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Serving up lattes and a quick lecture

  1. January 22, 2008
  2. Jackie Burrell, Bay Area News Group [Url may require registration]
  4. http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_8042208


Ten minutes before showtime, the crowd is already spilling out the doors of San Francisco's Axis Cafe. A high-energy buzz fills the air - until the star of the evening steps on-stage and fires up his PowerPoint presentation.

A hush descends upon the crowd in the Portrero Hill venue as Terrence Deacon, a University of California-Berkeley biological anthropology professor, begins holding forth on Fibonacci numbers and finches. As audience members sip tomato-basil soup, they're also listening intently and thinking ahead to the Q&A section where they'll ask questions like, What was that about the lazy gene?

The scene at the Axis Cafe is part of San Francisco's monthly "Ask a Scientist" salon, where science buffs and average Joes alike gather to get the lowdown on everything from brain development, to global warming, to the physics of monster waves.

The combination of a casual setting that includes beverages and articulate scientists who don't assign homework seems to have struck a chord not just with geeks, but everyone, everywhere. The "cafe scientifique" movement that began in England a decade ago has now spread to science cafes around the world, in coffeehouses, bars, even bowling alleys.

The Bay Area alone boasts five such salons, as well as special math and science events sponsored by Berkeley's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, the local American Chemical Society and other groups. Last week you could catch Deacon's language development talk in San Francisco, a "Darwin and Buddha" discussion in Sebastopol - where the science cafe meets every week - and Alan Alda of MASH and Scientific American Frontiers fame, waxing eloquent on math and curved space in Berkeley.

It's been a delightful, though dizzying whirl for Juliana Gallin, the graphic designer who launched Ask a Scientist five years ago, before she'd even heard of the European movement.

"I was looking for some kind of volunteer work to do just for fun," said Gallin. "I like science and I wanted to do something kind of social and interesting. This idea came up almost out of thin air."

Audiences poured in, and returned the next month with friends in tow. Last Wednesday, for example, less than a quarter of the audience were newbies. The rest were a diverse crowd of devoted repeats - men, women, fifth-graders, 70-somethings and scientists. The common denominator, says Gallin, is that they're "randomly curious."

"It's really moving to me that people come out on a weeknight to hear something interesting," she said. "One cute lady comes in on her walker every month. Some teachers bring their students."

The success of these events doesn't surprise Robert Osserman, who runs special projects for Berkeley's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Osserman hosted MSRI's "Conversation with Alan Alda," as well as math-related talks with comedian Steve Martin, composer Philip Glass and the writers of The Simpsons. And his forum on Fermat's Last Theorem not only sold out the Palace of Fine Art's 1,000-seat theater, it had scalpers hawking tickets in the parking lot.

Math and science soirees are not exactly new, Osserman said. They're just new here. Any self-respecting salon hostess in Napoleonic France included a mathematician or scientist in her intellectual mix.

"People's salons all had to have a mathematician," said Osserman. "There were all kinds of prizes for mathematical essays, and Napoleon surrounded himself with top scientists of the time."

In this country, math and science's cachet has gotten a significant boost in recent years from pop culture, thanks to television shows such as "CSI" and "Numb3rs," which features a tousle-haired math professor as an FBI consultant.

Now, there's a movement afoot to spread the cafe gospel further. The second national conference of cafe organizers is planned for this summer. And science cafe organizers from Berkeley, San Francisco and Lamorinda met last weekend to share tips, ideas and the results of those casual questions they ask at the start of their events - "Where are you guys from?"


For information on starting or finding a science cafe, visit www.sciencecafes.org

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