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Science cafes bring joy of discovery to Main Street

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The D.C. Science Writers Association hosts a monthly science cafe at Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K street. Each cafe begins 30 minutes before the discussion to give people time to find a place to sit, "order drinks and food and schmooze." (Photo: Linda Wang)

Synthetic biology, archaeological explorations in the Valley of the Kingsquantum physics, engineering for earthquakes, DNA and precious gems are just a few of the topics discussed in Science Cafes from Florida to Washington, New York to California and in any number of cities in between. These gatherings, defined as "live—and lively—events that take place in casual settings such as pubs and coffeehouses, are open to everyone, and feature an engaging conversation with a scientist about a particular topic," according to sciencecafe.org — the web site of WGBH, Boston's PBS station.

The idea of creating a forum for scientists and the public to discuss "current work and interesting scientific issues," began in the United Kingdom in 1998 with Café Scientifique. A presenter shares information or insights on a science-related topic to an audience of interested people, usually in a bar or café, and a moderator keeps the discussion moving. Designed to be a grassroots movement, science cafes are started by individuals or organizations and leverage the scientific resources available in any given community. The cafes are usually free of charge, although the audience might be encouraged to buy a drink or food from the venue hosting the event. What follows can be as comical or as serious as the organizers could hope for.

"Early on we celebrated Darwin's birthday, and the restaurant provided us with a birthday cake," says Ruth Hanessian, one of the founders of the Rockville Science Center Science Café in Maryland. "In my store I'm handing out these fliers, and I had a number of customers shoving them back in my face. 'Oh my,' was my reaction. I couldn't believe what was happening. That was kind of an eye-opener to me. I do have a lot of home-schoolers, and I had never given any thought as to why they were home schooling."

An ornithology major in college and a pet-store owner, Hanessian volunteers to help organize and run the cafes. She believes they are a great way for anyone to learn about the science "going on around the corner." Rockville has scientists all over the place, with a number of government agencies and scientists based in the community. The Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission employ many scientists, as do the National Institutes of Health, just down the road in Bethesda.

"We have a lot that are unable to fully express their own opinions because of government constraints," Hanessian says.

"Some of (the topics) are of a level that are way beyond most of the people in the audience — that's even better, because then they're challenged to go and learn more later."

The Rockville café, which meets at a restaurant, regularly has a standing-room-only crowd. A buffet dinner is available for those who wish to eat, but there is no requirement to buy dinner and no charge at the door. While many know about the cafébecause the location is popular with locals, it's the variety of topics that make about one-third of the audience regular participants, according to Hanessian.

"Biological, engineering, historical re-enactment on Civil War medicine — that's our Christmas presentation," she says. "When we did Darwin's birthday, our speaker was an evolutionary speaker but our December (presenter) came in costume as Darwin and answered questions better than the speaker. It was fascinating having this costume re-enactor answering the questions with such excellence."

Drawing on local recourses to keep cafécontent interesting and relevant is one reason for the international success of science cafes. With more than 200 cafes worldwide, according to the Café Scientifique (with at least 60 in the United States), each has its own character.

In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Science Writers Association hosts a monthly gathering called the D.C. Science Café—  "a place to blow your mind while eating, drinking and being merry." The brainchild of science writer Ivan Amato, the caféis an opportunity to talk about the subjects he writes about.

"There's something to be said about traditional engagement. In my case, though, traditional print is a fair abstract way and distant way of communicating science," Amato says. "You write something, it goes in print, you throw it over the fence, you hope people read it and get something out of it.

"It got me hooked on this idea of unmediated, or at least less mediated, public engagement of science in our lives.

Choosing the "cool urban environment" of Busboys and Poets Café at Fifth and K streets, Amato wanted to tap the atmosphere owner Anas "Andy" Shallal cultivates to infuse the D.C. Science Caféwith a little something extra.

"He is someone who is engaging the public in his event space with very important things, like our literary lives and social justice," Amato says. "I told him science and technology are incredibly important discussions for us to have in that kind of venue. It's just got such a great vibe. This is a place where you can actually get people to experience things and think about things that maybe they normally don't, and that's a good thing."

The fun of science has spilled over into the menu of Busboys and Poets. Each caféhas a "signature" drink for the night. Imato gives the bartenders a name for a drink related to the topic, and they whip up something unique.

"There's 12-13 original mixed drinks that have come out of this," Amato says. "The next one I suggested is anima — the life principle. The (topic) coming up is on synthetic biology, which has tremendous promise to solve some problems of the world, but it brings with it very powerful technology that could also have nefarious uses in certain people's hands, or even by accident."

That intersection of science and everyday life is reflected in the topics at the D.C. Café. The inaugural discussion was led by Nobel laureate, astrophysicist and cosmologist John Mather of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. A recent discussion was, "Versed in Science: An Evening of Poetry," which featured science- and technology-themed poetry by six different poets. Two of the poets were also scientists, one studied bacterial genetics and viruses, and the other who is a neurosurgeon, studied liberal arts and medicine.

Careful to balance the social with the science, each cafébegins with 30 minutes before the discussion to give people time to find a place to sit, "order drinks and food and schmooze." Entering its second year, the event is held almost every month and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

"There seems to be a hunger for it," Amato says. "It is an exciting way to extend the reach of science. And for the people who do it, for their own enthusiasm and interest in it — to spread that excitement and sense of discovery to also discuss very serious things."

Hanessian agrees.

"It's just such a wonderful opportunity area to expand the horizons of their citizens, and in so doing, hopefully support science, which is so desperately needed for our future," she says. "There is so much science in the world that people don't realize."

Thanks to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, you can check out some of the science cafes online at its partner site, KCTS TV. If you like what you see, you can find a cafénear you via the WGBH listing, or set up your own science caféusing the "how to" guide offered by Café Scientifique.

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The D.C. Science Writers Association hosts a monthly science cafe at Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K street. Each cafe begins 30 minutes before the discussion to give people time to find a place to sit, "order drinks and food and schmooze." (Photo: Linda Wang)
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