Buzz; The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine

Buzz; The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine

by Stephen Braun

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Alcohol and caffeine are deeply woven into the fabric of life for most of the world's population, as close and as comfortable as a cup of coffee or a can of beer. Yet for most people they remain as mysterious and unpredictable as the spirits they were once thought to be. Now, in Buzz, Stephen Braun takes us on a myth-shattering tour of these two popular substances,


Alcohol and caffeine are deeply woven into the fabric of life for most of the world's population, as close and as comfortable as a cup of coffee or a can of beer. Yet for most people they remain as mysterious and unpredictable as the spirits they were once thought to be. Now, in Buzz, Stephen Braun takes us on a myth-shattering tour of these two popular substances, one that blends fascinating science with colorful lore, and that includes cameo appearances by Shakespeare and Balzac, Buddhist monks and Arabian goat herders, even Mikhail Gorbachev and David Letterman (who once quipped, "If it weren't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever").
Much of what Braun reveals directly contradicts conventional wisdom about alcohol and caffeine. Braun shows, for instance, that alcohol is not simply a depressant as popularly believed, but is instead "a pharmacy in a bottle"—mimicking the action of drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, valium, and opium. At low doses, it increases electrical activity in the same brain systems affected by stimulants, influences the same circuits targeted by valium, and causes the release of morphine-like compounds known as endorphins—all at the same time. This explains why alcohol can produce a range of reactions, from boisterous euphoria to dark, brooding hopelessness. Braun also shatters the myth that alcohol kills brain cells, reveals why wood alcohol or methanol causes blindness, and explains the biological reason behind the one-drink-per-hour sobriety rule (that's how long it takes the liver, working full tilt, to disable the 200 quintillion ethanol molecules found in a typical drink). The author then turns to caffeine and shows it to be no less remarkable. We discover that more than 100 plant species produce caffeine molecules in their seeds, leaves, or bark, a truly amazing distribution throughout nature (nicotine, in comparison, is found only in tobacco; opium only in the poppy). It's not surprising then that caffeine is far and away the most widely used mind altering substance on the planet, found in tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, soft drinks, and more than 2,000 non-prescription drugs. (Tea is the most popular drink on earth, with coffee a close second.) Braun also explores the role of caffeine in creativity: Johann Sebastian Bach, for one, loved coffee so much he wrote a Coffee Cantata (as Braun notes, no music captures the caffeinated experience better than one of Bachs frenetic fugues), Balzac would work for 12 hours non-stop, drinking coffee all the while, and Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire all loved coffee. And throughout the book, Braun takes us on many engaging factual sidetrips—we learn, for instance, that Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase "Good to the last drop" used by Maxwell House ever since; that distances between Tibetan villages are sometimes reckoned by the number of cups of tea needed to sustain a person (three cups being roughly 8 kilometers); and that John Pemberton's original recipe for Coca-Cola included not only kola extract, but also cocaine.
Whether you are a sophisticated consumer of cabernet sauvignon and Kenya AA or just someone who needs a cup of joe in the morning and a cold one after work, you will find Buzz to be an eye-opening, informative, and often amusing look at two substances at once utterly familiar and deeply mysterious.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Gerber

Caffeine and alcohol, the world's two most popular drugs, have very complex effects on the human brain. Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, does not. You pick it up, it puts you to sleep. So simple, so devastating. Luckily, the only side effect of Buzz is a powerful sense of time passing whenever you read it.

After years of research, neurologists are discovering precisely how these drugs scramble our brains, and why we like it so much when they do. This is a worthy topic, but since so many of us are perpetually under the influence of one drug or the other (or, God forbid, both at once), the effects of caffeine and alcohol are as much sociological as pharmacological. The author of Buzz, Stephen Braun, avoids this opportunity by spending more time on the human brain than on the human mind - before you know it, you're failing high school bio all over again. When Buzz discusses how coffee came to the West, or how both drugs are truly an international language - hear the one about the Buddhist monk tearing off his eyelids to make the first tea plants? - it's fascinating. But when "Buzz" plants you in Joe's Stomach Lining, or tries to explain GABA receptors, nighty-night.

Much of Buzz is spent refuting the supposed health benefits of alcohol and caffeine, which strike me as whistling in the dark anyway. And even though the book is clearly written, the insights it provides are mere party chat, e.g., the ethanol molecule is small (even for a molecule) and looks somewhat like a pudgy Labrador Retriever.

In the end, Buzz suffers from a problem not of its own making: if a new study shows that Sanka makes mice tap dance and type 100 words per minute, it doesn't mean spit for us two-leggers. This responsible waffling is to be expected on the pro-science circuit; but in a popular book like Buzz, it tends to make every point vastly underwhelming. Books like Buzz are what keep caffeine so darn popular - and there's a perverse elegance in that, intentional or not. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Whether they prefer scotch on the rocks or a double mocha latte, readers will enjoy Braun's dissection of caffeine, alcohol and the processes by which they work. For one thing, the presentation of complicated scientific concepts is understandable without being condescending. Braun makes analogies ("Drinking caffeine is thus like putting a block of wood under one of the brain's primary brake pedals") that help the reader to visualize what's going on. The book is also helped by the author's inclusion of stories and humorous moments. From David Letterman quotes ("If it weren't for the caffeine, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever") to personal anecdotes about the effects these two mood-altering substances had upon the formulation of his book, Braun manages to take abstract concepts and mold them into something highly readable. Science novices should find this book as enjoyable and well-written as those who have spent their lives working with biology or chemistry. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Now a producer at the New England Research Institutes, science writer Braun engagingly describes the chemistry, metabolism, physiological and behavioral effects, and reputed health benefits of the world's two most popular drugs: alcohol and caffeine. He seasons the book with references to history, folklore, and literature. (Did you know that Bach wrote a Coffee Cantata?) The treatment of controversial issuessuch as the correlation between risk of heart disease and moderate wine consumptionis balanced, and the science is sound. Whether the subject is the cause of hangovers or the effects of caffeine consumption on PMS, Braun has a knack for interpreting the findings of medical researchers and applying them to daily life. He also includes a postscript on the two years he spent researching the book and how it moderated his own alcohol and caffeine consumption. Recommended for academic and public libraries.Eris Weaver, Marin Inst. for the Prevention of Alcohol & Other Drug Problems, San Rafael, Cal.
Mary Carroll
Boomers who recall the Disney and Bell Telephone science documentaries of the late 1950s and 1960s--remember "Hemo the Magnificent"?--will have no trouble following Buzz, which brings readers up-to-date on scientists' current understanding of "the world's most widely consumed mind altering drugs." Science writer and TV producer Braun draws on what he learned during a fellowship in neurobiology at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory to supply an accessible explanation of the effects of these familiar yet often misunderstood substances. Braun journeys with his readers from mouth to intestine along with the 50 quintillion ethanol molecules in a quarter shot of scotch, then wanders into the brain to examine how alcohol and caffeine molecules affect specific types of neurons. Recent brain research is the source of much of Braun's "new news," but he also offers fascinating information on how alcohol and caffeine are produced, their effects on sleep, sex, and bodily systems other than the brain, and the attitudes of historical figures on the "buzz" these substances afford.
Kirkus Reviews
Not many users of the world's two most popular drugs know the details of their chemical or biological effects; here's a good introduction.

Braun, a science writer and television producer, begins with alcohol, which was known to ancient Sumerians 5,500 years ago. Ethanol (the drinkable form of alcohol) is a waste product of the metabolism of sugar by yeast; it is poison to the yeast that produces it and (in sufficient quantities) to the human beings who drink it. So the body has developed complex ways of defending itself. Braun describes the progress of a shot of whiskey through the body, from the taste buds to the digestive tract, with amusing commentary on the journey. The alcohol's ultimate destination is the brain; scientists believe that it releases endorphins there, as do ether, valium, and morphine. Further chapters discuss alcohol's effects on sexual desire and performance, positive health benefits of moderate drinking, hangover cures, and current theories on the causes of alcoholism. Then caffeine gets a similar treatment, from its introduction into the Western world to its current popularity in forms ranging from espresso to soft drinks. Braun explains the decaffeination process (most of the caffeine removed from coffee is sold to soft-drink manufacturers) and explores such questions as whether caffeine aids mental processes (and which ones), to what extent caffeine is addictive, and how caffeine and alcohol interact (as in Irish coffee). Here, as in the chapters on alcohol, bits of interesting lore—women's protests against 18th-century coffeehouses, Theodore Roosevelt's impromptu endorsement of Maxwell House, the formation of the first Caffeine Anonymous group—add the human dimension to the scientific discussion. In the end, the author admits that caffeine was an indispensable aid to his writing of this book, but he has since moderated his use of both caffeine and alcohol.

An entertaining and informative discussion of both the scientific and cultural impact of caffeine and alcohol.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.81(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.85(d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Braun is an award-winning science writer and television producer living in Boston. He is currently Executive Producer at the New England Research Institutes.

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