9 September 2014
Why Geologists Love Beer
MASON 12.18.09 |
6:00 AM | PERMALINK
SAN FRANCISCO - Fact: Geologists love beer.
There is abundant proof of this here at the American Geophysical
Union meeting, the largest collection of earth scientists in the
The talks, workshops and poster sessions go from 8:00 a.m.
to 6:00 p.m., but at 3:30 p.m. every day, for five days, kegs of
beer are rolled out into the meeting. The beer flows nonstop for an
hour and a half at around 10 different stations, and AGU organizers
tell me they go through about 175 kegs during the week.
"Every other convention assumes that if you have a beer, your
brain goes soft," said Kathy Sullivan, who has been serving beer at
the AGU meeting for 26 years. "But not the geophysicists. They
think if you have a beer, you can still learn things. So they
At the Thirsty Bear, the closest brewpub to the Moscone
Convention Center where the annual meeting is held every December,
the waitstaff claims this is the busiest week of the year for
them. I heard from the Borehole
Research Group at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
that one server at the Thirsty Bear said the staff can't
take vacation days during the AGU meeting "because the geologists are coming."
So the real question is why the bond between geologists and beer
is so strong. I decided to do some research this week to get to the
bottom of the phenomenon. So, beer in hand, I asked a
sampling of the 16,000 or so geologists, geophysicists,
hydrologists and atmospheric scientists at the meeting and got some
very interesting responses. (Full disclosure: I am also
a geologist, and I love beer.)
The most popular theory was that it must
have something to do with the amount of time spent outside
"When it's hot, and you've been hiking all day carrying 50
pounds of rocks, do you want a Merlot?" asked thermochronologist
Jim Metcalf of Syracuse University. "No."
"It goes down a lot easier than water because a lot of the
places we go, we can't drink the water," said structural geologist
Jonathan Gourley of Trinity College.
Geologists have been known to go to great lengths to chill their
beer in the field, as well. A cold stream, a glacier or a patch of
snow is handy, but many field areas are hot, dry and dusty. While
doing field work in Mongolia, geologist Cari Johnson of the
University of Utah and her colleagues cooled their beer
with evaporation by wrapping the cans in toilet
paper, pouring water on the paper and setting them out in the
persistent wind to dry over and over until the beer was cold.
Another theory is that beer makes for better science. I think
this hypothesis has some merit, but requires further investigation
(as long as I'm not in the control group).
"Science doesn't work when people keep secrets and don't share
their data," said Daniel Jaffe of the University of
Washington. "And what could be better to help with the free
flow of information?"
Rick Saltus of the U.S. Geological Survey explained that
because geologists often don't have enough data to say definitively
what went on millions of years ago, creativity is needed to fill in
"You have to think outside the box, you've got to release your
inhibitions, and beer is one way to do that," Saltus
said. "Anything that helps you get to that epiphany, that
realization of what's there in the rocks and not easy to see but
there to spin a story from."
A third theory offered up in various forms is that beer is
simply part of the culture, something that has been handed down
from advisor to student for generations.
"It's accepted and encouraged to drink beer," said geologist
Cindy Martinez of the American Geological Institute. "Other
scientists like beer, but it's not necessarily socially acceptable
to have your scientific meetings revolve around beer."
"I started getting on to wine and other stuff for a while, but I
became an outcast among my geology friends," said geologist Laura
Webb of the University of Vermont. "So I had to retrain myself
to drink brew."
Supporting the culture theory is the observation that earth
science departments at academic institutions across the world
almost invariably have a weekly get-together of some sort that
revolves around beer.
At Stanford University, it's called Friday Beer, and I hear that
at UCLA it's known as Liquidus. On Twitter, I confirmed that
earth scientists at CalTech, The Borehole Research Group and
the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil also
have a weekly beer congregation.
"I've been to a few geo departments around the world, and most
of them have Friday Beer," said Stanford biogeochemist Sharmini
"We have three weekly beer gatherings," said Christopher
Harrison of the University of Miami.
None of the theories can be ruled out by this preliminary study,
and neither can the possibility that all three are
correct. Certainly, more research is needed. But one thing is
clear: The love affair between geoscientists and beer is one for
Video: Michael Lennon/Wired.com
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