Cafe Scientifique Chicago

By Sean Carroll | April 24, 2006 5:01 pm

You may have read celebrated and successful bloggers such as Mark and PZ Myers enthusing about the “Cafe Scientifique” idea. It’s an attempt, international in scope but local in focus, to promote discussion about exciting scientific ideas between experts and non-experts in an informal environment. By “in an informal environment” we typically mean “in a bar,” although I suppose an actual cafe or similar venue would do just as well. The original Cafes were located in England, but the idea has subsequently taken off and spread around the world. It’s similar in spirit to KC Cole’s Categorically Not series that Clifford has mentioned.

So now it’s our turn. Randy Landsberg at the University of Chicago has taken up the challenge of organizing a Cafe Scientifique in the Windy City, and the first meeting will be this Wednesday at the Map Room, a neighborhood bar famous for its dizzyingly diverse beer list. I’ll be the speaker, although the speaking is not the focus of the event. I’ll talk for about twenty minutes, followed by a break to give everyone a chance to refill their drinks, culminating in an extensive discussion/Q&A session where everyone gets a chance to talk the ideas through. The particular idea to be discussed is one of my favorites: Why is the past different from the future? We’ll talk about entropy and the arrow of time in our everyday lives, and connect it to big speculative ideas about the origin of the universe. Should be fun! And if everyone gets along, this will undoubtedly be the first of many events, and before too long the El will be alive with intense discussions about dispatches from the frontiers of science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • jay

    gosh, you are so cruel. chicago will miss you more from this fall on.

  • Lubos Motl

    Is the University of Texas at Austin going to sue the left-wing bastards for copyright infringement? 😉

  • Lubos Motl

    Oh, sorry, I did not notice that it was Mark Trodden who was teamed up with PZ Myers on this project. Soften the description above appropriately. 😉

  • neal

    this is a brilliant idea! i hope there are plans for a chapter in princeton. would you guys know of any contacts at the university i could get it touch with? i’d even love to help get one started, though i am unfortunately, very much a non-scientist. i know that many members of the community would enjoy this very much.

  • Moshe

    I’m curious about the frenchification of the name, is it just a little continental flavor (no harm in that I suppose) or is there another reason?

    (also, the topic chosen strikes me as pretty much the perfect one for such discussions).

  • Sean

    Neal, I think that there’s very little formal process involved. If you want to set one up, and there’s not already one in your area, just send an email to the CS people telling them what you want to do, and they’ll put you on their list. You might want to chat with some local scientists about who might be good people to invite. (I understand there are some scientists in Princeton.) In fact, there’s a page on how to start a Cafe:

    No idea about the Frenchified name. But it does add a certain aura of sophistication, non?

  • Mark

    Moshe, the name for this (which started in the UK), was modified from a French movement called Cafe Philosophique (I think).

  • Moshe

    Funny, quick googling reveals that Cafe Philosophique also started in England, I guess it is indeed more sophisticated in french, ces’t la vie.

  • Moshe

    Mark, yeah, further googling shown a bit more of history, I think you are right, makes sense now.

  • Sohn

    I want to start one, too. There’s no cafe scientifique in my country as I know. (at least, there’s no one on the cafe scientifique webpage above)

    I don’t know I can start one even though I am just a physics undergrad. Anyway, I will find someone who is interested in this idea as well as send an e-mail to CS people.

    Thanks for the information.

  • PK

    On the Oxford CS it says: “The Cafe Scientifique is a successful UK community originally imported from France.” Not sure if this refers to Cafe Philosophique.

  • Plato

    In your neck of the woods, moshe

  • Moshe

    Thanks Plato.

  • Devon

    Congratulations on kicking off your cafe! I’m with the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, and we’ve been organizing them for about a year now – every third Saturday at a bar in downtown Toronto (see and

    Our turnout has grown from a small handful of regulars to about 70 – which pretty much stretches the limit of the format. Our focus is on dialog and discussion, so we try and keep it informal and the panel presentations short. Usually the discussions last for 90-120 minutes (or more!). We also have found that being a regular event has led us to creating a regular audience of the general public – most attendees are non-scientists who are now attending no matter what the topic seems to be.

    Best of luck with yours!

  • Josh

    Sean, I was hoping to see you at the Pritzker Elementary Science Fair last night. The 5th Graders would have just eaten up that arrow of time schtick. See you Wednesday!

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  • Cynthia

    When I first heard about the concept of Cafe Scientifique, I thought it would be a most appealing platform to convey science on a cultural level. Unfortunately, having a Cafe Scientifique in my neighborhood would receive a quite volatile reception from a powerful group of Christian fundamentalists. My neighborhood is deeply embedded in the political thickets of conservativism which is known to harbor highly influential constituents who peddle a highly aggressive agenda on intelligent design. I do not believe a Cafe Scientifique in my neighborhood could survive repeated assaults from this conservative faction. Nevertheless- speaking with more optimism, if a Cafe Scientifique can maintain a low profile in my neighborhood, then I think the Cafe’s survivability could become greatly enhanced. Thanks for sharing this post regarding the intersection of science and culture.

  • K.C. Cole

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for bringing these great programs to everyone’s attention. I want to clarify something, however, because though the cafes are often compared with Categorically Not and its New York companion, Entertaining Science, we are fundamentally different in that we always combine science with art, politics, etc.–we even have one coming up that will include accounting!(It’s about Transparency; we’ll have an astronomer as well, and an artist.)

    One difference is that we’re juxtaposing disciplines to explore commonalities, and perhaps see what we can learn from them–though this is very much subtext: the idea is really to “play” with concepts rather than study them. But a lot of serious connections get made, I think. For example, during our program on Intuition, Joe Polchinski talked about intuiting ideas about the physical universe from mathematics; Antonio Damasio looked at the neuroscience behind that process; and filmmaker Jed Dannenbaum showed how directors rely on the audience’s intuition to pick up a multitude of unstated things. Each informed the other to a surprising extent. This past Sunday, we did one on reality and illusion with an artist, a neuroscientist, and a fiction writer–and i think the connections were even stronger.

    The sneakier motive, of course, is to bring in people who might not think they have an interest in (or aptitude for) science, but come for the art or music. We hope they begin to see science in a new light.

    This is all to say there are many ways to do this kind of outreach, each offering something different. The cafes are a great idea. But I encourage people also feel free to think to think big and broadly: there’s a universe of possibilities out there. Let’s try them all!


  • Sean

    KC, I couldn’t agree more. In fact some events under the “Cafe Scientifique” banner do try to mix science with the arts and humanities more explicitly, although the Chicago one will be fairly traditional. Doesn’t matter what you want to call it, what matters is putting science (and other fields) in a context where everyone is able to participate.

  • Plato

    I might diagree a little Sean, as suttle our indications and perception on extra dimensions, it is good to see the topic on intuition applied across the fields, represented. Really brings it home.

  • Sean

    Aftermath: I think it was quite a success. We had 40+ people, just about exactly the right number. (I got to meet some CV readers!) And almost all of the attendees were real people, not scientists. I spoke for just a little while, much beer was consumed, and then we had quite an extended Q&A about time and the universe and all that. It’s true that I kind of hogged the microphone, so it was not exactly a multi-way discussion, but that’s why I get paid the big bucks.

    Overall I think that people had a few laughs and learned something. Hopefully it will be the first of many in Chicago, and the Cafes will continue to spread all over.

  • Elliot

    I was there as well and I will echo Sean’s comments (not the one about him hogging the microphone ;)) but it was quite a success. He did a great job of simplifying the exceedingly complex. I am always amazed at the ability of non-scientists to at least sort of “get it” in a naive way and then ask questions that get to the heart of some important issues.

    I would hope as well this this will continue in Chicago however it will be a hard act to follow.

    It was gratifying to see this kind of turnout of, as Sean indicated, non-scientists eager to learn about the way the universe works.

  • Plato

    Sort of gives a new perspectve on the pizza guy, or the person sitting beside you on the airplane doesn’t it?

    A certain amount of respect? A lay person who wishes to undertsand and thought insignificant in their opinions now presented with the queston mark, is truly cast to future probabilities?

    If we had all thought the eagernes of the child on the bus, and the blank slate, white room as a possible medium with which to present new things and discoveries, imagine the motivation and drive that would be given to the children of the future. Give them purpose, and feelings of acceptance on their particpation.

    Wonderful evolution going on here.

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  • Mike M

    Just been catching up on my reading, and came across the statement from Sean that

    By “in an informal environment” we typically mean “in a bar,” although I suppose an actual cafe or similar venue would do just as well

    As a regular speaker at a Cafe Sci here in the UK, I have to demur – the questions would be nowhere near as interesting without a degree of alcohol fuelling!

    Oh, and have fun in California, Sean. It’s a long way from the drawer full of styrofoam chips at the CfA…

  • Sean

    Mike, old bean, good to hear from you. If you’re ever visiting Southern California, I’ll try to scare up a game of office golf.

  • Carla

    Your post helped inspire us to start a Café Sci in Champaign-Urbana! So if you ever find yourself heading south on I-57 on the first Wednesday of the month (starting July 5 2006), please join us!


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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