Secret Science Club: Not Just for Geeks

Monthly science soiree brings together the curious and enthusiastic.

ByREBECCA LEE

April 24, 2007 — -- Not since that 1980's pop hit "She Blinded Me With Science" has it been this cool to be uncool.

Once a month, gaggles of beer-guzzling geeks gather at bars across the United States to throw back a few cold ones, rock out to some good tunes and talk science.

They call themselves the Secret Science Club in New York or Cafe Scientifique in Washington D.C., but, in truth, these groups are all ploys to get scientists to socialize. So, once a month, scores of physics fans, chem connoisseurs, biology buffs and even your run-of-the-mill reporter pile into pubs from New York to Seattle to listen to lectures that answer such questions as "What happens to your body if you get sucked into a black hole?" or "Do oceans have a sex life?"

"The Secret Science Club is a monthly science soiree. What we do is we invite scientists to come here and lecture," said Margaret Mittelbach, co-organizer of New York City's Secret Science Club.

If listening to a lecture on science doesn't exactly constitute a rockin' Wednesday night in your book, think again. This geek squad is anything but.

"We're just here in a bar answering those questions that people have about the natural world and interesting phenomena," Mittelbach said. "And what we found is that people are really interested in this. We've hit a nerve somehow."

Now in its eighth month, New York's Secret Science Club 's secret is out.

"We really wanted to make science not be a secret," said the club's second organizer Michael Crewdson. "I think it's filled a need because, from the very beginning, it's been crowded and it's just been building."

In fact, across the country, this "science in bars" experiment isn't run by scientists at all. "No one here is wearing a lab coat and no one here is wearing a pocket protector either," said Elisa Hertz, an assessment director for the City University of New York and a Secret Science Club regular.

"People have a hunger to know," said Mary Hanson, the director of Cafe Scientifique outside Washington, D.C. "[Science in bars] takes the intimidation out of science. This is where you can come to get your inner geek on."

But what is it about science mixed with socializing that just grabs people's attention?

At a recent Secret Science Club soiree in Brooklyn, N.Y., Union Hall was packed with left-brained professionals and nosey neophytes alike, all of whom had gathered to hear botanist Gerry Moore from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens speak about plants.

"The more hipness that is applied to the science culture, I think it's going to create a social scene for science that will allow it to become more mainstream," said self-proclaimed science junkie David Hecht. "The fact that I was drinking a weird Belgian-style beer while I was listening to some guy talk about weird plants from Asia was kind of neat."

For Secret Science's organizers, their club is all about fighting "science illiteracy," and making science accessible to the masses, both in terms of location and content.

"We wanted to show that science doesn't have to be segregated in some lofty intellectual place," said Dorian Devins, the third co-organizer of the New York-area Secret Science Club. "[Science] is a part of our culture and it should be mixed more in culture, so why not a bar? It's where social cultures meet."

For many event attendees, the appeal of science in bars is the unique combination of learning and socializing.

"It's like you're in a university setting except for the fact that there is a fully stocked bar and there are no exams. What could be better?" said fan Michael Garbarino.

Perhaps most importantly, this "science in bars" initiative takes science out of the classroom and the lab, allowing people to embrace complicated subjects like biology, chemistry and neurology without the pressure of teachers, tests and grades.

"It lowers the fear threshold that people have for science," Garbarino said. "Most people are like a deer in the headlights -- they freeze up as soon as they hear science is going to be discussed. This is a convivial atmosphere in which you can view science in a nonthreatening manner."

The club's supporters hope that this "science in bars" study will create a kind of "geek chic" culture throughout the country, inspiring budding biologists, chemists and physicists to pursue opportunities and careers in science.

But, for the hopelessly right-brained among us, a Pilsener glass is the closest they will ever get to a beaker and the Secret Science Club the nearest they will ever come to entering a laboratory.

"You can learn about science while you drink, otherwise it's really boring," said Secret Science Club first-timer Emily Wasserman. "This is the only way I'm going to learn about science."

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