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Can science be cool again?
You used to like science, remember? Back in the day you threw for distance perfectly folded paper airplanes, launched (and blew up) model rockets and made bubbling potions in your parent's kitchen and you loved it. Then, somewhere around high-school biology (or was it chemistry?), you just got lost.
If there's a shred of that curiosity left, you might like the Central Valley Café Scientific, a monthly speaker group that brings cafe aesthetics to scientific study. The next cafe is 6:30 to 8 p.m., Dec. 3, at DiCicco's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Clovis. Dr. James Farrar, a plant pathologist at California State University, Fresno, will talk about the role of mushrooms in forest ecology, art, shamanistic rituals, and, just in time for Christmas, its potential connection to Santa Claus.
Started in England in 1998, cafés scientifiques are informal get-togethers, more conversation than lecture a poetry reading for the science set. Professors take up some space at a pub somewhere and people show up to listen. Or drink. Or both.
The idea is to make science (and science-related topics) accessible to the general public, says Madhusudan Katti, an assistant professor in the biology department at Fresno State, and one of the founders of the Central Valley café. Often, there is a gap between what is happening in the field and what the public hears.
Yes, some of that might be the scientists themselves, Katti says. We're better at expressing complex things in complex ways to each other.
But this isn't that.
Here, the speakers present topics free from the stigma of an academic setting. Here, there is no lecture hall. There's not even a lectern. The speaker sits with the rest of us. You can interrupt them with questions.
And, you can sit back with a glass of wine.
Name me a lecture hall where you can do that, says Nancy Key, president of Key Writing Concepts, a consulting firm that is working with Clovis to build the city as a new technopolis.
One way to do that is with events like the café, she says.
And the area, it seems, is starving for science.
The first café, in October, drew 40 people. November's was packed with 75.
Now, remember, science used to be cool.
No, astronauts were never rock stars, but there was a time when Carl Sagan wrote books people read and Nova ruled PBS and Mr. Wizard was on network TV, says Scott Hatfield, who teaches bio and chem at Bullard High School. That's not quite the case anymore. So the cafés build that excitement for science stuff.
It's a misconception that science can only exist in the land of academia, trapped inside university lecture halls.
Science, like art, is all about that human quest for knowledge, and that can happen anywhere, whether you're talking about how human waste is killing sea otters (that was the first Café topic), or looking at a painting and wondering what was going through the artist's mind.
Science is not an activity done by robots, Hatfield says.
The January café will feature Fred Schreiber talking about sex genetically speaking, of course. The presentation is titled Sex in the City: Genetics and Evolution of More Than One Sex.