At Cafe Scientifique, science talk is served with a cold beer

At Cafe Scientifique, monotone lectures and boring PowerPoint presentations are banned. Instead, the gatherings emphasize smart discussion of science -- over a cup of coffee or a cold beer.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

At Café Scientifique, monotone lectures and boring PowerPoint presentations are banned. Instead, the gatherings emphasize smart discussion of science -- over a cup of coffee or a cold beer. Founded in England and now held at pubs and coffee shops around the world, Café Scientifique brings together world-famous experts with science buffs who have no formal training.

John Cohen, a professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, runs Denver's Café Scientifique. Below are excerpts from our recent interview.

What is Café Scientifique? How did it start?

Café Sci started in about 1999 in the north of England. It was started by Duncan Dallas, who had based it on something going on in France for decades before called Café Philosophique. Duncan was interested in science and he was in England, so of course it was in a pub. He wrote a little bit about that in Nature in 1999 or 2000. I saw it and thought, 'Why didn't I think of that?' The idea of getting people in a relaxed environment to talk about science seemed to be the right idea.

As soon as I saw it, we decided to start that here. It took a little while to find the right place. We started our first in 2003. This year in November will be the beginning of our ninth year. We're the oldest cafe in the Americas. Ours is a traditional one.

What does it mean to be a traditional CaféSci? What does a typical meeting look like?

We're in a pub. We start at 6:30 in the evening. It's once a month. We invite a speaker who is an expert in any branch of science. We cover everything from medicine to nuclear physics. That person has about 20 minutes to talk about whatever is on their mind. Usually, it's their own research. They're not allowed to use any audio-visuals. No PowerPoint. That would turn it into a lecture, and we want it to be a discussion. We usually take a little break for socializing and getting another drink. People tell us that time is important. They get to meet other people at their table and talk to people they haven't seen in awhile. After 10 minutes, we call them back to order. The speaker leads question and answer discussion.

I'm the moderator, but I don't do anything other than introducing the speaker. We only have one speaker. Some Cafés do debates. We don't think science is about debating. Science is about discussing. If you and I debate, one of us has to win. That's not what science is about. If we disagree, we should discuss why we disagree. It's not that I have to win the argument because I'm older or I come from a better university.

You mentioned location is important. What's the ideal location for a Café?

Ideally you can find a place to meet that is not part of an organization. Some have to meet on a university campus. We find that less conducive to relaxing and being yourself and voicing your opinions. That's been my experience. For example, I'm in the medical school. I often see medical students at the Café. I'm not sure I see them in class. They're responding to the freedom of the environment. A pub makes good sense in the evening. We're all adults and can have a beer responsibly.

You have to find a pub or restaurant where the owner believes in what you're doing. It took us a couple of years to realize the mayor of Denver owned a nice pub. In addition, he's an engineer and a great fan of science. Once we approached him, he and his partners were enthusiastic and gave us the room for free. That's wonderful for us. He used to sit in all the time. He's now the governor of Colorado. It's not his place anymore, but he's still a supporter of the Café.

Are the sessions free?

There's no fee. We consider it important that anybody can come. We don't do registration or sign up. People know it's popular. If they get there late, they might have to stand. They might not be able to get in. We're always full. We have a legal limit of 150. I suspect it's the biggest Café. We could probably get 300 people to come, but it wouldn't be as personal.

What were some recent discussion topics?

Last spring, we started with a director of sports physiology at the medical school talking about over-trained athletes. That was followed by a guy talking about the moons of Saturn. He is part of the team that has a satellite up there taking pictures. Next was somebody talking about why fructose is such a problem for humans. It isn't just that it's full of calories, but we're not metabolically designed to handle a lot of fructose. Then we had somebody talking about financial derivatives and how they caused the near-crash of the economy. Economics is technically a science.

How do you choose the speakers and topics?

Now that we're well known locally, people nominate themselves or their friends. Many people who've talked write asking if they can talk again. I read a lot of journals and I'm always looking for anything with a Colorado tagline. We have many of the national laboratories here. There are a lot of folks doing science. I'm trying to find someone doing research that I think a lot of people would be interested in.

The best attendance we ever had was at a talk about the Higgs boson. We don't even know if this particle exists. It's a kind of particle postulated to give all the other particles mass. That was a wonderful evening.

What was the most controversial Café you've had?

Last year, we had a talk called, 'Are Adolescents Less Mature Than Adults?' It was a psychologist talking about why the American Psychological Association in a position paper said a 16-year-old boy is too immature to be held responsible for murder, but a 16-year-old girl is mature enough to decide whether to have a baby. They got attacked by people saying they weren't being consistent. I think a lot of people in the audience thought that too, that maybe there was some political reason behind this. She talked about the actual evidence of brain development. People develop earlier the ability to make reflective decisions. Deciding whether to have a baby is not necessarily something you decide in a second, whereas deciding to kill somebody often is. That ability to control impulsive behavior comes later. That one had very good discussion.

Who is your audience? Do participants have science backgrounds?

We've done surveys. A little more than half of the people that come have no background in science. They're interested in science, but they don't have science backgrounds. The rest have more science experience. We get people from universities. Engineers love to come to Café. We get people from government. They may have science background, but almost nobody on any given night has any background in what the speaker is talking about.

The age range is the gamut. During the school year, high school teachers bring their students. (In Colorado, you can bring underage people to a pub. You just can't buy them a beer.) We get retired people looking for something interesting to do. It's all over the place.

This sounds like a significant time commitment. What motivates you to keep it up?

I love to share what I'm discovering about science. Twenty-two years ago, I started a short course on what medical students are learning in real medical school. We've had 17,000 people take it over 22 years. People want to know more about the world they live in. They don't want it dumbed down. They want the excitement of being in the same room with a guy who is a world-famous scientist.

Find a Café Scientifique near you.

Photo, top: Café Scientifique audience

Photo, bottom: John Cohen

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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