Science Scenesters

By Sean Carroll | November 18, 2007 1:32 pm

Old Media, in the form of the New York Times, catches on to the Cafe Scientifique phenomenon that Mark and I have blogged about before. Under a variety of different monikers, the idea of gathering people in a bar to learn about science and have an engaging conversation is apparently catching on all over.

The spirit of “Mr. Wizard’s World” has now reached an audience that can legally drink. The same late-night revelers who spent their high school and college years plodding through mandatory science classes are now gathering voluntarily to listen to presentations on principles of string theory or how orbitofrontal cortexes work — as long as it takes place far from the fluorescent lights of classroom.

Science groups for young professionals who don’t wear white coats, like the year-old Secret Science Club at Union Hall, are cropping up in bars and bookstores all over the country, from Massachusetts to Montana.

“If you have a certain type of job, after a while that part of your brain starts to deteriorate,” said Amy Lee, 25, who works at an Internet startup and was attending her second Secret Science Club meeting. “You want to use it again. Plus, there’s alcohol.”

About 50 groups, with names like Science on Tap and Ask a Scientist, have formed in the last four years. There are three in New York City alone. Each month, they invite scientists, usually professors at nearby universities, to lecture on topics as varied as mass extinctions and frog mating calls. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people, none of whom wear pocket protectors, show up for an evening of imbibing hard science along with hard liquor.

The article exhibits a sense of bemusement that people could find all this sciencey talk interesting, and chooses to play up the less lofty angles.

Some science club attendees come more for the social benefits than for academic pursuits.

“I figure it’s a great way to meet like-minded singles,” said Lisa Dorenfest, 45, a project manager at an investment bank who was at Café Scientifique at Rialto, a restaurant and bar in downtown Manhattan. “If I do meet someone, lucky me. If not, I’m still entertained.” At the meeting, she offered to share her handout with a nice-looking actuary.

That’s okay; the great thing about science is that we can be lofty and earthy at the same time. The important thing is a shared passion for learning about the world.

“There’s a reason kids are into this stuff,” Ms. Mittelbach said. “A guy told me that when one of the speakers started talking about life on Mars, he started crying. They can shake us to our core. I like being a little scared. I like hearing that we may be hit by an asteroid.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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  • lt.milo

    wow that was a strange closing quote.

  • Luis

    “after a while that part of your brain starts to deteriorate […] You want to use it again. Plus, there’s alcohol.”

    Keep your neurons in good shape, so that when you kill them with alcohol, they leave a beautiful corpse.

  • http://blog.domenicdenicola.com/ Domenic

    Wow, that’s so cool! Seriously, some of my faith in humanity is restored.

  • onymous

    “A guy told me that when one of the speakers started talking about life on Mars, he started crying.”

    Well, sure. I mean, the film is a saddening bore, the sailors are fighting in the dance hall, the lawman’s beating up the wrong guy, Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow…. There’s a lot to cry about.

  • http://web.pas.rochester.edu/~tobin/ Tobin

    Any such thing here in LA?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Tobin, the closest I know of is Categorically Not, but it’s not quite the same. (More interdisciplinary than scientific, and held in an art studio, not a bar or cafe.)

  • http://www.thechocolatefish.blogspot.com Yvette

    Science Cafe started up in Cleveland just a few months ago, so my friends and I try and make it out there to support it and learn a few things we might not know about. That and they do it during happy hour! 😀

    My one complaint (besides the fact that there’s only one a month) is how there aren’t enough astro/phys topics for my tastes as the organizer’s a social scientist. But that’s probably my personal preference getting in there.

  • http://groupaction.blogspot.com Nick Ernst

    I’ve seen this in action, not in the real world but at Burning Man. You would be surprised at how many people showed up to math camp! It was, naturally, connected to our bar (with spicy Bloody Marys and Salmiakkikossu, hey), but everyone was very engaged with our lectures. The casualty of the setting made them not feel guilty when they lost track (and, I hope, enhanced their love and affection for the beauty of geometry). The afterwards conversation was the best part, because people flirt with new ideas and get intellectually downright promiscuous.
    To any would-be bar lecturers: Make every few sentences a stand-alone concept, so that anyone who looses the thread can pick it up again.

  • http://montedavis.livejournal.com Monte Davis

    I’d be happy to share organizing scutwork for Philadelphia, especially with anyone having local faculty connections — hey Penn, Penn State, Temple, Drexel, Swarthmore, you out there?

  • tp

    Tobin nailed my biggest complaint with the article: it didn’t have a link for anyone to find something in their own town.

    Try:
    http://www.sciencecafes.org/find.html

    I don’t think that’s anywhere near complete (it may be just those affiliated with NOVA), but its a start.

  • http://www.pacfs.org/wp/ Colin Purrington

    Monte (and other Philadelphians), please click on my name to go to “Pennsylvania Citizens for Science” — top post (as I write) is about a Penn Science Cafe.

  • http://montedavis.livejournal.com Monte Davis

    Thanks, Colin — let others know via
    http://www.sciencecafes.org/put_on_map.html

  • Roger Harris

    Great discussion! Just one point…

    “they invite scientists, usually professors at nearby universities, to lecture on topics ”

    Contrary to the quote from the NYT, Science Cafes are NOT a lecture. As Sean articulates, science cafes are a “gathering of people in a bar [or other low key environment] to … have an engaging conversation.” That is, Science Cafes work precisely because they are not lectures. They are conversations, chats, dialogues, but not lectures.

    The Science Cafe takes science to the people, rather than relying on the public to drive to campus lecture halls, seminar rooms etc. That is the strength and appeal of the Science Cafe–it is science on the public’s turf.

    Members of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, have a soup to nuts kit to organize a Cafe from scratch. The emphasis is on team work so that three or four people work together to organize the event. Once the work is done for the initial cafe, subsequent events are much easier so most cafes evolve into a series. To find out more, check out our website: http://www.sigmaxi.org/programs/public/cafe.shtml

    Bear in mind too that Sigma Xi is a great network for finding experts on your science topic de jour!

    Roger Harris
    Director, Membership and Chapters
    Sigma Xi

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    You should totally set up Science Sunday at the Cat and Fiddle.

    See how I said “you” and not “me”?

    I’m on an organizing strike.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .

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