From ScienceWriters: Going live with science communication

By Ivan Amato

When I got the call in early 2010 to become a “provocateur” within a physics-inspired performance by an innovative choreographer, I had no clue how much my professional trajectory as a science communicator would change as a result.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

“The Matter of Origins,” emerged from a visit by artist Liz Lerman to the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva. Within this grand cathedral of particle physics, Lerman started thinking about how much physics has transformed the world and the human condition. When a choreographer does that kind of thinking, it comes out on stage.

The initial performances of “The Matter of Origins” were in September 2010, on the campus of the University of Maryland. Act One took place in the traditional theater setting and featured a multimedia composition of movement with projected and aural elements. Act Two required the audience to file into rehearsal halls and take seats around banquet tables. Awaiting them at each table would be a provocateur like me. Our role was to engage the strangers at the table in a quasi-scripted discussion about their experience of and reaction to Act One.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

As I led discussions about the constituents of matter, the scientific way of knowing, the power and responsibility that come with understanding how nature works, and the way science has elicited profound changes in how we think and live, I had an epiphany of sorts. I was part of science communication as performance: a real-time exchange, rather than a linear, passive pathway from me to readers. I knew then and there that I would have to include a live component into my science communications portfolio.

Somewhere, somehow, the term “science café” had wormed its way into my brain. Like a pop-up ad in my mind’s eye sprang: “Ivan, start up a science café.” I did not scroll away from this ad.

A science café is any deliberately planned event in a public setting where people gather with a “discussion leader” to learn and talk about science in their lives. This format of science communication began to take off in England and France at the turn of the millennium and now can be found in hundreds of locations around the world.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

The three-year old DC Science Café, which satisfies the science-curious at the popular restaurant Busboys and Poets.

I was now a man on a mission to start up a science café in Washington, D.C. Local reconnaissance revealed there were already a few active science cafés in the region. The oldest one I found — Café Scientifique — had been running for five years out of The Front Page, a Ballston, Va., restaurant in the same building complex that houses the National Science Foundation. Another science café, run by the Rockville Science Center, holds court at a nearby pit barbeque restaurant called Branded 72. Rather than being discouraged that the niche was already occupied, I was convinced that a D.C. Science Café located in the heart of the city could contribute to this vibrant but largely hidden public engagement with science.

I considered a few venues, but had my heart set on the coolest, most happening cultural hub in the city: Busboys and Poets, a restaurant-bar with four locations in the metropolitan region and another one on the way. Founded by Andy Shallal, a social activist as well as a highly respected restaurateur, Busboys and Poets is known for its rich and deliberately inclusive calendar of poetry, author readings, storytelling, film screenings, social activism, and community events.

I approached Andy, argued that his events portfolio ought to include discussions about science, and before I knew it, we were shaking hands. D.C. Science Café had a home!

The new Café KITP in Santa Barbara

The new Café KITP in Santa Barbara

The next hurdle was finances. Each “free” public event costs about $200 to cover the venue fee and a meal for the discussion leader. To get things moving, I went before the board of D.C. Science Writers Association and made a case that D.C. Science Café would be a new way for DCSWA membership to engage the community in dialogs about science in society. The board agreed and I am forever grateful for the $1,000 seed money from an organization of fellow science communicators that got D.C. Science Café off and running.

Turning my attention to programming and marketing, I tapped into contacts and skills developed during my long career as a science writer.

For the inaugural event, in May 2011, at the Busboys location near the convention center, I recruited Goddard Space Science Center astrophysicist John Mather, who received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for work that confirmed the Big Bang Theory. I started promoting the event with enthusiasm, but entirely by the seat of my pants. Using PowerPoint, I produced a badly designed promotional flier that was replicated on the DCSWA website, which effectively provided a URL for the event. I next turned to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and DCSWA’s own newsletter, The Quacker, to get word out.

It was show time. My nagging fear that no one would show up was allayed as I watched the room fill to standing room only. Mather was terrific. He spoke for about 30 minutes in the casual non-pedantic way that I had requested and used a few PowerPoint slides masterfully to help the audience grasp difficult cosmological theories and astrophysical measurements. Then, like talk show host Phil Donahue, I ran around the room with a wireless microphone as audience members asked question after question until we came to the end of our two-hour time slot. People lingered afterwards the way they do when they don’t want something good to end. Did I mention the restaurant’s mixologist created a theme drink for me called Big Bang?

Since the rollout of D.C. Science Café, I have run more than 20 events at the clip of roughly one every other month. Discussion leaders have included scientists, engineers, historians of science, science museum professionals, scienceminded artists and poets, and poetryminded scientists. At times, people have been turned away at the door for lack of room. In order to keep the event free, I fundraise a few thousand dollars each year from organizations like the USA Science and Engineering Festival, the Lemelson Center, and the Joint Quantum Institute. I would love to monetize this effort, but for now the success of the series and the way the community has embraced it is compensation enough.

Science cafés are now such a part of my life that I started a second series earlier this year during my three-month association with the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP), in Santa Barbara. Called Café KITP (kitp.ucsb.edu/outreach/cafe-kitp), it was one of my givebacks for the privilege of being a writer in residence. The inaugural event in April drew some hundred people and received local press coverage. I am pleased to say that Café KITP is on its way to becoming an ongoing channel of public engagement for the Kavli Institute.

I am convinced that the science café format provides an important payoff in the currency of public science literacy, and a valuable public good in the form of a vibrant, live channel of communication that gracefully integrates science into the cultural fabric. I encourage other NASW members to join me in the effort to establish science cafés in many more locations around the country.

Ivan Amato is a science and technology writer, editor and communicator based in Silver Spring, Md.

Science Café: Getting Started

Tools available to help wannabe café organizers get started.

Café Scientifique: Derives from the pioneering work of Duncan Dallas, the late founder of the Café Scientifique movement. bit.ly/1ojqdoI

Science Café: WBGH-based hub of information and networking for organizers; includes interactive map showing the location of scores of U.S. science cafés. sciencecafes.org

D.C. Science Café: Complete listing of topics and speakers (2011 to 2014). dcswa.org/dc-science-cafe

Oct. 2, 2014

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