In Uganda, crowds of them gathered curiously outside a grass-thatched hut, surrounded by chickens pecking at grains leaking from malwa pots, to do it.
In Gowanus Canal, New York’s latest hip hood, 600 of them wandered through the cool shadows of graffiti-strewn warehouses, pecking at iPods, to do it.
From Kazakhstan to Cape Cod, thousands of closet nerds are sneaking out of house-and-hut each month to drink at one of the world’s 750-plus science cafes, or Cafes Scientifique. Sometimes these are held in cafes. Just as often, they are held in bars. (The hut above had no windows or doors, but lots of malwa: alcohol.)1
Worldwide, the basic intent is the same, says Margaret Mittelbach of the Gowanus Secret Science Club: “To invite everyone to let their inner nerd run wild; to get excited about black holes and dark matter; sharks and jellyfish; neurotransmitters and epigenetics.”
The basic intent, in other words, is to break science out of the lab, and send it into the careening, and caffeining, nightlife of the partying public—everywhere.
It is working—and catching on “fast,” says Café Scientifique founder Duncan Dallas, who is based in the UK. It is such a phenomenon that in March, NOVA’s ScienceCafes.org held online training for anyone, anywhere pining to start one. Training at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting that month was Standing Room Only, as scientists lined up to “30 second science pitch” each other, says Nova’s Scott Asakawa. “The movement, growing steadily, is picking up. We averaged seven new cafés per month last year. This year, we’ve averaged nine per month.”
Reasons can vary by country. A “climate change” cafe in Nepal is popular, “because people see the snow disappearing from their mountains,” notes Dallas.
In Isfahan, Iran, Dr. Iman Adibi had to “slowly and carefully” start his café “as people are suspicious of public meetings, especially those that women can come to,” Dallas notes. But perhaps for that reason, “it has been running five years.”
Then there is the irrepressible Gowanus cafe. A recent talk on memory protein PKMzeta, by New York University neuroscientist Andre Fenton, created a line so long, the talk was delayed 30 minutes to jimmy 400 into the hall; 200 into the bar.
The proverbial pin drop could be heard in the bar, where trendily dressed 20-to-70-year-olds of both sexes clutched beers, and stared at intercoms above kitchy moose heads, and cathedral organ-like racks of booze. They could only hear the brainy chat, but no one seemed to mind.
“I was astonished,” says Fenton.
In 2007, the then-new cafe attracted 120 people a talk, right away, to the Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It quickly attracted so many more, it moved to The Bell House in Gowanus. In 2012, it attracted 400 per. In 2013, it attracts well more than 400.
It all started in 1992 in France, with the Café Philosophique of Marc Sautet, who wanted locals to Talk Philosophy. In 1998, UK TV science producer Dallas read Sautet’s obit and brought the model to England, opening it to science. Pub owners spread the word. A movement was born.
“Café Scientifique, Science Café, Science Exchange, Chai and Why, STEM Café, Wissenschafts-café, Science in the Pub, Science ka adda,” wrote Ann Grand, who tends the global Café Scientifique website from the UK. “It still astonishes me this movement has spread to almost every continent.” The hold-out: Antarctica.
“In the last six months,” Grand added via email, “more than six new cafes have started. There is Minocqua, Wisconsin; Charlottesville, Virginia; Honolulu. In Europe there is Baku, Athens, Barcelona, and Madrid. The scene in Australia has come back to life in Brisbane, Sydney, and Darwin. Cafes are thriving in New Zealand.”
In the UK cafes are everywhere, from Aberdeen to Penzance, Colchester to Cockermouth. In the US cafes range from Annapolis to Denver to Sebastopol.
In Africa, the movement started in February 2007 in Accra, the “hot dusty capital of Ghana, where cars go to stall in traffic for hours,” as University of Ghana history Professor Benjamin Sperry lyrically puts it. The movement has since dodged traffic to travel the continent. In Uganda there are 35 science cafes. African cafes can focus on more immediately urgent matters than other nations: how the human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer, for example.1
But the nine Uganda cafes in March 2013 were diverse. One, held in a church for hundreds of locals by an Islamic University of Uganda professor, was about cell phones—whether they get viruses; how to spot knock-offs—says Uganda Café Scientifique organizer Betty Kituyi-Mukhalu.
Another, held in an empty schoolroom, was given by a Makerere University professor on the origin of emotions. It delved into the subconscious, Pavlov, autonomic functions. Other topics in Uganda that month included: genetically modified crops, Facebook, and “Do Aliens Exist?”
Uganda’s cafes generated such passion they were folded into schools, while continuing as separate entities. “In Bishop Cipriano Secondary School,” says Kituyi-Mukhalu, “the top two science students in the A-Level exams came from Cafe Sci! Cafes are now part of that school.” A big lure: kids choose the speakers, and “expect to be listened to.” Thus at one particularly luminous Uganda café, children and scientists gravely reviewed steps needed to become an astronaut.
Cafés have even caught on in Pakistan, “where the world is supposed to be one’s mosque,” blogged Salman Hameed, head of the Hampshire College Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies. Intellectual battles there, between astronomers and fundamentalists, often wage over using more reliable technology than the eye to gauge when planetary alignments signal holy days.
But at science cafés (Science ka Adda), a stranger topic reigned for a while. “Some [questions] dealt with science and religion: the role of God in this universe. Fair and important,” wrote café lecturer Hameed. “However, I also received some odd questions. The issue of world coming to an end in 2012 was raised at each of three venues. This is an example of a loony pop-culture import from the US.”
He swiftly “dispelled at least some of the crazy [American] rumors.”
Interest doesn’t lull. Dallas, who is writing about cafes for a Singapore National Institute of Education book, says this may be because each café can have its own raison d’etre—favoring its own New Technology. “In Indonesia there is one run by a woman for women,” says Dallas. “Called Digimom, it encourages women at home to use computers and the internet to earn money. Digimom is on Facebook and Twitter and does cafes for kids. Kazakhstan started this year, talking about the Hadron Collider. One meeting is on YouTube. Chai and Why? is in Mumbai. The founder is on TED... Cafes reflect cultures, individuals or small groups who do things in their own style.”
But this is science, the universal language, so interest also ranges beyond culture. Cafes are headed for China, says Dallas. “Café Scientifique and Science Café are looking at ways to make cafes a unified worldwide phenomenon,” says Asakawa.
As Mittelbach sees it: “People secretly like science. They have a deep curiosity about how the world works, and what scientific inquiry has to tell them. For various reasons many got turned off it, or were made to feel they couldn't hack it.”
In the wilds of Brooklyn, she and co-founder Dorian Devins combat this in part by selling strong drinks—named after speakers—to encourage relaxation all around. At his talk, memory expert Fenton expressed happiness his audience was putting back “Fenton Fizzes,” so it might forget him if he tanked.
“I'd never ‘played’ to a crowd like that,” he says. “Having a drink as I watched people fill up that hall, it was clear I needed to be entertaining, which I never have strived to do before. Unusual—and fun—to be a neuro-entertainer for an evening.”
Fenton noted that night that, as learning rewires neurons, the talk itself was rewiring a few. This was aided by the Fenton Fizzes, which the café warned, “rewire your neural architecture!”
But the silence in the bar, which lasted throughout, testified to the potency of both the brews, and the brains, at work that night.
“We really are excited about peoples’ response,” says Mittelbach.
1. Nakkazi, E., “Drinking up science in African cafés, SciDevNet, September 3, 2012.