Talking Hypotheticals at U-M's Science Cafe
Do you wonder whether synthetic life is possible? Did you know that dark energy is supposed to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe? Or maybe NOVA
just keeps you up at night.
Since 2007, the there-must-be-an-explanation-for-that camp has convened to discuss the physical and behavioral sciences – and make merry with others of a similar inclination – at Science Cafés
sponsored by the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History. From October through April each year, Conor O'Neill's
pub hosts a highbrow happy hour for scientific whiz-kids in all fields of study and practice... and those who want to meet them.
Tanya Muzumdar talks with Science Café Director Kira Berman about her curation of ideas and discoveries served up at the café tables.
What sparked the Science Café?
Science cafés grew out of a movement actually that started in France, called the Café Philosophique
...People would go to a café or bar and they would have a brief speaker and then they would have discussion on a philosophical problem. And so science cafés grew out of a combination of that idea, of an informal conversational place where people go to discuss ideas, and the notion that science and technology increasingly affect our lives. And we need to keep talking about them and keep being aware of the social and public policy implications of science in our lives...So science cafes started in England and moved to the United States, and now if you go onto the national Science Café
website, you'll find that there are Science Cafes all over the country.
In terms of what sparked the one here in Ann Arbor, we really felt that the [U-M Museum of Natural History] needed to do more outreach and more programming for adults, and this was a great way of reaching people after work who are interested in scientific issues but may not necessarily make a trip to the museum and are looking for a casual place to, again, discuss ideas in the spirit of the Café Philosophique.
The Science Café is sponsored by U-M's Museum of Natural History, but what role does it play in the community at large?
It's a really interesting dynamic that we have right now. We have really had a mix of both town and gown, as it were. So it's a place where community members feel that they can come and discuss scientific ideas, often one-on-one with experts and researchers from the university...A place where they can meet with a researcher or scientist or a practitioner and find out what they do, the ideas that may affect them, and the science that's going on.
Who makes up your audience base?
Our attendance has varied between about 30 and over 100 [people]. In terms of demographics we get about half associated with the university and half with the community. In terms of large groups that tend to attend, we get a significant number of retirees and a significant number of students, so it's a great place for those two groups to interact. People sit at large tables so you're probably sitting with people that you did not arrive with, which means that it fosters some conversation.
How does one get to be a presenter?
Many of them are faculty, but not all of them certainly. We do make an effort to reach out. In general we like to pick topics where there's some sort of social or public policy angle that people can actually discuss. We like to pick one or two presenters. If we have two, they'll typically be people who look at the same topics from different perspectives. So it might be a faculty member and a practitioner, or it might be two faculty members who study the same topic but in a different way...Many are faculty here at the university, but some are from elsewhere.
How do you conceive the subjects of each gathering?
We try to pick topics that are in the news, so this fall, in November, I'm working on a science café on the Higgs boson
... It's a major confirmation for what's called the standard model in particle physics. It was in the news this summer, that scientists thought that they had evidence that the Higgs boson actually exists, which it's been hypothesized that it would for a long time, but they haven't been able to find evidence.
People this year have a lot of questions about fires and floods and weather and hurricane storms, things like that. In October we're doing, in collaboration with the NOAA Great Lakes Laboratory
, a science café on climate change in the Great Lakes and what we can expect.
And typically in the winter semester we have programming along a theme...this winter the theme that U-M's College of Literature, Science, & Arts is doing is "Understanding Race"
. So there will be many, many different kinds of programs all over the university that focus on race, taken from many different angles, such as the science of human variation, which tells us that while there are some differences between us, we actually have much more in common between groups than we have differences. There are more differences within any one group than there are between two groups of people...And so we will have four science cafés on that topic, in January, February, March, and April.
Do you think up all of the topics?
So you're really the brains behind it.
Insofar as there are any (laughs). This is a fun set of programs and I really enjoy coordinating it.
Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous feature column was "Treecycling with Urbanwood".
All photos by Doug Coombe