Informal Science

At science cafés across the country, members of the public meet informally with science experts to discuss the latest innovations over a drink.

By Gigi Naglak | June 2, 2016

In bars and coffee shops across the country science cafés are cropping up. These informal gatherings bring together members of the curious public with science experts to have a drink and discuss the latest innovations that will affect our daily lives. Whether organized by a venerable institution or a single plucky volunteer, science cafés offer venues where nonscientists can ask questions and offer insight, and experts have the chance to present their research in an accessible format to a receptive and involved audience.

Informal Science 1

Ask a Scientist

Speakers and participants get involved at various Ask a Scientist events.

Ask a Scientist

Ask a Scientist, a science café in San Francisco, has been going strong for more than five years. Started by a local science enthusiast, Juliana Gallin, the popular event meets monthly at an area coffee shop and often shows live outdoor video of the event to accommodate the extra crowds. Topic titles have included “From Galileo to Einstein: Classical Physics 101,” “A Cleaner Future for Cars,” and “Native American Science.” And with the amount of scientific work going on in the Bay Area, Gallin is able to secure speakers from NASA, the Department of Engineering, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and many other places. Gigi Naglak, CHF’s outreach coordinator, checked in with Gallin to find out what it’s like to go to a science café, and why you might want to find one near you.—Eleanor Goldberg

GN: What format do Ask a Scientist events take?

JG: The talk starts at 7:00 and ends at 9:00, with a 10-minute break in the middle. The speaker gives two short presentations (around 15–20 minutes each), and the rest of the time is devoted to Q&A.

GN: Who comes to these events?

JG: Attendees’ backgrounds vary quite a bit. The age range is mostly 20s to 50s, but there are a couple of precocious little kids who show up regularly, a few teenagers, and also some seniors. About a third of the attendees work in the sciences (scientists, teachers, or science writers), and the rest come from any professional background you can imagine. Many are well informed about the topic of the night, and others have just walked in off the street because they thought the topic sounded interesting, but they aren’t especially familiar with it.

GN: What kinds of speakers do you have?

JG: We cover a broad range of topics, and the speakers’ backgrounds vary too. Some are researchers, some are university professors or high school teachers; there have also been science writers, doctors, and some people involved in science outreach and education, like Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, who spoke about the controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. Our speakers’ expertise runs the gamut, including astronomy, physics, computer engineering, meteorology, neurobiology, history of science, psychology, robotics, and others.

GN: How do you choose the topics?

JG: Books, articles, and radio interviews provide me with ideas for topics and speakers. If I’m reading about or listening to something interesting and the scientist in question happens to be local, I’ll look him or her up and extend an invitation. Sometimes I just think about a topic I’ve been curious about and do a little research on it to find a local expert. Then a lot of recommendations come to me through word of mouth. Friends and acquaintances tell me about someone they know, or have heard about, who’s doing some sort of fascinating research. And sometimes potential speakers write to me offering to come speak about their research. This has actually provided some great evenings—things I wouldn’t have thought of or known about on my own.

Informal Science 2

Ask a Scientist

Speakers and participants get involved at various Ask a Scientist events.

Ask a Scientist

GN: What have been a few of your most popular topics?

JG: Some of the most popular topics have been in astronomy, physics, and the human brain and behavior. We rarely have unpopular topics—in fact, in five and a half years we’ve only had a negative reaction once. The vast majority of the time the speakers deliver above and beyond my expectations.

GN: What is the benefit of attending a science café over a traditional lecture or a class?

JG: The extra benefit of Ask a Scientist is that it’s fun and social. You can have dinner and drinks and see friends. Many regulars have made lasting friendships just from seeing each other month after month. It’s casual, so you can go and chat with the speaker during the break or after the talk. And it’s free to attend—for me this has been a labor of love, and all of the speakers generously donate their time as well.

GN: Do you take audience feedback into consideration when shaping your future events?

JG: Yes. People come up to me all the time, or write to me, to suggest topics and speakers. Some of them have been really outside-the-box ideas, like Zeke Kossover, a physics teacher who offered to put on a “physics circus.” This has been a wildly popular event.

GN: How does audience participation shape each event?

JG: It’s always a big part of the event. Sometimes the questions and comments lead to some of the more interesting content. In the old days, when I first started Ask a Scientist and the crowds were smaller, I let people just interrupt with questions, so the whole night was more of a casual conversation. Now that the crowds are larger I have to structure it more, setting aside special time devoted to Q&A. But it’s still important to me to give the audience a chance to participate. After all, when I first thought up this idea, the whole point was to “ask a scientist!”

Find a Science Café in Your Neck of the Woods

LITTLE ROCK, AK: Science Café Little Rock, sciencecafelr.com

SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Ask a Scientist, askascientistsf.com

DENVER, CO: Café Scientifique, www.cafescicolorado.org

ATLANTA, GA: Atlanta Science Tavern, meetup.com/AtlantaScienceTavern

IOWA CITY, IA: Café Scientifique, sciowa.org/learn/cafe-scientifique/

MUSKEGON, MI: Café Scientifique, muskegoncafescientifique.com

ST. LOUIS, MO: Science on Tap, scienceontap.wustl.edu

NEW YORK, NY: Secret Science Club, secretscienceclub.blogspot.com

STILLWATER, OK: Born to Do Science, borntodoscience.blogspot.com

EUGENE AND PORTLAND, OR: Science Pub, omsi.edu/sciencepub

PHILADELPHIA, PA: Penn Science Café, news.upenn.edu/sciencecafe; Science on Tap, scienceontapphilly.com

BROOKINGS, SD: Science Visions, sciencevisions.net/SciCafe.html

AROUND THE UNITED KINGDOM: cafescientifique.org

For a more complete directory, visit sciencecafes.org.