Thursday, June 02, 2005

Coffee

My new favorite online magazine, Invention and Technology, this edition featuring a former advisor (issue also contains articles on artificial turf and microwave ovens):

The Academic Grind: MIT once had a laboratory to test coffee

"Preserving food with radiation sounds very space-age, but in fact it was discovered before the first airplane flew. In 1898 Samuel Prescott, a professor of biology at MIT, subjected various foodstuffs to gamma rays and found that spoilage was greatly retarded. In another early triumph, he used bacteriology to extend the shelf life of canned goods. Prescott went on to become MIT’s dean of science, and in that role he continued his career-long goal of applying scientific methods to the improvement of everyday life.

As another article in the October 2004 Technology & Culture [Available through Project Muse and Proquest] explains, sometimes this quest took the form of scientifically determining how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Larry Owens, of the University of Massachusetts, writes that in 1920, with a $40,000 grant from an industry group, Prescott established MIT’s Coffee Research Laboratory to evaluate the product’s safety and find the most effective ways of brewing it. Lab workers fed rabbits enormous quantities of coffee and found their health unimpaired, though it must have made them even jumpier than usual. They also brewed coffee with a variety of techniques and had tasters evaluate the results. For the record, MIT’s researchers found that the drip method works best, preferably in a glass or ceramic pot; the water should be just below boiling; and the coffee should be freshly ground.

Under Prescott’s guidance, MIT continued its leading role in “sanitary science,” usually with a bit more microscope work involved, until his retirement in 1942. By then most of MIT’s biologists had come to consider the field an anachronism, and it was soon shunted off to a separate department.

The episode shows how much science changed between the turn of the century and World War II. In Prescott’s youth it had been entirely reasonable for an MIT professor of biology to spend his time perfecting candy and bananas and searching for “growth-producing rays” that would (as he predicted) “bring forth cows the size of brontosauri.” But by the end of his career the frontiers of biology had advanced far beyond the dinner table. Nowadays, developing the perfect cup of coffee is considered a job for a corporate laboratory, though MIT students do carry on Prescott’s tradition by researching coffee and other stimulants on an independent-study basis."

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