Ever wondered how autonomous cars work? Or maybe you’ve always been curious about the details of Jurassic Park-style genetic modification. Or, maybe you’re just kind of a geek who loves science, engineering and technical stuff like that – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you fit into any of the above categories, you’ll definitely want to check out Science Cafe Concord, moderated by Monitor reporter David Brooks.
Brooks, also known as the Granite Geek, is a veteran newsman and self-proclaimed science geek. He’s been writing a science column since 1991, and since 2006 that column has existed online at GraniteGeek.org. (You can now get there via concordmonitor.com, too.)
Suffice it to say, Brooks knows his stuff when it comes to science. That’s why he’s a good person to moderate the Science Cafe Concord discussion series, which debuts tonight (meaning Tuesday, Jan. 12) upstairs at The Draft sports bar on South Main Street.
Since we still haven’t really told you anything at all about what the Science Cafe actually is, we’ll let Brooks take it from here.
So, what is science cafe anyway?
It’s been around for decades, and it really started in Europe. The idea is to discuss science or engineering topics in casual surroundings – like a cafe or a bar. It started in New Hampshire five years ago when two science fans, Dan Marcek of Brookline and Sara Eck of Hopkinton, decided to get one going here, and they asked me to moderate. At the time I was a science columnist for the Telegraph.
Where did all of this take place?
The first year and a half were at the Barley House. We moved down to Nashua, at Killarney’s Irish Pub, in 2013 mostly because I was down there.
How how do these meetings work?
So we meet once a month most months, but we take off the summer and December. The Concord ones are going to be the first Tuesday of each month (although this first one will be the second Tuesday). We choose a topic of interest to the general public and find a few knowledgeable people who are willing to spend a couple hours – for free – to answer questions. And that’s it. It’s driven entirely by the questions from the audience.
What kinds of things do you talk about?
The topics are all over the map. Controversies like climate change, vaccines, public water fluoridation; engineering topics like 3-D printing, electric cars, drones; medical topics like Lyme disease, muscular dystrophy, concussions, youth concussions; and general topics like the mathematics of political polling and whether you should let your cats outdoors.
How many of these “knowledgeable people” are usually there? Are you one of them?
There’s usually about three panelists, and I walk around the audience like Phil Donahue. The panelists are knowledgeable – they’ve ranged from academics, state officials, CEOs, lawyers, doctors. As long as they know something about the topic and want to share it with the public.
How do you find them?
That’s the hardest part. That’s where being connected with a newspaper has been helpful – a lot of them have been sources from my stories.
Who comes to these things anyway? And do you have to sign up or anything?
Anybody can show up. It’s free and open to all from 6 to 8 p.m. No charge, no sign-up. We just hope you buy some stuff and tip generously, because they give us the room for free.
These talks have been running for five years. Did you think this series would be so popular?
I did not expect this to last. When Dan and Sarah had the idea, I thought it’d be cool for about six months then fizzle out. But the response has been surprisingly strong. It was not uncommon to have 70 people show up (in Nashua) – good thing the fire marshal didn’t know. It’s a good and different way to inform the public. Plus, there’s beer. That’s a key point.
So what’s the atmosphere like during the Science Cafe?
The way I describe it is it’s like I thought cocktail parties would be when I was a kid. There’s interesting people having interesting discussions with food and drink. Sometimes we get a little geeky. The key is the questions from the audience. Some people in the audience know a lot about the topic, some don’t know anything.
How do people know what the topic will be each month?
On the website (sciencecafenh.org) and in email newsletters, it’s mentioned what the topic will be. It also will be mentioned in Granite Geek and the Monitor.
This series started in Concord, moved to Nashua and is now coming back to Concord. Any other New Hampshire outlets for science and beer?
There’s a similar program in Manchester called Science on Tap, run by the SEE Science Center. And we’re continuing the monthly sessions in Nashua. Geeky residents of the Merrimack River Valley can go to three of these if they want.
The Nashua session is the third Wednesday of the month. The Manchester one will be on the second Tuesday.
Any idea of what’s “on tap” for the first one at The Draft?
The first topic will be the science of the heroin crisis and addiction. We try to have a topic relevant to current events. There have been lots of panels about the heroin crisis, but they tend to focus on public policy and law enforcement. The only rule at Science Cafe is: No politics, no Powerpoint. It’s a conversation, not a lecture. And nobody wants to talk about politics. This will not be about, “What should the Legislature do?” or “How do I save my son?” This is, what actually is addiction, how do opioids work with the brain.
Panelists will include the state medical examiner, Concord Fire Chief Dan Andrus and a couple of clinicians who have treated addiction for years.
Care to give any sneak peeks at some future topics, if you’ve thought of any yet?
The February topic will be of Concord-specific interest. We’re going to discuss the technology of the Gasholder – why was it built? What did it do? Why was it necessary? How come it’s not needed anymore? That kind of stuff. So it won’t be the historical aspect, but the technological aspect.
March’s topic is about genetic modification, specifically due to a technology called CRISPR that has revolutionized the field and raised lots of interesting questions. It’s the most interesting thing happening in science right now, by a mile. In China they’re already selling modified dogs. Also, autonomous cars will be a topic, and the science of beer. Down in Nashua, it was the geeky topics that brought the dudes out who hadn’t been to a bar in years.
Anything else to add?
It’s great to have it back in Concord!