A St. Patrick's Day Lesson on the Chemistry of Hangovers
As I sat in Room 106 of Hannan Hall at Catholic University yesterday, waiting for the start of a lecture titled "The Chemistry of Alcohol and Hangovers," I thought back to the hangovers I have known and loved.
There was my post-Rat-Pack-themed-party hangover, when I spent the day after -- our housewarming! -- attempting not to make any sudden movements while regretting each vodka martini I'd upended.
There was the particularly hairy-tongued post-New Year's party hangover, memorable because on our way home on Military Road, My Lovely Wife had gotten a flat tire and I'd had to change it by the curb, my hands moving on autopilot.
But probably my favorite hangover was during my junior year of college. Leonid Brezhnev had just died, and my college roommate, Pat, and I decided to mark his passing by toasting the occasion with Bulgarian wine. Bulgarian wine was not as easy to get in 1982 as it is today, but for some reason -- an overestimation of Langley Park's Bulgarian population, perhaps -- the liquor store near our apartment stocked it.
Bulgarian wine tastes pretty much like you would expect it to taste, but after the first three or four glasses you are able to shed your natural reluctance to putting the ghastly stuff near your lips. After two or three bottles you even start to enjoy it, not because it tastes good but because you're proud of yourself for enduring it, the same way I imagine you feel some pride after walking barefoot across hot coals.
We drank through the night and before class the next morning went to IHOP for breakfast. We had spent all our cash on Bulgarian wine, however, so only had enough money for a golden urn of coffee and an order of toast.
A good hangover is like a good movie: entertaining, educational, satisfying. A good hangover should be part of a narrative arc, the final act of a drama that began the night before. Whether it's played for comedy or tragedy, well, that largely depends on the night before.
People might disagree on whether a hangover is immoral, but certainly all hangovers are chemical. No matter what you've been drinking -- Bulgarian wine, Scotch whisky, Guinness -- chemically speaking, it all comes down to ethyl alcohol -- or, as chemists know it, C2H5OH.
"Chemistry is not a strictly academic subject," Diane Bunce announced to the students in Chem 126 at the beginning of her lecture yesterday. "It is also something that affects your regular life."
Dr. Bunce was wearing green shamrock deelyboppers on her head. The Catholic University chemistry professor has been giving a St. Patrick's Day-themed alcohol lecture for eight years.
Humans have been drinking alcohol -- and, presumably, waking up regretting it -- since at least 3700 B.C., she said. (Those were the Egyptians. It's a wonder they got the pyramids built at all.)
Yes, the ethyl alcohol in whatever poison you're drinking can give you a hangover the next day, but you're just as likely to suffer from the byproducts of fermentation, what are called cogeners. (I think Bulgarian wine is about 90 percent cogeners.)