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Scientific talk comes to a head

Beer is not required to get the intellectual juices flowing, but when quaffed in moderation it doesn't gum it up, the scientist concluded.

"It lubricates the process," insists Ed Shelley, 80, a retired physicist.

OK, he was speaking with his tongue held slightly in cheek.

After all, when the small group of mostly retired scientists who call themselves "Brains on Beer" hold court, theirs is sober contemplation and reflection on the state of life on our rotating orb.

They refers to themselves as BoBs, which you have to admit is better than SoBs.

"We discuss scientific issues of the day with occasional side trips into politics, philosophy, religion and nonsense," observes member Frank Lang, 75, a retired biology professor from Southern Oregon University.

The topic can be anything from quantum physics to home-brewing. Brewing beer is a very serious, science-based endeavor, they'll have you know.

Frank had invited me to sit in on a session to give readers a little insight into what some retired scientists do after they leave the lectern and the lab behind.

Going on four years now, the BoBs have been meeting nearly every Wednesday afternoon for an hour of discussion and the aforementioned brewski at a local watering hole in Ashland.

"We always throw our loose change into a kitty, which we then use to buy scientific equipment and apparatus," Lang notes.

In fact, they have raised an impressive $2,000 in that time, with the purchases going to the nonprofit ScienceWorks in Ashland, as well as to Phoenix, South Medford and North Medford high schools.

Last Wednesday's backdrop included other folks chatting and munching on pizza, video games blasting and March Madness silently going wild on a big-screen TV.

Yet none of that deterred the scientists from their topic at hand.

Joining Lang and Shelley were fellow BoBs Michael Hersh, 74, a retired aerospace engineer; Michael Quirk, 71, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who specialized in computer science; Bill Radke, 76, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management scientist; and the youngster of the group, Paul Hampton, 57, a chemistry teacher at South Medford.

"We'd like to proselytize the fact we want to help local schools," Quirk says. "We talk about what we could do, then we invite someone from that organization to come and have a beer with us."

The BoBs can be reached via Lang at frlang@charter.net. A beer is not mandatory.

As an illustration of their educational achievements, consider Shelley's schooling: bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics, a master's degree in physics and a doctorate in physics. The latter is from Stanford, apparently a school of higher learning somewhere out West.

These are all really smart folks. But they don't let their scholarly backgrounds get in the way of a good time.

"Anyone can venture a topic we can discuss," Quirk says. "We can agree or not agree."

"We once had a discussion about hydrogen fuel cells that got elevated," Hampton acknowledges.

But it never reached critical mass. The fistfights remain verbal.

"Michael (Quirk) has this theory about men and women and the planet Earth we've debated a few times but we have yet to solve," Shelley says.

To understand the theory, you need to go back 10,000 years to a time when aliens invaded Earth, Quirk begins.

"But we never debate that until four pitchers are done," he says, causing the rest of the BoBs to burst out laughing.

I am moderately sure he was joking.

On this day their topics include deposition technology, apparently a hot item in engineering today. There was also talk about space rocks threatening the planet and how the rover Curiosity is doing as it explores Mars.

Back on Earth, the BoBs also take a plunge into parenting.

"Young parents are not seriously encouraging their children to learn more science and math," Hersh laments. "Without math, it's not really science."

"One of the things I've noticed is that science is enjoyed by children who are very young," Hampton says. "ScienceWorks is a perfect example of that. For children up through sixth grade, science is one of the most fun things they can do, next to recess.

"But somehow, between about sixth grade and high school, children start believing that science is not fun anymore," he adds.

"It's not cool," Shelley says.

The bottom line, they conclude, is that a lot of people who could otherwise contribute to enjoying and furthering science set their goals lower.

Following each session, Hampton carries away recent scientific periodicals given to him by the other scientists. This week it included Space News and Aerospace America.

"That allows my students to see a totally different aspect of science and engineering than they would normally see in school," he says of sharing the periodicals with his students.

"It's also a melding of generations to have a person like Michael (Hersh), who worked on Voyager," he adds. "My students see in current events that Voyager is leaving our solar system, and here is a person in our community who actually helped put that all together."

True story. Hersh is a rocket scientist who worked on the jet-propulsion system that sent Voyager on its journey back in 1977.

"Voyager was supposed to get to Neptune — it's at the end of the solar system now," Hersh reports of the interstellar traveler.

With the hour drawing to an end, there was one last question: who is the smartest BoB?

"Ed, because he is the oldest," someone offers, prompting a last round of gentle ribbing.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.