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.
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.
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
"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."
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
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.
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.
By MINDY SINK