17 December 2007

Science Cafes--Return of the Secular Chautauqua

In the late 19th century US, and early 20th century, the traveling Chautauqua was one way lay people kept informed on current topics of science, discovery, invention, philosophy, etc. An online Chautauqua is available to subscribers, but much of the format's appeal comes from the face-to-face excitement of hearing the lecturer firsthand, and the undertone of immediacy created by an interested and interacting crowd-community of listeners. Recently, across Europe and the US, the phenomenon of the "science cafe" has emerged.
On a recent Wednesday night the crowd spilled out the door at San Francisco’s Axis Café, where the draw wasn't a hot band or a talented bartender, but a lecture. On physics.

Toby Garfield, an oceanographer at San Francisco State University, was explaining the science of big ocean waves, like the giant Mavericks surf break about 25 miles away. As he showed slides of the ocean floor and explained that the coast is a system of energy dissipation, the crowd peppered him with questions. Why do waves come in sets? What are rogue waves? How is the United States harnessing the power of waves to make renewable energy?

Scenes like this are being repeated across the country at science cafes, where contemporary science -- a topic that Americans supposedly find dull -- is drawing substantial crowds month after month, even on topics as nerdy as gene sequencing and dark matter.

"It gets me exposed to more areas of science," said Jodie Kasmir, a health care communications specialist, during a break at the big-waves lecture. "Where else am I going to learn about things like sea urchins, or astronomy? How else am I going to find these scientists? Am I going to e-mail them, or go to their lab?"

These cafés seem to have hit a sweet spot in adult science education, offering access to cutting-edge discoveries and the scientists who make them, minus the notes and tests required in school (plus wine, coffee or beer flowing freely from the bar).

About 60 science cafés have cropped up across the United States. The first café was held in England in 1998, and the movement is spreading elsewhere in Europe, as well as South America and Australia. Most are held free of charge and are loosely affiliated through an international umbrella organization called Café Scientifique.

Entertainment in many North American communities is lacking in substantive information value. Dancing is fun, cinema can be stimulating and emotionally satisfying at its best, concerts and nightclubs are enjoyable, as are the theatre, opera, and ballet. But the intellect also needs stimulation and entertainment--and people getting together to share a meaty intellectual topic is quite a good way to meet those with common interests.

Find out more about science cafes here. Find out how to start your own science cafe here. To find a science cafe closest to you, go here.


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