raising a glass… or two

Jenluc_piquant1_3Many years ago, when I still called New York City home, my pal Ann and I used to hang out in a funky East Village bar called Normal’s. (Note bene: This is before the East Village got all polite and gentrified, and greedy bastards developers brought luxury condos and a Chipotle’s to St. Mark’s Place.) The bar was owned and operated by a colorful character known to its patrons only as "Normal," who could frequently be found strolling about the place wearing nothing but silver lame thigh-high space boots and a giant white diaper that glowed in the dark. The entire place was lit with black light.

A whimsical little cartoon "story" on the menu told of Normal’s supposed extra-terrestrial origins and subsequent space-age adventures, although rumor had it that for all his long-haired bohemian weirdness, Normal was heir to a substantial fortune and had used his trust fund to open the bar. We couldn’t care less either way. We just loved the 1950s sci-fi theme of the place; the tasty cold sesame noodles on the menu; and the large ginger cat that made its rounds to every table, aggressively begging for just the tiniest smidgen of one’s grilled Jamaican Jerk Chicken, ere it perished from starvation. We especially loved Normal’s signature glow-in-the-dark "radioactive gin and tonics."

At least we thought they were signature drinks at the time. We were young, and prone to wool-gathering during science class — and those G-n-T’s weren’t conducive to critical thought, especially on a Saturday night. It turns out that all gin and tonics will glow under a black light, because tonic water contains quinine. Originally, the quinine was added in large quantities, because, according to Wikipedia, it served as "a prophylactic against malaria" in tropical regions like India and Africa, where the disease was rampant. Today’s tonic water only contains trace amounts of the stuff, but it’s still sufficient to make the drink glow under black light. For the curious non-scientist, black light emits a purplish glow, the only part of its spectrum visible to the naked human eye. What we can’t see is the ultraviolet light being emitted. Things that glow under black light — like my spiffy glow-in-the-dark Einstein T-shirt, for instance — get that property from phosphors, materials that convert the UV radiation into a specific color of visible light. (Normal colors merely reflect light, but a fluorescent color absorbs the radiation and re-emits it in the visible spectrum, so it looks much brighter than usual.)

Normal’s radioactive G-n-T’s came up last weekend as Ann and I were looking up possible physics-themed cocktails in The Bartender’s Bible, and in an encyclopedic online database of cocktails called The Webtender. (FYI, Ann is a fellow writer/mad blogger who helped me set up Cocktail Party Physics, and the one who provides Jen-Luc Piquant with her various "looks." You can see her own blog here.) She generously provided her original Black Hole cocktail (see sidebar) to get the blog-ball rolling, but I figured it was time to do a little homework and dig up other candidates for my planned master list of physics-themed cocktails. That’s how I came to waste the better part of yesterday scrolling through thousands of specialty cocktails, instead of delving deeper into the mysterious quantum properties of graphene.

Nonetheless, I learned a lot from my procrastination. For instance, Ann’s Black Hole has a doppelganger, a drink of the same name that is comprised of Black Sambuca and club soda. (Jen-Luc insists we should all boycott this cheap imitation.) There’s also a fluffy concoction called The Event Horizon, which is really more of a dessert: shots of vodka, milk and peppermint schnapps are blended with a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The name derives from the fact that all the chocolate sinks to the bottom.

I found numerous cocktail variations on the nuclear and atomic bomb theme, including The Bomb, the Cherry Bomb, the H Bomb, and my personal favorite, the Hiroshima Bomber, in which one fills a shot class 3/4 with Triple sec, then layers Bailey’s on top, followed by a few drops of Grenadine plopped right into the center. If done correctly, the Grenadine will look like a tiny mushroom cloud when it is dropped to the bottom of the shot glass. The Neutron Bomb achieves a similar effect using butterscotch schnapps, Bailey’s and Kahlua.

There are also several radioactive-themed drinks, such as Radioactive Long Island Iced Tea and Three-Mile Long Island Iced Tea, as well as the Iceberg in Radioactive Water (the "iceberg" is a scoop of vanilla ice cream). Physicist-turned-artist/writer Kristin Abkemeier, who writes the Radioactive Banana blog, got the name from a little-known fact: all bananas contain sufficient trace amounts of radiation to register on a Geiger counter. They’re high in potassium, and one out of every 10,000 potassium atoms is naturally radioactive. It provides the perfect excuse to add the classic banana daiquiri to the burgeoning list, although in Kristin’s honor, I will call my version the Radioactive Banana Daiquiri.

That’s right, I’m not above adapting the odd specialty drink to reflect my own physics obsession. Look for the Trinity Test (equal parts dry and sweet vermouth mixed with gin), the Black Body Martini (gin and black sambuca), the Manhattan Project (classic Manhattan with a twist), Max Planck the Silent, Michelson-Morley’s Driver, and Karl Popper’s Ghost. But sometimes I don’t need to tweak a thing: there’s actually a rather chi-chi tropical drink called Listening to the Drums of Feynman.

I was delighted to find a drink called Quantum Theory, which combines rum, strega, Grand Marnier, pineapple juice, and sweet and sour. It sounds disgusting, frankly, but I’m tempted to give this drink a try this very evening, in hopes that graphene’s relation to the "Dirac equation" will at last make perfect sense to me… at least until my inevitable hangover the next day. (I am a notorious lightweight, and believe me, the irony of hosting a blog called Cocktail Party Physics has not been lost on my circle of friends.)

One of my favorite characters in physics history is an 11th century Benedictine monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury, who figured prominently in one of the chapters in the Black Bodies book. Eilmer worked out his own rudimentary theory of flight, then tested it by fashioning a pair of wings for himself and jumping off the roof of the abbey. Astoundingly, he glided for some 600 feet before losing his "lift" and plunging to the ground — breaking both legs in the process. At least he lived. He could have brightened his convalescence with a Monk’s Martini: a concoction of vodka, white creme de menthe, creme de banane, and Irish cream that should horrify martini purists with its blasphemous audacity. (Sniffs the tres sophisticated Jen-Luc, "There is only one true martini.") Also in Eilmer’s honor, I’m adapting a similar existing cocktail called the Flying Monkey, which, on this blog, will be known as the Flying Monk: treacly layers of Kahlua, banana liqueur and Bailey’s Irish cream.

Lest we forget the historical tension between science and religion — Brother Eilmer’s medieval adoption of the scientific method notwithstanding — we’ll be offering two specialty drinks along that theme: Atheist’s Best (champagne, vodka, cherry juice and lemon juice), and The Wedge (Malibu rum and cranberry juice over ice). For those unfamiliar with the Intelligent Design debate, "The Wedge" is the ingenious strategy adopted by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute to pass off creationism as science, thereby undermining the entire "secular humanist" movement. (You can read more about it here.)

Equally abundant are cocktails with space-age themes: the Cosmos, the Starseeker — and Sister Starseeker, honoring women astronomers everywhere — two versions of a drink called The Milky Way, the Moonraker, the Moon Quake Shake, and the Space Odyssey. My personal favorite is the Bailey’s Comet, a frivolous combination of butterscotch schnapps, Bailey’s Irish cream, and Goldschlager with floating Sambuca. Sprinkling cinnamon or nutmeg into the drink causes it to flame when you light it; sprinkling cinnamon on the top will cause it to sparkle. And if the server starts walking around with the drink while it’s burning, the "comet" will have its very own "tail."

In honor of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of X Files fame — not to mention our favorite skeptic, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait and the incomparable Normal (who may or may not have hailed from another planet, depending on whether you believed the menu) — we’ll also be including the following in our cocktails collection: A Little Green Man from Mars, Beam Me Up Scotty, CA Area 151, the Extraterrestrial, the Jedi Mind Trick (especially for Ann, a Star Wars fanatic), the Roswell, and the UFO. And of course, we can’t omit the Mad Scientist, made with Midori melon liqueur, sour mix, soda water, and 151 proof rum — which means it can also be lit on fire. Flames are always fun at a cocktail party!

For the record (and to ward off the lawyers, an especially rapacious breed), we here at Cocktail Party Physics by no means approve of flaming beverages under anything other than controlled laboratory circumstances, nor do we encourage underage drinking, or excessive public drunkenness of any sort. (Especially after one riotous party-goer threw up all over Jen-Luc Piquant’s Prada purse.) Nonetheless, feel free to submit your own cocktail concoctions or favorite physics-based drinks. The more the merrier. And the next time you host a physics cocktail party, be sure to raise a glass to Normal, wherever he may be.

8 thoughts on “raising a glass… or two”

  1. Thanks for the name check! By the way, you might also consider adding a couple of frozen drinks to your list. I would imagine that a Bose-Einstein Condensate would require a blend of Indian and German liqueurs, while a Fermionic Condensate would Italian ingredients for sure….

  2. Wow, a shout-out in an entry about drinking! Very appropriate for me.
    In grad school at the local bar we drank “Vulcan Mindmelds” and “Photon Torpedoes”, but I have no clue what was in them.
    I’ll have to try the Black Hole (and the Event Horizon). I suppose “Spaghettification” would be a terrible name for a drink (that would be a terrible drink anyway).

  3. Hey! Thanks for the plug, Jen! I think your memory is better than mine. I only remember Normal’s gigantic earlobe plugs (long before that was cool) and the Hari-Krishna sari and glowing orange clogs. And now (waves hand) you will tell me what’s in a Jedi Mind Trick.

  4. Ah yes, the sari and orange clogs — another classic Normal outfit. The space boots and diapers were indeed present one night, and quite memorable because Normal did not really have the kind of physique to pull off the look. 🙂
    Still, as we all know, any kind of “memoir” contains some exaggeration. To wit:
    1. Normal’s space boots might have only been knee-high rather than thigh-high. I honestly don’t remember.
    2. The cat might have been orange calico rather than ginger
    3. There was a yummy grilled chicken dish that both I and said cat adored, but I’m just guessing about the Jamaican Jerk thing — again, cuz I honestly don’t remember. [The sesame noodles, though, were to die for…]
    4. Some Cyber-Drunk did indeed throw up all over Jen-Luc Piquant, but her purse might have been Gucci rather than Prada — she won’t say, still being in mourning for its loss — and it was Virtual Vomit anyway.
    Still, I believe the above post captures the “essential truth” of the experience. I’m sure Oprah will back me up on this. 🙂
    Hey, Phil, I found the Vulcan Mindmeld!! No luck yet on the photon torpedoes..

  5. Throwing a 2050s themed party. Some excellent cocktail suggestions.
    And yeah, actually living in the Malmesbury that Elmer comes from… He’s something of a local hero around here, and the Abbey that he lept from is (mostly) still standing.

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