Geeks and Guinness: the formula for sexy science
Added: Sun, 18 May 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Geeks and Guinness: the formula for sexy science
Science cafes are booming, although the subject is failing in our schools
It is a chilly Tuesday night and outside the Dana Cafe in London a queue of young people spills on to the pavement. A glamorous woman with a walkie-talkie and clipboard guards the bar's door and turns away anyone who is not on the guest list.
The attraction is not the latest band, exclusive club or film screening, but a science lecture. Inside, Aubrey de Grey, a scientist from the Methuselah Foundation, a research group, is swigging from a bottle of Guinness as he tries to persuade a sceptical audience - which includes designers, artists and television producers - how society would benefit if we all lived forever.
The crowd fires questions at him, not only about the feasibility of his theory, but its environmental and social consequences. At one point someone even shouts: 'Rubbish!'
Welcome to the science cafe, a passionate and irreverent forum for people from all backgrounds and occupations to discuss topics as geeky as nuclear fusion and nebulae - all while enjoying a drink and a night out.
'It's great, as you get to think about things you wouldn't normally talk about in everyday life,' said 24-year-old Madeleine Milan, who works in communications. 'It's all really relaxed and you don't feel intimidated about challenging speakers' beliefs or scientific research. Science is becoming more part of our lives, and I want to hear about it from the experts.'
Scenes like those at the Dana Cafe happen in bars and cafes each week up and down the country. Events are often sold out and their increasing popularity challenges the perception that the general public is disengaged from modern science.
Clutching a glass of red wine, Alex Wilkie, a 32-year-old design lecturer, believes that science is undergoing a revolution and should not be dismissed as nerdy. 'It's an increasingly scientific society that we live in,' he said. 'Understanding what's going on in science helps put everything in context.'
De Grey gives more than 30 such talks a year and believes that people are excited by the humanitarian potential of science, rather than the theory. 'By and large, young people are more open-minded about my message, but I wouldn't say that implies they're more interested in science,' he said. 'I think for most the interest is in the "why" first and the "how" second.'
Most science cafes are loosely affiliated through an international umbrella organisation called Café Scientifique, which was founded in Leeds in 1998 and inspired by the French Café Philosophique movement. There are now more than 30 across the country.
In a rare reversal of cultural exchange, it is one trend that Britain has exported to America, which is now home to 60 cafes. There are a further 120 worldwide. Founder Duncan Dallas said that by taking science out of the classroom it changed the expectation of both audience and speaker. 'Science is the most important force in our culture and is increasingly impinging on our public and personal lives, through subjects like genetics and climate change. So public engagement with science is bound to increase,' said Dallas. 'But, for me, the whole point of science cafes isn't to promote science or make more kids become scientists, but is about everyone being able to discuss topics which are revolutionary.'
The subjects discussed are diverse. One night at the Dana Cafe, in South Kensington, a hot debate raged about robotics, specifically a man-made fly-eating machine going by the name of 'EcoBot', which was invented by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Other topics include the smell of romance, the science of sleep and marine pollution.
While science may be thriving in these pubs and bars, it is in a state of crisis in schools. The number of students choosing to take physics A-level has dropped by more than a third from 43,416 in 1991 to 28,119 in 2005. This trend is echoed at degree level and experts fear this could damage the future of homegrown science.
The government, large corporations and research institutions are pouring money into initiatives to encourage scientific debate and thus make science more accessible.
Some cafes even receive government funding. Others are sponsored by universities or organisations such as the medical research charity the Wellcome Trust. They relish the opportunity to introduce their research and experts to a new audience, such as 33-year-old Lara Taylor. Tuesday night was the lawyer's first science cafe experience and, despite not knowing an atom from an ion, she was impressed.
'There's no dull theorising, so it was really accessible,' she said. 'It's better than staying in and watching television every night.'
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