Science and Alcohol

It’s Friday, which means a pretty picture of some kind, or three, and these are especially good for Friday, because there is beer … mmmmm … beer. There’s also science, but you ‘ll have to read how they fit together!

I am a scientist. Being a scientist, I have had the ability to spend time with numerous other scientists in a variety of different fields. A lot of my work is very interdisciplinary, so I am a microbiologist and an ecologist, but I know engineers, biochemists, geologist, physicists, and a variety of other people. I have found over the years one certainty to spending time with scientists, you will eventually end up at a bar. Actually, some of the best science ideas come out of bars, but back to that in a moment. However, it’s not the bar itself, but the science that makes it’s way to the bar that really sets different scientists apart. Now, these are my less than humble opinions about various fields having been in science and interacting with them for over ten years.

Most fields of science seem to fall under the Venn Diagram above. They spend reasonable amounts of their time in both places, with some overlap. This is pretty common for microbiologists, who are most of what I see being in a microbiology department. We have occasional alcoholic gatherings and parties, but no solid bar night. I’d also lump molecular and cell biologists and geologists into this category.

The next diagram is my least favorite groups of scientists to hang out with, because there is clearly not enough alcohol involved in either their lives or their research. That’s both literal and figurative in this case as well, as some of us use more ethanol on a regular basis. Actually, some of us have bought Everclear for research purposes …

Anyway. Not enough booze makes scientists dull! The people I have met that fall into this category tend to be engineers, chemists, and biochemists. I’m not sure if it’s because I am a biologist, or if it’s what pulled me into biology, but biologists are awfully fun to hang out with!

Finally, we are on to my favorite diagram, the one that I believe describes my favorite field: Ecology.

You will notice that there is extensive overlap between alcohol and science here, and that’s not just for preserving invertebrates! Also, I have labeled the middle section “The Bar Paper” so let me explain what that is. Essentially, a bunch of scientists are sitting around having a few beers and talking science, and they suddenly come up with a fabulous scientific explanation for some phenomena that eventually gets written into a paper, and not just any paper, a seminal paper (one people read and cite for years to come). Ecology has at least a few of these “Bar Papers” for example:

Community Structure, Population Control, and Competition by Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin, American Naturalist, 1960, 94:421-425
They discuss a lot of old research but essentially what they say is there are lots of plants, so herbivores must be eaten by predators enough to keep them from eating all the plants. Yup. That is a seminal paper in my field. However, it can tell you how to make your lake less algae clogged!

The River Continuum Concept by Vannote R.L. , G.W. Minshall, K.W. Cummins, J.R. Sedell, C.E. Cushing, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 1980, 37:130-137
This paper says that little streams have trees that cover them, so they are fed by leaves. Slightly bigger streams have lots of algae to feed them. Really big sections can’t grow enough algae again because they are cloudy. I love this concept, don’t get me wrong, but doesn’t it just sound like these guys sat in a bar going, “So, what happens along the the length of a stream? Wow, that’s a great idea!” I had lunch with Minshall once. He was pretty awesome.

These are the ones that hit me. I’m sure there are others. Oh, and even though I don’t read a lot of physics, I imagine that theoretical physics must be quite the drunken science, because all they seem to do is come up with interesting ideas and write papers about them!

Oh, and I’ve read a lot of G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s work, and he must have written everything in bars!

So, if you are like me and prefer to do your research accompanied by a nice bottle of 15 year old bourbon, then you are likely in good company, and hey, you could be really famous someday! This does not mean the science is bad, by the way. The science is excellent, it just needs the brain juice to help bring it out!

Is there an analogy for this in the humanities? Any other scientists who want to promote their field as more alcohol friendly? Let me know, or just enjoy the pretty pictures before happy hour!


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