I should be in full-throttle sports-dork mode. The national sports schedule boasts a pair of championship-caliber matchups that prominently feature juice and financial-services pitchmen who have a parade of zeroes at the end of their paychecks. Another pits a hangdog franchise made good, undefeated for the first time since the invention of indoor plumbing, against its longtime tormentor. It is the type of night for which sports bars were invented; the type of night I’d usually spend reveling in the twin glories of chicken fingers and mediocre domestic beer.
Instead, I find myself in a café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the televisions stay dim and mute as a Columbia University computer scientist leads a 40-strong audience in a discussion about augmented reality. I attend this discussion of my own accord. No blackmail is involved, nor is drunkenness. I am under the spell of science — literally.
What brings me here — or what planted the idea of expanding my cookies-and-crayons intellectual palate — is a challenge from a more highbrow friend. A banker by trade and a science junkie at heart, he’d started dropping in on so-called science cafés on a regular basis. He couldn’t stop raving about them, particularly about how the speakers skillfully translated complex concepts and information for a lay audience. Using an analogy I’d understand, he proposed a home-and-home series: He would swallow an extra ticket for a New York Giants game if I would join him at a science café of his choosing.
Just like that, it is on. Oh, it is so on. Prior to my arrival, I break out my old retainer and hike my pants chest-high in advance of what I expect to be the nerdiest, smarty-thinky-est night of my life.
The science café movement started, depending on whom you ask, either six or seven years ago (as part of outreach efforts around the PBS NOVA scienceNow series) or 200 years ago (when “conversation salons” sprang up in Paris and other European centers of intellectual discourse). But it was the NOVA effort, bolstered by funding from the National Science Foundation, that birthed the modern-day iteration of the science café.
The idea, according to NOVA director of education Rachel Connolly, is to transport science-oriented conversations into new and unfamiliar settings — basically, places other than museums. “Technology, energy, transportation — these are important issues, and they are impacted by scientific research,” she says. “What the cafés do is give people the opportunity to learn about that research from the scientists who are conducting it.”
Owing to the breadth of topics (recent ones have ranged from “Doctors, Astronauts and Nuclear Accidents: Ophthalmology, Radiosensitivity and Public Health” to “Sustainability and Collapse: Lessons from the Vikings”) and the lower-than-low-key vibe (PowerPoint presentations are banned), the cafés have proved to be a grassroots hit. According to the NOVA-curated website Sciencecafes.org, nearly 200 science cafés meet regularly across the country. Only seven states lack a NOVA-registered science café — which isn’t to say that active cafés don’t exist in those states, but they aren’t officially registered with the site. Either way: Get with the program, North Dakota!
So what does a night at a science café entail? Is it merely a reproduction of the classroom experience in a liquor-licensed environment, or is it true to its mission of gathering like-minded individuals to casually discuss science-related topics? Are there velvet ropes? Jell-O shots?
My science café lecture — “Over and Out: Augmented Reality and the Future of User Interfaces” — shatters every idiotic stereotype and then some. The 40-strong audience features individuals of all genders, ethnicities and ages; I sit between a stately 50-year-old man sipping red wine and a preternaturally unfidgety 10-year-old. They engage easily with the speaker, Columbia University professor of computer science Steven Feiner, and ask questions of a sort one rarely hears in a bar setting. To wit, not one has anything to do with parking-ticket validation or with that one actor who was in that movie — what’s-his-face, you know, the guy with the hair.
They fill the venue, Manhattan’s PicNic Market & Café, with ease. They warm the space, even on a freakishly hot autumn night, with their curiosity and spirit.
Though I see nary a protected pocket, I can’t help myself. I approach a table occupied by a young couple and two 60-somethings, introduce myself, and pose the most inappropriate question possible under the circumstances: Who’s on your fantasy football team? The older of the two elders shakes his head ruefully: “I drafted Jamaal Charles with the second pick. It’s been a rough year for me.” I respond by asking him to adopt me.
Anyway, if there’s a livelier, more intellectually satisfying way to pass a few hours than at a science café, I haven’t happened upon it. Visit Sciencecafes.org to find one in your area or to learn how to organize one yourself.