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 do.”
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 doing fieldwork.
“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 the gaps.
“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 Pitter.
“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 the eons.