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Science goes down more easily with food, drink

(Photo credit: Warren Gish)
Organizer Cynthia Wichelman introduces a ?Science on Tap? speaker at the Schlafly Bottleworks.

By Veronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio


St. Louis, MO – The general public is bombarded with information about the latest scientific research or discovery - much of it confusing, contradictory, or just plain inaccurate. And outside of a classroom, there are few opportunities for ordinary people to talk directly with scientists about their work. But there is a movement to bring scientists out of the lab and into the community - for a dialogue, over dinner and drinks.

"Hello everyone. Welcome to Science Cafe, thank you so much for coming out tonight..."

Most people learn about science in school, from the media, or on the internet. But at a science cafe, they get to learn about it straight from the scientists themselves.

For the past four years, Al Wiman has organized a monthly science cafe for the Saint Louis Science Center.

"A science cafe, it's a concept that actually started in Europe, and it was an idea to get scientists engaged in an informal conversation with the general public."

Wiman says part of what makes science cafes successful is where that conversation takes place: "We have it in the lower level of Herbie's restaurant in the Central West End."

There are now more than a hundred science cafes at bars and restaurants throughout the United States. They attract anywhere from a handful to over a hundred people, depending on the topic.

St. Louis has two science cafes. The second one - sponsored by Washington University - meets once a month during the academic year at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

Organizer Cynthia Wichelman says "Science on Tap" features Washington University professors talking about their research. The events draw a diverse audience.

"We have people who are professionals that range from engineers and physicians, to people that just have an interest in science and may be retired, may not be employed, may be students, and have just an interest in learning more."

So what brings people out to a bar to talk about science? Well, for Mike Stuart, Carrie Smothers, and Robert Pless, the location makes the science go down a little more easily.

"I like the atmosphere: it's fun to learn things, and enjoy a good beer," says Stuart.

"I was actually really lousy in science class," says Smothers. "So now I'm picking up the information as I can get it." Does she think it helps to have that learning take place in a bar? "Very much!" Smothers laughs.

"Why aren't more science talks in a bar, right?" asks Pless. "Like this is the place where you learn and you ask and you understand things most quickly, instead of a lecture where it's really just a one-way thing."

The topics discussed at these science cafes are as varied as scientific research itself: from black holes to biological clocks to botany. But the evening really kicks into high gear after the scientist's presentation ends, when the audience gets to start the conversation.

"Is it still a question as to whether there is a lot more plant diversity in the Andes versus the Amazon?"

"If you're right, what is the origin of the magnetic fields?"

And the questions keep coming - sometimes going on for longer than the presentation itself.

But the scientists don't seem to mind.

Ivan Jimenez of the Missouri Botanical Garden says he appreciated the chance to talk about his work with people outside the scientific community.

"Scientists often talk to scientists, not very often to non-scientists, so that's kind of exciting, fun." Jimenez laughs. "Challenging."

But at the science cafes in St. Louis, scientists and non-scientists alike seem up to the challenge.


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