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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Come one, come all for the Science Cafe

David Brooks

One of the problems with college is that the classes aren’t in taverns.

Wouldn’t it be better if the professors strolled among tables, beverage in hand, chatting about the curriculum as they stole nachos from your appetizer plate?

You bet it would, which is why Science Cafe New Hampshire is being launched.

This free monthly soiree will feature a couple of scientists and other knowledgeable people who, amid much consumption of food and libation, will talk informally with whoever shows up about the scientific or technical underpinnings of a chosen topic.

These aren’t going to be structured lectures of the “sage on a stage” variety. They will be casual conversations about a specific subject, with the important proviso that they’ll be conversations with folks who actually understand the topic, not merely those with an opinion about it. (These two categories, alas, don’t always coincide.)

“We will have a chance to learn about critical issues facing New Hampshire from scientists and experts. These are people who can tell us what the facts are, not what the political rhetoric or the spin is,” said Dan Marcek of Brookline.

Marcek, whose tech roots extend back to Hewlett-Packard days, founded Science Cafe New Hampshire with Sarah Eck, of Hopkinton, a Ph.D. in biochemistry who is taking a career pause to start a family. The two were brought together by the New Hampshire Humanities Council (which apparently isn’t as science-averse as its name implies) and decided to start off the project with a bang, by plunging into the loudest topic in science today: Climate change.

The first Science Cafe New Hampshire, to be held a week from Tuesday in Concord, will discuss what we know about the future of New Hampshire’s climate, how we know it and what we can do.

It will feature state climatologist Mary Stampone, who would really like people to understand how climate models work; Keene City Planner Rhett Lamb, who is dealing with the realities of changing climate; and UNH professor Lawrence Hamilton, whose research includes statistics and data analysis, vital to separating the predictive wheat from the chaff.

It will also feature me, but happily, in a largely non-talking role.

Marcek and Eck recruited me to be moderator. I jumped at the chance to help out because I’ve long been frustrated by the lack of adult, fact-based discussion about technical subjects.

Data, not rants – that’s what I want to hear! And that’s what we will hear, I promise. My main job as moderator will be to keep politics and blame-gaming out of the discussion. No mention of Al Gore, Dick Cheney or “climategate” will be allowed.

A second cafe, titled “The Future of Food,” is scheduled for Tuesday, June 21. It will be followed by a summer break and will return in the fall. I’d like to see one tackle digital privacy and maybe have another with a title along the lines of “What The Heck Is Calculus Good For, Anyway?”

The idea of science soirees isn’t new. It has deep routes in Europe and exists in various forms around the country, often sponsored by universities.

The Boston area has a couple of similar events, including one organized by Harvard graduate students with the great title “Science By The Pint,” but none has ever come north of the state line.

After encountering a science cafe on a business trip in Houston, Marcek wanted to change that.

“I thought it was a great idea for a way to create a dialogue, and I wanted that to be available in New Hampshire,” Marcek said.

Eck’s interest came out of her graduate work at Dartmouth College, partly because National Science Foundations grants often require an outreach component and partly out of frustration about public perception of science.

“We were working to get graduate students out into the community, allowing them to speak in lay terms about their science,” she said. “We also wanted students in local school systems to benefit from seeing that a scientist isn’t just a man in a white coat with glasses and funny hair, that they look like normal, everybody people.”

Normal, everyday people who can help us understand intriguing tops. That, and beer – what more could you want?

See you there.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or