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Science cafés: Knowledge in a casual setting

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg - Bee Staff Writer
November 20, 2006


A young couple leaned toward each other over cappuccinos, retired roommates sipped red wine, and at the front of a bustling café, UC Davis anthropology professor Sandy Harcourt talked about man and monkey.

Monkeys' choices about who they groom, Harcourt said, can help humans understand the biological roots of our own obsession with royalty and movie stars.

"Monkeys groom the 'Tom Cruise.' They direct their nice behavior to the high-ranking animal," Harcourt said as he wove a tale of primate behavior for a rapt and sometimes skeptical audience.

Questions flew, Harcourt's ideas were challenged repeatedly, and the talk was punctuated by breaks for beer and wine -- all trademarks of a growing international movement of science cafés.

Such cafés, springing up as science becomes increasingly complex and political, offer a chance to relax with the subject instead. Speakers keep things short. Audiences ask questions and offer opinions, making the evening more dialogue than monologue.

"In a lecture theater, you expect to be lectured to, but in a café, you expect to have a conversation," said Duncan Dallas, a retired TV producer who founded the first "Café Scientifique" in the English city of Leeds in 1998.

Today, there are a couple of hundred similar venues scattered from Tokyo to Warsaw, Poland, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some unrelated and others modeled after Dallas' venture. American science cafés have sprung up in Chicago, Dayton, Ohio, Los Angeles, New York and at least two dozen other cities, although not in Sacramento, so far.

In San Francisco, graphic designer Juliana Gallin has created "Ask a Scientist," which she bills as "a lecture series for curious humans." Like Dallas, Gallin founded a science café because she wanted one to attend, so she could hear more about science in a casual setting where people mingle. "Everyone is just so curious and desperate for information," she said. Gallin coordinates events once or twice a month at San Francisco cafés, finding speakers on subjects that interest her: plant sex, genomes, earthquakes, forensic science, stem cells, planet hunting and much, much more.

"The ones that are really popular are anything about the brain, neuroscience, human behavior and astronomy," Gallin said. One session on black holes was so jammed, "there were people outside listening through a crack in the door."

A 20- to 70-something crowd claimed every chair on a recent cloudy Sunday night, when University of California at Davis' Harcourt appeared at the Canvas Gallery in San Francisco's Sunset district to talk about why we study monkeys.

Those listening ranged from a young doctor to a retired flight attendant, from a neurobiologist to a college dropout.

As a waiter in a white apron and a baseball cap sidled among tables, Harcourt spoke about how primates jostle for social position, whether they can truly teach and what prompts adults to kill infants. His talk segued quickly into questions, with people pressing to know more. How could Harcourt possibly argue that monkeys lack empathy? What about mirror neurons?

"I just love coming to these," said Susan Tunis, a school administrator who heard about science cafés in her book group. "This is social and exciting, and if you have a question, you can ask it."

Robin Marks, another regular, especially enjoys the way people interact. The distance she notices between speaker and audience at more formal science lectures seems to evaporate, and "we're just people hanging out at a café, talking to each other."

The prospect of that kind of dialogue appealed to Harcourt, who has seen in his own students a deep discomfort with the uncertainties of science. One of the easiest ways to unsettle a class, he's noticed, is to give one interpretation for a set of facts in one lecture and an opposing interpretation the next.

"The public needs to know far more about what science is all about and how scientists go about their work," Harcourt said. "The public tends to think that there are facts out there, and you've either got facts or not. No. Science is about trying to figure out how the world works.... Science is groping toward an answer."

With new discoveries constantly emerging on how people think, how we've evolved, and how our bodies work, the answers that science is groping toward touch everyone's life, Dallas said.

Because there is no umbrella organization, many cafés take on distinctly local flavors. Wherever the setting, the core of the dialogue is universal, Dallas said. It's coming to terms with what we're learning about the world and about ourselves.

The Bee’s Carrie Peyton Dahlberg can be reached at (916) 321-1086 or


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