Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beer and Science

I never thought I'd be writing about a connection between science and beer. But then again, I never thought I'd be walking into the office of a man named Jim Head.

Jim Head is a longtime planetary geologist at Brown. He has been part of every NASA mission in the Apollo program, helping to train the astronauts who brought us the first accounts of our orbiting understudy. He currently is part of the Mercury Messenger mission, which is bringing us the most complete mapping and coverage of the planet ever.

I learned about Head's activities last week as I sat in his office. He graciously had given me time to learn more about the planetary geoscience department at Brown as part of my job as the physical sciences writer.

I also learned that besides planets, Head has an unquenchable fascination with beer. It was impossible not to notice this fact. There were beer bottles on the table in his office where we sat and chatted. There were beer bottles on his desk. On his file cabinets. On his windowsill. I couldn't help but mention this to him.

"That's not the least of it," he said. "Look behind you."

So I did, and when I turned my head I saw an entire wall carved out as a bookcase and lined with beer bottles. From floor to ceiling, five, maybe six rows of shelves that stretched the width of his office, filled with beer bottles.

"They're at least six deep," Head said casually.

My mouth no doubt agape, Head smiled. I think he was happy that I was awed by his collection.

"I used to collect stamps," he said, "but I discovered why collect them when you can collect beer? There's so much more to talk about."

Head began collecting beer bottles when he started hosting a meeting every Friday for those in the department to discuss new developments in their research. He wanted to keep it informal and casual, almost chatty, so he figured the best way to encourage that atmosphere was to bring beer. The idea caught on, and soon people would bring beer from places they visited – whether on vacation, working on a scientific project in the field, attending a conference, whatever. Foreign graduate students would bring beer from their native countries. And so Head's collection grew, not only in number, but in diversity. It was like species richness and abundance of suds.

He showed me his favorites. One was a beer brewed in Rwanda. As Head moved to pop the cap on this prized bottle, his colleague told him that Rwandans were known to add formaldehyde to their beer as a preservative. The cap stayed on that one. Another was a standard green Heineken bottle – except this one had "For Military Use Only" stamped on it.

Looks like the Dutch soldiers prefer their swill to be a cut above Budweiser.

Anyway, I was meeting with Head on a Friday, and he invited me to their gathering later that day. How could I refuse? He promised me beer, and after all, it was all in the name of my learning more about the department, the professors, and the latest in research and news there.

I would be drinking on the job. Legally. Without remorse. And learning.

I did not refuse. And I drank some beer. A Pacifico (Mexico) and an IPA from the Sebago Brewing Co. in Maine. And I did learn some things.

Not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.

Something tells me I will return.

No comments: