings, the machine detects the sound and relays an electric signal to trigger the release of the smell. Continue reading

Driving Electric

Look at that cool Lotus sports car! Wait, that’s a hybrid?

Link to flickr photo of Lotus Evora.
Lotus Evora by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Photo from flickr.

That was my reaction when I saw the “green” Lotus Evora 414E on its test drive.

This car has an impressive power and acceleration for a hybrid car. Each year, car makers are developing more higher-performance electric cars, but existing large, heavy-weight motors do not suit more compact sports cars. Lotus shows prospect for a very lightweight engine that enables 1000 Nm of torque and a 0-60mph time of 4 seconds with emissions of just 55g/km CO2. Compare this to the original version of Evora Continue reading

October 13, 2013Permalink Leave a comment