By YANAN CHEN
Capital News Service
LANSING—How about E=MC² with your draft beer? Or a chemical reaction with your double-mocha latte?
Can you learn science in a bar or café?
It’s happening as science pubs and science cafés gain popularity in Michigan and beyond.
That’s where a growing number of people are learning science in communities like Jackson, Okemos, Muskegon, Lansing and Ann Arbor, as well as across the Indiana border in South Bend.
“You can drink alcohol while listening to the lecture. It is not in a classroom. Be casual,” said biology Professor Laura Thurlow at Jackson Community College (JCC) and science liaison for the city’s science café.
Thurlow said the science café has been held fall and winter since 2009 with three or four lectures per semester.
It’s become more and more popular.
“Arrive at the Hudson’s Classic Grill restaurant early, or you need to stand in the back to listen to the lecture,” Thurlow said.
It attracts about 60 people, she said. Some are retired professors, some are from high school science classes but most are the general public.
Programs begin with a 10-to-15-minute small group discussion led by JCC science students. Then the guest speaker makes a 20-to-30-minute presentation, followed by an hour of discussion and questions.
“The science café is a way to engage the general public in discussing science in a casual way,” Thurlow said.
According to Meg Gower, the owner of Gower Design Group and the initiator of Jackson science café, topics ranged from stem cell research and the atom smashing cyclotron to the expanding universe, health care and climate science.
Gower said, “It’s not difficult to line up guest speakers because most scientists are very willing to come and talk about their favorite topics.”
As for funding, Gower said, “In 2009, the PBS station WGBH in Boston had seed money available for start-up science cafés. I wrote a grant and included a letter of support from Jackson Community College saying that Jackson was in great need of such a series and it got approved.”
The money is used for renting space in the restaurant, inviting speakers and providing prizes for encouraging the public to participate.
Thomas Hamann, a chemist at Michigan State University, recently started a science café in Okemos.
The money was from the International Year of Chemistry and the first session was successful, he said.
“It was snowy that day, but around 40 people were coming,” Hamann said. “If the weather is not that bad, we are confident we will have more audience.”
He said there’s an advantage to off-campus sites. “We break the barriers for people so that it’s more accessible to the general public and they can listen to the informal lecture at the end of the day in a relaxed atmosphere.
“It’s also a good way to minimize the intimidation of the public,” he said.
Hamann said the programs let the public connect with scientists directly.
In Dusty’s Cellar restaurant in Okemos, a one-hour lecture about energy science by Professor James McCusker was followed by two hours of interaction with the audience.
McCusker, a chemistry professor at MSU said, “We provide some prizes to encourage people to ask questions and get involved in this lecture.
“The majority of the audience was from the MSU community and a couple were high school science teachers,” McCusker said, adding that the teachers can “disseminate the knowledge to their students.
“Our job as scientists is to filter and distill the knowledge we have learned to the public in a way that they can easily understand and let them have a sound basis about science,” he said.
In Ann Arbor, the next science café will be held in Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub and the topic is “Water, Oil and Energy”.
It will feature professors from MSU and University of Michigan to discuss the science and policy resulting from recent events.
Meanwhile, in Muskegon, Grand Valley State University has supported this kind of science café since 2005.
The science café sponsored by Lansing Community College presents informal discussions of scientific topics once a month. The next one, “What Is a Healthy Human Diet” will be held in mid-February.
In South Bend, the science café at the University of Notre Dame meets the last Wednesday of every month.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.