NYT: There's a Cafe Scientifique Near You!
Science Comes to the Masses (You Want Fries With That?)
By MINDY SINK
Published: February 21, 2006
DENVER, Feb. 20 — A scientist walks into a bar. More than 100 people are there, eager to hear all that she has to say and ask a lot of questions. No joke.
That's what happens at the Wynkoop Brewing Company here every month when Café Scientifique is held.
Science is not cold and remote in this setting. It's live, interactive, free and informal, with a drink or two. And other Café Scientifique meetings are popping up throughout the country and around the globe on campuses, in coffee shops, bars and even a church. The purpose is to make science accessible and even fun to anyone with the time to stop by.
"A lot of people come to see real live scientists — some of whom are extremely famous and prominent — and see how their brains work," said Dr. John Cohen, a professor of immunology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the founder of the Denver Café Scientifique. "People don't often get a chance to do that. Some come to ask questions, others are content to listen."
The Denver Café Scientifique was established in 2003 and is the largest in the country to date, drawing about 150 people (cafescicolorado.org). The topics vary from sleep to interstellar communication to Higgs bosons to nanotechnology, and they attract people of all ages and all occupations.
"Who would have thought you'd have standing room only at a geek event?" Dr. Cohen asked. He said he first read about science cafes in 1999 when they were catching on in England. "It just sounded like so much fun," he said. "I saw it as a reminder of the peripatetic philosophers who wandered the Agora in Athens." He imagined them, he continued, "stopping every so often to refresh themselves with a mug of wine from the local sellers."
It was an article in Nature by Duncan Dallas that inspired Dr. Cohen and others. Mr. Dallas, now a retired television producer, started Café Scientifique in 1998 with a note posted in a bar in Leeds, England: "Where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to discuss the scientific ideas and developments which are changing our lives."
He said he was inspired by French philosophy clubs; coincidentally, science cafes were starting up in France in the late 1990's. In an e-mail message, Mr. Dallas said that taking science out of the classrooms changes the expectations of the audience and the speaker — from lecturing to discussing.
"I believe that science is the most important force in our culture," Mr. Dallas wrote, "and is increasingly impinging on our public and personal lives, through subjects like genetics, neurology, pharmacology and evolutionary psychology. So public engagement with science is bound to increase in many forms over the next decade."
Café Scientifiques in Britain (www.cafescientifique.org) received public financing to get started, and dozens are now held around the country. In the United States some such cafes have no budgets and are independent — like the one in Denver — while others receive school and corporate help.
Two science cafes in New York — one in Syracuse and the other in the city — break from the tradition of free science to all and charge $5 to $10. Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, is to be the host of an Entertaining Science cabaret at the Cornelia Street Cafe at 6 p.m. March 5 in Manhattan.
Sigma Xi, a scientific research society, was host to the first national gathering of Café Scientifique leaders this month in North Carolina to network and organize the movement.
Juliana Gallin, a 38-year-old graphic designer in San Francisco, started "Ask a Scientist" at the Bazaar Café two and a half years ago (askascientistsf.com). "I was trying to think of something interesting to do outside of my day job that would be more personally fulfilling than the typical volunteer opportunities I was encountering," Ms. Gallin said, noting that it was only later that she learned of the Café Scientifique movement.
In Seattle, Gretchen Meller, a research scientist, and a few of her friends had their first event last September in a local bookstore (scienceontap.org). "If the general population is to vote on these issues eventually," she said, "they need the opportunity to ask questions."
Indeed the topics are sometimes taken from headlines. Café Scientifique Pittsburgh will be host to the author Pamela Winnick, who will discuss her book "A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion." The Pittsburgh science cafe was started by two science writers in 2004 and is held at the Penn Brewery every month. Tim Palucka, a 46-year-old freelance science writer, shows off the humorous side of Café Scientifique when he jokes that their motto should have been "Talk to a drunk scientist" instead of "Eat. Drink. Talk Science."
The topics are not always so funny. Tony Cox spoke here recently on "Risk Analysis and Public Health." Sipping on their microbrews, people listened and then rushed up to Dr. Cox to ask questions during a break before the official questions and answers began.
"It's almost like continuing education," said Lyda Ludeman, a 64-year- old retired I.B.M. systems controller. "And the great part is, they don't test you." Ms. Ludeman comes to Café Scientifique every month with a group of regulars, some wearing denim shirts with Café Scientifique logos sewn on the chest.
John Farmer, a 49-year-old advertising executive who attended with his girlfriend last month, said he liked to come to Café Scientifique occasionally to learn about different topics. "A lot people are intimidated by science," he said. "It's great to drink a beer and to brush elbows with these geeks who have very disciplined minds. Everybody can use a little more science in their lives."
If you're interested, you can find out where cafe scientifiques occur near you:
Here's one for Minneapolis:
And here's the calender for the next one:
Organizing Life: A New Evolution
Tuesday, March 14, 6–8 p.m.
Varsity Theater, Dinkytown
Free. Must be 18 or older to attend.
What evolutionary patterns link Earth's species, from microbes to birds to human beings? In conjunction with the Walker Art Center's exhibition “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005,” the Bell Museum presents a special Café Scientifique on taxonomy, phylogeny, and evolution. Join biologist and Bell Museum Director Scott Lanyon for an introduction to a worldwide research effort that is equivalent in scope to the Human Genome Project, and find out how and why researchers like Lanyon are assembling an evolutionary “tree of life” that will organize the 1.7 million described species on Earth. To learn more about Smith’s artwork, which references taxonomy, visit walkerart.org.