Informal Science

Ask a Scientist

Speakers and participants get involved at various Ask a Scientist events.

In bars and coffee shops across the country science cafés are cropping up. These informal gatherings bring together members of the curious public with science experts to have a drink and discuss the latest innovations that will affect our daily lives. Whether organized by a venerable institution or a single plucky volunteer, science cafés offer venues where nonscientists can ask questions and offer insight, and experts have the chance to present their research in an accessible format to a receptive and involved audience.

Ask a Scientist, a science café in San Francisco, has been going strong for more than five years. Started by a local science enthusiast, Juliana Gallin, the popular event meets monthly at an area coffee shop and often shows live outdoor video of the event to accommodate the extra crowds. Topic titles have included “From Galileo to Einstein: Classical Physics 101,” “A Cleaner Future for Cars,” and “Native American Science.” And with the amount of scientific work going on in the Bay Area, Gallin is able to secure speakers from NASA, the Department of Engineering, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and many other places. Gigi Naglak, CHF’s outreach coordinator, checked in with Gallin to find out what it’s like to go to a science café, and why you might want to find one near you. –EG

GN: What format do Ask a Scientist events take?

JG: The talk starts at 7:00 and ends at 9:00, with a 10-minute break in the middle. The speaker gives two short presentations (around 15–20 minutes each), and the rest of the time is devoted to Q&A.

GN: Who comes to these events?

JG: Attendees’ backgrounds vary quite a bit. The age range is mostly 20s to 50s, but there are a couple of precocious little kids who show up regularly, a few teenagers, and also some seniors. About a third of the attendees work in the sciences (scientists, teachers, or science writers), and the rest come from any professional background you can imagine. Many are well informed about the topic of the night, and others have just walked in off the street because they thought the topic sounded interesting, but they aren’t especially familiar with it.

GN: What kinds of speakers do you have?

JG: We cover a broad range of topics, and the speakers’ backgrounds vary too. Some are researchers, some are university professors or high school teachers; there have also been science writers, doctors, and some people involved in science outreach and education, like Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, who spoke about the controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. Our speakers’ expertise runs the gamut, including astronomy, physics, computer engineering, meteorology, neurobiology, history of science, psychology, robotics, and others.

GN: How do you choose the topics?

JG: Books, articles, and radio interviews provide me with ideas for topics and speakers. If I’m reading about or listening to something interesting and the scientist in question happens to be local, I’ll look him or her up and extend an invitation. Sometimes I just think about a topic I’ve been curious about and do a little research on it to find a local expert. Then a lot of recommendations come to me through word of mouth. Friends and acquaintances tell me about someone they know, or have heard about, who’s doing some sort of fascinating research. And sometimes potential speakers write to me offering to come speak about their research. This has actually provided some great evenings—things I wouldn’t have thought of or known about on my own.