Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My particular interest in reading has to do with history and how little things affect big things. In my reading, which is another way I wander around, I came across some remarkable facts about alcohol, something a lot of us have an interest in, personally or historically. I am not only a beer lover but a Methodist pastor, by habit and church law a server of non-alcoholic communion wine invented by another Methodist back in the Temperance Movement days -- yes, his name was Welch. Anyway . . . During the Prohibition Era, a lot of people concocted alcoholic drinks using wood or methyl alcohol, since grain (ethyl) alcohol was not only illegal to drink but more expensive to make. In fact I remember how easy it is to make methyl, as we distilled it from wooden popsicle sticks in eighth grade chemistry — with the lesson in there somewhere about methyl being nasty and ethyl being nice. Leaving sensibilities aside for now, substituting methyl for ethyl to sell in speakeasies seemed like an even trade; until the pioneering forensic toxicologists of the time, trying to cope with mounting deaths from drinking, figured out why the first is a much deadlier poison than the latter. So, alcohols are all made up of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, molecules essential to life — since organic life is based on carbon, and hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water, also essential. Methyl and Ethyl alcohol are very similar chains of these molecules. But a slight difference in configuration changes how a human body metabolizes each. Ethyl alcohol is harmless in small amounts, as our bodies metabolize it leaving only a pretty harmless acid and water, easily purged. Methyl, on the other hand, leaves two horrible poisons behind — acetone (which is a poisonous solvent) and formaldehyde, best known as the mortician’s choice for embalming corpses. These poisons basically will either blind you or kill you, or both, and quickly. The difference is a little reorganization of small components. A little thing out of place makes the difference between pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, and life and death. I’ve never been a detail person, really — but I’m thinking certain little things affect larger realities and are worth paying attention to.