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Thinking outside the bottle

And the cork self-seals with Argon in the bottle instead of air

It's My Understanding : Drinking wine from an Unopened Bottle


I got to thinking the other day. It happens. As the saying goes, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I just sits.” Well, I sat and thought.


When one is creating educational materials, one is trying to communicate information to someone by first creating a mental model and then hanging information on that mental model in such detail and with such accuracy that the person can use that mental model to predict outcomes.


For example, if I were to try and tell you about a program that I had written, I would need to describe in general terms what the program was trying to do so that you had a generalized mental model of the program. Then I could hang more and more detailed information on that model, telling you what the program took as its input data, what processes it performed on that data, and what output that program would produce.


At some point during my, presumably brilliant and flawless exposition, you’d have one or more “Aha!” moments as things slotted into place. In fact, if I did my job well enough, at some point it could be said that you “understand” what my program does.


If I kept banging on about the program for long enough, even walking you through in exquisite detail what every nuance of the program actually did (and presumably you didn’t rush from the room screaming “Sarah Palin for President”)  then you might even have Total Understanding of this program.


This same set of ideas could also be applied to mechanical objects, physical or even abstract phenomena.


For example, how would you react if I told you that I can pour a glass of wine from a bottle without pulling the cork and that the wine in the bottle would remain unspoiled for several years?


Ponder that for a minute. Drink wine. Do not open bottle.


Unless you already know how this is done, what you are probably experiencing is lack of understanding. Depending your disposition you might be thinking “How is that possible?” or “That cannot be done!” or “What a tosser!


So let me explain and, as I do so, see if you can catch yourself building the mental model, then adding information to it, and then having the “Aha! OK. Sure. Now I get it” moment.


Here we go.


  1. The cork prevents the wine from coming out of the bottle, and the foil capsule keeps the air from flowing in, right?
  2. But the cork is soft. So is the metal capsule.
  3. If you stick a long, hollow, Teflon-coated needle through the cork, you could bring the needle into contact with the inside of the wine bottle.
  4. But how could you get the wine out? Even if you tip the bottle over, there is no reason for the wine to come out because there is no way to replace the wine in the bottle with air — so it stays in equilibrium. You stare at it. It stares at you. Impasse!
  5. But if you first inject some compressed Argon (a noble gas that does not react with the wine) into the bottle, that would pressurize the bottle, and motivate the wine to flow out through the needle into a waiting glass and an even more patiently waiting mouth.
  6. So how do you do that? Well, you attach a gas cylinder with a trigger and a two-way valve — when you press the trigger, the gas can flow along the needle into the bottle. When you release the trigger the gas flow stops and the wine can flow back out through the needle.
  7. No. Wait a minute — why doesn’t the gas just flow out?
  8. Aha! You partially invert the bottle so that cork is below the level of the wine and the wine is against the base of the cork and the gas will then rise to the highest point of the bottle — in this case the bottom of the bottle.
  9. Voila! The gas goes in goes to the highest point of the bottle. The wine comes out through the needle propelled by the pressure of the gas. Well, the wine will come out until the gas inside the bottle is exerting the same pressure as the air outside the bottle. At which point, the wine flow stops.
  10. When you have your glass half-full (or half-empty if you’re a wino), you stand the bottle the right way up, and extract the needle. Any excess gas pressure vents through the needle -- and the cork, being cork, immediately seals up the hole made by the needle. The gas, being Argon, drops down to sit as a layer on top of the wine and prevents any oxidization from turning your precious Chateau Chunder into vinegar.



So, do you now understand how it works? If not, read the write-up and watch the videos. Believe me, it does work and it works very well.


But I digress. The whole point of that little exercise was to confront you with something that, hopefully, you started out not understanding, but, by the end of the description you had had your “Aha!” moment. Was it good for you?


[Time out for psychologist's joke, courtesy of my brother, Phil, who is apparently a legend in cognitive psychology academia: After two behaviorists have sex, one says to the other, "That was great for you, but how was it for me?"]


Now the real challenge is for an educator, any educator, is to create the mental model first and only then hang the detailed information on the appropriately constructed mental model. If you give folks information that has no place to hang, you'll be met with blank stares, huhs?, and general frustration.


Alternatively, if you create a mental model and then do not provide the information for all the places that need information, then your educational component is incomplete.


So, in my understanding the mental model and the information you hang on to it has to be a finely matched. Malformed mental model, not good. Don't know where to put the information. Too much information, not good. No place to hang it. To little information, not good. Incomplete understanding.


At least that's my understanding...

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