This article originally appeared on page one in the May 15, 2013 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
‘Science Cafes’ Feed Hunger for Technical Understanding
By Andrew Davis
Gazette Contributing Writer
AMHERST — A 10-year-old girl walks into a bar. She sits next to a particle physicist and asks, “So if the universe is expanding, does the Higgs field also expand to fill it up?”
Don’t hold your breath for the punch line. There isn’t one.
This is what happened at April’s science cafe at the Amherst Brewing Company. No joke. And it tends to happen twice every month at the SciTech and OEB (Organismic and Evolutionary Biology) cafes, where local scientists come to chat about their fields.
“We desperately want to make science more approachable,” said Sarah Goodwin, one of the organizers of the OEB Cafe and a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student in biology. “We want the community to walk away with a better idea of what the science is about and who the scientists are.”
Both cafes invite scientists and researchers from the Five College area to speak informally with residents about what they do. Goodwin and a group of like-minded graduate students started the OEB Cafe two and one-half years ago.
Normally closed on Monday evenings, Esselon Cafe — whose owner Mark Krause is married to Goodwin — devotes its space to conversations with biologically inclined scientists. Experts in microbes, the sense of smell, and jumping frogs have all taken turns engaging guests in past events, often accompanied by musical interludes and quiz-style games.
Kathy Aidala, professor of physics at Mount Holyoke College, started the SciTech Cafe this past year, the monthly meetings at Amherst Brewing Company. The idea had been in place for a while, she said, “but I decided not until I’m tenured, and not until I have secure (research) funding.”
The interests of Aidala’s speakers tend toward physics and materials science. Think black holes, alternative energy, and the science of nanoscale objects thousands of times thinner than a human hair. Aidala notes there are science programs for children and for academics, particularly in big cities, but not many for the general adult-age population.
Bars and science
Scientists have a storied history with bars. Richard Feynman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics, was famous for regularly working through equations on napkins at a topless bar.
And the story goes that Watson and Crick joyously announced their determination of the now-ubiquitous double helix of DNA at a nearby pub.
Instead of making scientific findings at their cafes, Goodwin and Aidala are spreading the everyday joys of science to the public in what they hope is an inviting, question-friendly setting.
“There’s a clear need for more interaction of scientists with the public,” Aidala said.
She noticed that students in her Science in the Media course hold stereotypes of how scientists look and behave, and many had never met one in person.
“As a young woman in physics, I care a lot about the public perception of scientists,” she said.
Both Goodwin and Aidala said they were inspired years ago by similar science cafes: Aidala from a flier in New York City and Goodwin from the Science Cabaret in Ithaca, N.Y. Their two cafes started small, with initial meetings attracting about 20 people, many of them acquaintances of the speakers or organizers.
But they have been growing. The latest SciTech Cafe discussing the discovery and significance of the Higgs boson saw nearly four times that number, the majority composed of cafe newcomers and science-friendly strangers.
“I don’t know physics,” said Linda Marston, who regularly attends the cafes with her husband, “but it was so well presented and explained. I’m still talking about it.”
Aidala happily notes the number of children attending is quickly rising.
Engaging an audience of children, graduate students, retired engineers, and nonscientists in a topic as complex as particle physics is not an easy task. For this reason, the two cafes share a mind-set in selecting their guests: They both are keenly interested in excellent teachers who are accustomed to talking about what they do in an engaging way.
“It’s a good format for a wide range of people, ages and experiences,” said cafe visitor Eric Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, an Amherst resident, enjoys that there is a science venue outside of academic circles. He first heard about the cafes from a neighbor, Scott Auerbach, a chemistry professor at UMass who spoke at a SciTech Cafe event about renewable energy.
Wilkinson was impressed, and he and his family have gone back to attend additional events.
“I think the entire concept is a really fascinating and great approach for the community,” he said.
Wilkinson’s son was awarded “Best Question of the Night” during Auerbach’s talk, asking if spent plutonium could be disposed of in lava flows.
At the most recent science cafe, Mount Holyoke College professor Gary Gillis — an expert on the biomechanics of “how animals work” — started with videos of frogs leaping through the air, variously nose-diving on the ground and sticking to the walls of their enclosure. Gillis’ interests lie primarily on the landing side of a jump.
Drawing parallels to teaching his young son to skate, Gillis said with a laugh, “You learn the importance of self-controlled deceleration.”
Landing from a jump (or even just the landing of a person’s foot while walking) was originally thought to be a purely reactive process controlled by physical contact. As the foot is set down, the brain receives sensory feedback from contact with the ground, so it slows down instead of slamming the foot hard into the ground.
But studies in the 1970s showed that wasn’t the case. Instead, the brain activates muscles in anticipation of a landing long before contact is made. During the cafe, Gillis explained his curiosity in exploring that anticipation. For example, how does the eventual landing impact depend on how well the brain anticipates landing? Blindfolding a subject and having that person step down three or four steps on a staircase while anticipating only one step could provide insight into the biomechanical processes involved.
It could even have potential for designing better prostheses for humans.
Prompted by questions from the crowd, the topic then snowballed into a discussion of how gymnasts on a balance beam can leap and flip without looking down. The initial questioner was rewarded with a small stuffed frog for inquisitiveness.
Beyond friendly chats about a researcher’s latest interests, Aidala doesn’t shy from loftier goals.
“With all the major problems in the world, one of the things I can do a little bit about is scientific literacy for the general public,” she said. “Absurd political decisions are being made that should be informed by good science and are currently not being informed right now.”
However, the potential 10-year-old particle physicist is what excites and surprises Aidala the most. She said the most rewarding (and surprising) aspect of the science cafe has been “the quality of questions from the audiences, especially the kids.”
The SciTech Cafe (scitechcafe.org) next meets June 24 at Amherst Brewing Co. The topic will be “Seeing at the Nano Scale,” presented by professor Kathy Aidala.
The OEB Cafe (oebsciencecafe.org) is on break for the summer, with its next meeting scheduled for September.