Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nerds' waterhole--"Science Cafes"

"Here at the Secret Science Club, all scientists are rock stars," announces Margaret Mittelbach, one of the group's founders, introducing the evening's headliner: a microbiologist from Columbia University, who will talk about vertical farming within skyscrapers to create sustainable ecocities.

Not exactly as I remember in my youth. A section of a tavern was our venue or a professor's office or grassy spot on campus or somebody's apartment.

"A nightclub for nerds makes science cool in New York"

The Secret Science Club meets once a month, drawing lofty speakers and large numbers of young people, who yearn to discuss sci-tech issues in an informal setting.


Elaine F. Weiss

March 4th, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor

A long queue has formed inside Union Hall, a popular club in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, as it does on the first Wednesday of every month. The line snakes through the main room, past the indoor bocce court, and down the narrow stairs to a basement space with a low, stamped-tin ceiling.

The crowd is young and hip, mostly in their 20s and 30s, eager to gain entry to tonight's hot-ticket entertainment event. Once the doors open, about 50 lucky people secure chairs, while another 50 stand four-deep around the room, and another 50 are gently turned away at the door.

"This is the third time I haven't made it in," a disappointed young woman sighs.

A mixtape of music plays through the speakers and the audience sips drinks from plastic cups while waiting for the featured act to begin. It won't be the latest indie band, or an up-and-coming comedian. This is not the typical New York club scene. This is the monthly meeting of the Secret Science Club.

"Here at the Secret Science Club, all scientists are rock stars," announces Margaret Mittelbach, one of the group's founders, introducing the evening's headliner: a microbiologist from Columbia University, who will talk about vertical farming within skyscrapers to create sustainable ecocities.

"So please give a rock-star welcome to … Dr. Dickson Despommier." The audience cheers and whistles for the bearded professor, who looks pleasantly startled as he walks onstage. "I've never seen anything like this," says Dr. Despommier, squinting into the colored spotlights focused on him. "This is remarkable. An absolute surprise."

Despommier is just the latest scientist to be surprised - and amazed - by the rock-star reception accorded them by the Secret Science Club, which likes to describe itself as: "Underground, shrouded in mystery, and chock-full of brainiacs."

Neuroscientists, marine biologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, and genomics experts have all taken a bow at the Secret Science Club since it started three years ago, and come away dazzled by the experience.

"Our goal is to make science fun and vibrant and part of the culture of the city," says Ms. Mittelbach, a journalist and author of two quirky books on natural history. "Not something separate, beyond reach, in an ivory tower. We want to integrate it, make science a part of people's lives."

The laid-back atmosphere, science-themed beverage concoctions, eclectic music (often live bands play topic-appropriate tunes), and occasional films help attract a chic, cerebral crowd.

"I come every month if I can," says Rebecca McMackin. "It's a good place to meet people who like science."

"It's a lot of fun to come out to see people who are actually going out of their way to learn something," explains another Secret Science Club regular. "It's dorky, I guess - but it's filled with people who are just curious and want to learn."

The sessions attract an eclectic mix of people in all professions, from carpenters, painters, and photographers to musicians, graphic designers, and Wall Street wizards.

"People say science is a dying field," says Despommier. "Clearly it's not!"

• • •

The Secret Science Club was founded by Mittelbach, together with Michael Crewdson, a fellow natural history writer, and Dorian Devins, a radio producer. It grew out of a publicity event Mittelbach and Crewdson cooked-up to launch their first book, "Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger." The event was a wacky taxidermy contest, but it was such a surprising hit that the group thought about starting a club where people could talk about science in an informal setting.

"The first one, I was very worried no one would come," admits Mittlebach, but "instantly, it became very popular."

It may, in fact, have become too popular. The room in the Union Hall basement is now too small to accommodate the throngs of people who want to attend the gatherings. "We had one speaker [Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel], and they were lined up outside almost to 6th Avenue," says Andrew Templar, a co-owner of Union Hall.

What attracts young people to the meetings is perhaps understandable - a nightclub atmosphere and a talk on neurons by a Nobel laureate. But why do renowned scientists agree to do a stand-up routine in a funky basement space? It's certainly not the money: The scientists do it for free.

"It's a very different audience from what I might have at a typical popular talk," says Dr. David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist. "It's much younger and more diverse. It's a very engaged and informed audience, and there's a lot of energy in the room. They ask lots of questions - some very sophisticated questions. The whole feel is different."

When Despommier was invited to speak, he had no idea what the Secret Science Club was. He thought he might have to use a secret hand signal to get in the door. Yet when he heard who had addressed the group in the past, he packed his briefcase.

"They were very famous people," he says. "I knew those names, and, I thought, how can I say no?"

• • •

The Secret Science Club belongs to a burgeoning international community of "science cafes" - places where scientists and ordinary citizens can have a lively discussion in a social setting far from the lecture hall or laboratory. The concept was born in Europe about a decade ago, and the "cafe scientifique" movement has spread to dozens of European cities as well as to Asia, Africa, and South America. Even Iran has a cafe scientifique.

The idea took root in the US just a few years ago. In 2005, only a half dozen science cafes existed. Today, 80 to 90 operate around the country. "We're creating new opportunities for scientists and people to interact," says Ben Wiehe, outreach project director for the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston.

Stimulating the growth of science cafes has become part of the mission of Nova ScienceNow, the popular program produced by WGBH TV, and Wiehe acts as both evangelist and air-traffic controller. He argues that in an era when so many urgent policy issues involve science and technology, the nation, and the world, can ill afford a scientifically illiterate, or uninterested, citizenry. Science cafes can help.

The best science club venues tend to be restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, but some are held in bookstores and even theaters. Each science cafe is homegrown. Some are across-the-table dinner conversations, some take the form of casual question-and-answer sessions, and a few, like the Secret Science Club in New York, prefer a more "straight-up lecture" - structured, but not stuffy.

Back in the eccentric basement headquarters of the Secret Science Club, Despommier and Michael Garbarino laugh and chat in a circle of science-clubbers eager to continue the conversation about ecology. They stand near an illuminated wildlife diorama and just to the side of a cabinet of "curiosities."

"I've never encountered so many wide-eyed, enthusiastic people," says Despommier. "To see this outpouring of enthusiasm - it's extremely encouraging. I think it's thrilling."

Mr. Garbarino, who works for a security guard training company, travels from the Bronx by subway to attend the meetings - unfailingly. "I've been to every single lecture since it started in 2006," he says. Garbarino thinks the club helps puncture stereotypes of how science works. "You realize science is a way of looking at the world," he says. "It's not a bunch of people in white coats handing down edicts from on high."

And he enjoys the way the secret club makes learning about science seem cool. As he puts it: "Nerd is the new chic."

"Science Cafés Tap Nation's Fascination With Research and Discoveries"


David Ferris

December 15th, 2007


Melissa Capria, the climate-change coordinator for the City of San Francisco, speaks at 330 Ritch in San Francisco. The topic was how climate change will affect the Bay Area.
Photo: David Ferris

On a recent Wednesday night the crowd spilled out the door at San Francisco’s Axis Café, where the draw wasn't a hot band or a talented bartender, but a lecture. On physics.

Toby Garfield, an oceanographer at San Francisco State University, was explaining the science of big ocean waves, like the giant Mavericks surf break about 25 miles away. As he showed slides of the ocean floor and explained that the coast is a system of energy dissipation, the crowd peppered him with questions. Why do waves come in sets? What are rogue waves? How is the United States harnessing the power of waves to make renewable energy?

Scenes like this are being repeated across the country at science cafes, where contemporary science -- a topic that Americans supposedly find dull -- is drawing substantial crowds month after month, even on topics as nerdy as gene sequencing and dark matter.

"It gets me exposed to more areas of science," said Jodie Kasmir, a health care communications specialist, during a break at the big-waves lecture. "Where else am I going to learn about things like sea urchins, or astronomy? How else am I going to find these scientists? Am I going to e-mail them, or go to their lab?"

These cafés seem to have hit a sweet spot in adult science education, offering access to cutting-edge discoveries and the scientists who make them, minus the notes and tests required in school (plus wine, coffee or beer flowing freely from the bar).

About 60 Science Caféshave cropped up across the United States. The first café was held in England in 1998, and the movement is spreading elsewhere in Europe, as well as South America and Australia. Most are held free of charge and are loosely affiliated through an international umbrella organization called Café Scientifique.

Café coordinators say that crowds come with minimal advertising and represent a wide demographic, from teenagers to thirty-somethings to retired folks.

Most get-togethers follow a friendly and informal format: Bring a local scientist to present a short lecture, and give the guests plenty of opportunities to ask questions, especially at the end.

"The idea is to get everyone engaged in the conversation and involved in the discourse to where they're not just asking questions but challenging the scientist and going off on tangents," said Ben Wiehe, who hosts a café at a bar called The Thirsty Scholar in Somerville, Mass.

The topics are as diverse as science itself. An upcoming café in Portland, Oregon, will advise how to survive a pandemic, while a past event in St. Louis explored the secret life of lichens, and another in Pittsburgh explained patterns in computational biology.

Many cafés are sponsored by educational institutions such as universities and museums. They're seizing on the opportunity to introduce their research and experts to a new audience.

Katey Ahmann, who organizes a café for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, said she had doubts whether anyone would show up when she dedicated an early café to new research on the 19th Century Irish potato blight. Thirty-five inquisitive people showed up. A year later, the museum is offering monthly cafés on Tuesday nights at an Irish bar that draw up to 120 people, and Ahmann often has to cut off a lively discussion for time.

"It provides something for adults to do that's fun, and they learn something, too," Ahmann said. "The idea of having adult programs that work is really exciting."

The science-café phenomenon is also giving new exposure to public-television shows focused on science, such as NOVA scienceNOW, produced by WGBH in Boston and Wired Science. Quest, created by KQED in San Francisco, supplied a clip from a show on big ocean waves to the audience at the Axis Café.

A video especially can attract the casual bar patron who came out for a Coors, not a classroom, said Wiehe, who is also an outreach coordinator for WGBH.

"I do a little introduction and the people who aren’t there for the café pay no attention," he said. Once the film is cued up, though, "Everyone's paying attention and laughing on cue. And then they're all involved."

Science cafés

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