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Science Goes Down Easier With Food, Drinks

Organizer Cynthia Wichelman introduces a 'Science on Tap' speaker at the Schlafly Bottleworks.

Science cafés bring researchers out of the lab and into conversation with regular folks

Sometimes, science can seem overwhelming.

There are complicated concepts, unimaginably large — or small — objects, and vast distances that most people have a hard time understanding. And scientists often have difficulty explaining what they do in language the public can understand.

But there is a movement to bring scientists out of the lab and into the community for a chat over dinner and drinks.

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

Audience members enjoy a meal at Herbie's Restaurant before a Saint Louis Science Center Science Café.
Audience members enjoy a meal at Herbie's Restaurant before a Saint Louis Science Center Science Café.

Mixing food and science

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

"A science café, 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 cafés 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 100 science cafés at bars and restaurants throughout the United States. They attract anywhere from a handful to over a 100 people, depending on the topic.

Washington University geophysicist Anne Hofmeister presents her work at 'Science on Tap.'
Washington University geophysicist Anne Hofmeister presents her work at 'Science on Tap.'

'Science on Tap'

St. Louis has two science cafés.

The second one — sponsored by Washington University — meets once a month during the academic year at a bar called the Schlafly Bottleworks.

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," says Wichelman.

New way to learn

So what brings people out to a bar to talk about science?

Audience member Mike Stuart likes the atmosphere: "It's fun to learn things and enjoy a good beer."

"I was actually really lousy in science class," says audience member Carrie Smothers. "So now I'm picking up the information as I can get it." Smothers laughingly says being at a bar helps the science go down a little more easily.

Ron Rogers is another attendee. He calls science cafés "a civilized education."

"Why aren't more science talks in a bar, right?" asked audience member and former "Science on Tap" speaker Robert 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."

Audience questions make science cafés come to life

The topics discussed at these science cafés 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?"

"What is their number one objection to what you're saying?"

And the questions keep coming — sometimes going on for longer than the presentation itself. But the scientists don't seem to mind.

Scientists also enjoy the challenge of a science café

Ivan Jimenez of the Missouri Botanical Garden says he appreciates 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 says. "Challenging."

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