Science Happy Hour

Filed by Celia Arnaudposter-edit.jpg

With photos of Frank Sinatra adorning its walls, Lucky’s Lounge in South Boston is better known as a jazz spot. Monday night, though, Lucky’s was the venue for a science café hosted by the ACS Department of Local Sections & Community Activities and the public television show “NOVA scienceNOW,” produced by WGBH.

For those of you unfamiliar with science cafés, these informal gatherings are meant to stimulate discussion about a topic of current scientific interest between scientists and the general public. The event poster, with its “beer + science = good conversation,” sums up the casual atmosphere cultivated at these cafés. They start with a short presentation—no slides and hopefully in plain English. Then the questions, discussion, and even debate begin.

This wasn’t my first science café. I’ve been to one in the Washington, D.C., area, but that one was arranged especially for science writers, who often have science backgrounds themselves. Last night, I tried to listen from the point of view of people without a science background, who are really the target audience for science cafés.

At this café, Doug Treco, who works with Jack Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital, talked about the lab’s work to develop chemical systems with emergent properties that can self-replicate and evolve—artificial life, if you will. I enjoyed hearing about their research.

I realized that a layman would quickly get lost in the maze of words like enzyme,science-cafe-audience.jpg monomer, and nucleotide that were being thrown around. Some in the audience probably tuned Treco out. In the back half of the room, where I was standing (the event was standing room only), conversations continued. At one point, the moderator stopped Treco to take a quick survey: How many people understood what Treco was talking about? About half the hands went up, likely representing people who were there for the ACS meeting. One man in the audience, who has attended other science cafés in the Boston area, described himself as a science fan but not a scientist.

Café Sci’s website says that it “encourages open, easy-to-understand conversation. No lectures. No PowerPoint. No technical jargon.” They missed the mark this time, but the audience seemed forgiving.

Lucky’s was a new venue for Boston’s Café Sci, which usually meets across town in a local pub in the Inman Square neighborhood of Somerville. To find out more about science cafés, check out the website www.sciencecafes.org, which describes the concept in more detail, shows where to find active science cafés, and gives tips on how to start your own café.

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