Casual science talks are catching on

Share This:



Special Feature

A New Bar for Science

Casual science talks are catching on


Devin Powell, Managing Editor, Radiations

A New Bar for ScienceLouis Schwartz, a lawyer from Brooklyn, has a different concept of celebrity than most people. While standing in line at a coffee shop, he once chatted up Hugh Jackman, failing to recognize one of the biggest stars in Hollywood (and the winner of People magazine's 2008 “sexiest man alive” award).

Who does Louis recognize? Theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene, whom he spotted walking through a subway station with his wife one day. Thrilled, Louis ran up to the scientist and began questioning him about string theory.

When Louis wants answers to the many questions he has about science, his favorite place to go isn’t a university or a museum. It’s a dark, cavernous bar called the Bell House on 7th Street in Brooklyn. Once a month, science enthusiasts like Louis pack the place to hear a talk by a scientist and participate in a Q&A session. The event, started eight years ago and run by a jazz musician and a pair of writers, is called the Secret Science Club (SSC), though that’s a bit of a misnomer these days—the club has been publicized in everything from Scientific American to The New York Times, so the secret is definitely out.

Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College in New York who studies black holes and the size of the universe, gave one of Louis’ favorite SSC talks. “She said that photons have no mass,” Louis told me. “So I asked, ‘How does using light sails to provide propulsion for long-duration interplanetary space flight work, if photons don’t have mass?’” An enlightening discussion about momentum ensued, said Louis.

SSC’s lineup has included such scientific all-stars as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Steven Pinker. Sigma Pi Sigma’s own David Hogg, a cosmologist at New York University, kicked off the 2012 season with a talk about the history of the universe. Becky Ferreira, a reporter for New Scientist, recorded Hogg’s opening remarks as he looked out at the big crowd that had gathered: “Holy [expletive]! I didn’t know science was this cool!”

Science is so cool, in fact, that it is leaking out of academia across the nation and finding its way into bars, clubs, coffee shops, and other places where lay people congregate to be social and have a good time. The Secret Science Club is part of a community of new “science cafés” popping up, projects that connect the public to science in casual settings that often involve snacking on appetizers and sipping mixed drinks.

One of my favorites is PechaKucha. The brainchild of two architects, this event challenges presenters to explain something they are passionate about in 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each slide. The nerve-wracking format forces one to be concise and clear. The first PechaKucha I attended was hosted by a warehouse-turned-art space in New York, where the audience sat on the floor cross-legged; others took place in a chic art gallery in Washington, D.C., and a park next to a coffee shop in Thailand.

To learn more about how Sigma Pi Sigma members are getting caught up in this trend of informal science presentations, I tracked down two alums who have participated in events similar in spirit to the Secret Science Club. They graciously offered to share their stories with the Sigma Pi Sigma community. Perhaps they will inspire you to get out and share your own expertise at a bar near you!

More from this Department

Special Feature