A salon for science loversby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Every couple of weeks people get together at a hip night spot in Minneapolis to hang out, drink some wine... and talk science.
These "science salons" cover everything from the psychology of love to the behavioral patterns of bedbugs and are part of an international movement to make science more accessible to the general public.
Minneapolis, Minn. — You don't expect to see much of a crowd at 6 o'clock on a Tuesday evening at a Minneapolis bar.
But at the Kitty Cat Klub in Dinkytown, a group of 20 or so people are clustered around small candlelit tables, eating dinner or taking notes as they listening to Professor John Gulliver talk about river dams.
Gulliver gives a PowerPoint presentation along with his talk, discussing how river dams are affecting the breeding grounds of freshwater salmon. Afterward he takes questions from the audience.
The audience ranges in age from college students to retirees. Shanai Matteson is the program coordinator for the Bell Museum of Natural History. She organizes the science talks, collectively called Cafe Scientifique.
She says the idea for Cafe Scientifique originated in France, but those salons were geared toward philosophy.
"Some folks in England adapted it to be about current science," Matteson explains. "And then it sort of made its way around the world and the Bell Museum has been doing it now for four years. It was really just a way for us to bring current science discussions to a new audience."
In addition to the Kitty Cat Klub, the talks are held at other Minneapolis watering holes including Bryant Lake Bowl, Varsity Theater and Cafe Barbette. Matteson says the talks, while all scientific in nature, have varied greatly.
"Some of the favorites have been the psychology of romance, why lions have manes, we did one about hermaphroditic snails, we've done physics, ones about nutrinos and an experiment in a cave."
Matteson says she generally finds her speakers on the University of Minnesota campus, based on studies they publish, or on word of mouth.
"Students will tell you if you ask them which professors are really fun and so we've found a lot of topics that way," she says.
The series appears to be succeeding in finding a new audience. Ron Kenmir of Bloomington is a retired airline pilot who's always had an interest in science.
"This is a very unique approach to getting new information and hear what's going on on the Minneapolis campus," says Kenmir. "I'm just fascinated with some of the esoteric experiments that are carried on right here in our very midst!"
Kenmir says he remembers when such cultural salons used to be more popular, and he believes he's seeing a resurgence in them.
"I think there's a latent interest in science. A lot of popular writers are getting into it," says Kenmir, "I guess we don't have a science writer at the Star Trib but we have different venues and more and more ways of getting science to the people. And I think it has a reverse flow also, that a lot of people can think about new ways of doing things and we can actually learn a lot from the population."
Cafe Scientifique programmer Shanai Matteson recently attended a national conference where she connected with other salon organizers. She says she knows of 23 such salons in the United States, and says there are many more throughout Europe, due to what she calls a "different attitude toward intellectual stuff."
Matteson says she's noticed certain topics generate significantly more public interest than others. While this evening's discussion on river dams brought in a couple dozen folks, she says people will come out in droves for anything having to do with global warming or the environment. Upcoming topics include fluid mechanics, land use, and computational biology.
- All Things Considered, 10/12/2007, 5:19 p.m.