A Night at the Museum With Beer and Skulls

For two researchers at the American Museum of Natural History, closing time means the start of an anthropological happy hour that has yielded 10 books and scores of scientific articles and papers.

ImageA Night at the Museum With Beer and Skulls
Rob DeSalle, right, and Ian Tattersall, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, gather on Friday nights to drink and banter about books and articles for scientific journals.CreditCreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

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The scene could have been straight out of one of the “Night at the Museum” movies: The public filtered out of the American Museum of Natural History at closing time, while Rob DeSalle headed deep into the museum’s anthropology wing.

Down a long hallway lined with specimen cabinets, he hung a left at a hanging skeleton and entered the office of a fellow researcher, Ian Tattersall, for their regular Friday night anthropological happy hour.

The two men — respected research scientists who work on museum collections and exhibitions — began sipping beer and talking shop, which in this case involved evolutionary theory.

Over the past dozen years, they have jointly written 10 books and scores of scientific articles and papers on human biology and language — with their latest book, “The Accidental Homo Sapiens,” coming out this month.

The ideas for most of their articles and books were developed during these post-work drinking-and-thinking sessions in Mr. Tattersall’s fourth-floor office in one of the museum’s turret towers, directly below the former office of the researcher Margaret Mead, who died in 1978.

“Nobody notices us here,” said Mr. Tattersall, 73, of the remote location, which has the feel of a speakeasy for scientists.

In recent years, the men have also turned their scientific analysis to the drinks themselves. They have written two books on drinking — “A Natural History of Wine” in 2015 and “A Natural History of Beer” in February — and are working on a book about spirits.

Their liquor stash is kept in an inconspicuous mini-fridge near a laboratory sink. For their first sampling of the evening, they had pulled out an ale called Eye of Newt, made by Catskill Brewery in upstate New York. It was tart, they noted, with a fruity nose.

“It has strange overtones to it,” said Mr. Tattersall, as if analyzing a newly unearthed primate skull.

ImageA Night at the Museum With Beer and Skulls
Mr. Tattersall's office houses a liquor-stocked refrigerator, and reproductions of skulls.CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

Mr. Tattersall is a biological anthropologist specializing in human evolution; Mr. DeSalle, 65, is a genomicist — which, he said, “basically means that Ian knows the bones and I know the DNA.”

The two researchers met a dozen years ago when they were curating the museum’s redesigned Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins and found that sharing a bottle of wine helped the flow of their discussions.

“We found quickly that we could write together, but, more importantly, we could drink together,” Mr. DeSalle said. “It loosened us up and got us away from being the science nerds we were.”

They began meeting regularly after work for discussions over wine or beer, and sketching out broad ideas and frameworks for pieces to be written later in more detail, separately and soberly.

“We don’t get drunk, but this lets our inhibitions drop a little bit, so you’re a bit more imaginative and can think about things more creatively,” Mr. DeSalle added.

Mr. Tattersall’s circular office has shelves filled with books on anthropology and alcohol, and walls lined with images of early man and species of lemur, which Mr. Tattersall has studied during many trips to Madagascar.

Their drinking pursuits also have led the men to visit wine and beer regions around the world.

When Mr. DeSalle began recalling a particularly raucous Oktoberfest in Munich, Mr. Tattersall suddenly raised a finger and said, “That reminds me of the time I was on a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago” and proceeded to launch into one of his anthropology stories.

“Sitting in the office with him is like watching Monty Python,” Mr. DeSalle said. A typical Friday-night gathering involves a few beers or a bottle of wine, he said.

“We found quickly that we could write together, but, more importantly, we could drink together,” Mr. DeSalle, right, said.CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

The sessions are an open secret among museum research staffers, some of whom will occasionally drop by. On this particular evening, Will Harcourt-Smith, a research associate in the museum’s paleontology division, wandered in and grabbed a glass from a lab sink where beer and wine glasses were arrayed like so many beakers and test tubes.

“I’ve always loved the intellectual fermentation in this room,” Mr. Harcourt-Smith said, joining the tasting and discussion near a long table where issues of “Lemur News’’ shared space with skeletal and skull casts from an extinct species related to human beings, Homo naledi.

Between philosophical musings and scientific debates — how different beers are related, how different primates are related — the researchers cracked another beer, sampled it, discussed it and then jotted down notes.

The conversation alternated between beer evaluation and a science journal article on the role of language in human evolution.

While Mr. Tattersall pondered the emergence of language in humans, Mr. DeSalle posed a pressing question: Should they next taste an ale? Or maybe a lager?

They went with a Queensbridge I.P.A. from the Big Alice Brewing Company in Long Island City, Queens, and commended its hoppy-fruity qualities.

A tasting of Big Alice’s Lemongrass Kölsch sent Mr. DeSalle off on a tangent on the finer points of the type of fermentation used for making a Kölsch, a type of beer developed in Cologne, Germany.

Ever the molecularist, Mr. DeSalle explained that some of the tangiest beers they had tasted had been fermented with a type of yeast known as brettanomyces, which was not to be confused with the saccharomyces yeast strain more commonly used in making beer.

With the tasting of each beer, Mr. DeSalle wrote notes in a small field book, logging observations of the beer’s character and taste, something they have done for more than 200 different beers over the years.

They have also created diagrams of how wine varietals are related and have charted the evolution of specific beers.

“This is data that can be digested in a scientific manner,” Mr. Tattersall said. “We subject them to phylogenetic analysis, meaning that the way we’d look at relationships among animals, we try to sort out relationships among beers, categorizing them and treating them as organisms.”

“We’re not claiming it’s great science,” Mr. DeSalle said of their drinking sessions. “But it’s a cool thing to do.”

Corey Kilgannon is a Metro reporter covering news and human interest stories. His writes the Character Study column in the Sunday Metropolitan section. He was also part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. @coreykilgannon Facebook

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How Ideas Ferment Amid Skulls At Night

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