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News Clips 01/18/2013
Eat, drink and learn in leisure at area 'Science Cafes
Source: Orlando Sentinel, 01/16/13
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By Denise-Marie Ordway
Who's up for a date night of martinis, tapas and asteroids?
Crowds from Orlando to Seattle are packing pubs and restaurants as a growing number of them launch Science Cafes: lively, informal talks featuring some of the nation's foremost experts in physics, psychology, biology and other sciences.
Young and old, fascinated by the idea of rubbing elbows with scientists, have been drawn to the free programs that have started popping up in Florida in recent years.
They come once a month to hear researchers talk about topics such as lasers and marine ecology at a tapas restaurant in College Park. Astrology and embalming at a coffee shop in Daytona Beach. The mystery of time in a Tallahassee saloon. And dinosaurs at a pizza place in Viera.
And these experts, some of whom have earned international acclaim, revel in the chance to explain their work to those who stop in to listen among cozy groups of friends over warm food and — many times — libations.
Ann Funk, 69, has been going to the Science Cafe in College Park for a few years now and has urged her book-club buddies to come along.
Organizers said the program has been so popular that they plan to open a second Science Cafe in the Orlando area this spring.
"How would you not want to listen to something like this?" said Funk, a retired property manager from Orlando. "Anything that's educational — I'm there."
One evening last week, a crowd of about 60 people packed into Taste restaurant in College Park for its Science Cafe, featuring a scientist and professor from University of Central Florida.
His presentation on asteroids was a particularly relevant topic, considering an asteroid half the size of a city block will be hurtling past Earth next month in what experts say is the closest flyby in recorded history. UCF is hosting a special "viewing party" Feb. 15 from 1 to 3 p.m.
UCF physics professor Humberto Campins, standing at the front of the darkened tapas restaurant, was quick to point out that no one is in any danger.
And he should know. Campins is an international expert on asteroids. He led the first team to find frozen water on an asteroid in 2010. He's also working on missions with NASA and the European Space Agency that will launch within the next few years to collect samples from asteroids.
The Science Cafe crowd in College Park, sipping wine and martinis and munching on finger foods such as yuca fries, sat at attention as he described his discoveries. Then audience members peppered him with questions and the conversation transformed into one about the solar system, water on other planets and the demotion of Pluto from a regular planet to a dwarf planet.
A variety of people listened and piped in — from tattooed young people to middle-aged parents to retirees.
They included retired psychiatrist David Spiegel and his wife, Carol, a retired interior designer, both of whom had enjoyed frequenting a Science Cafe program in their native Maine and were glad to find a similar program when they moved to the Orlando area.
Lynn Wehrheim, 22, who recently earned her bachelor's degree in biology, also stopped by the Science Cafe to make friends among like-minded folks.
Edward Haddad, executive director of the Florida Academy of Sciences, said it's no surprise that Science Cafes have drawn such interest.
"There is a keen interest in science on the part of the general public, and there are not a lot of ways to sate that interest," Haddad said. "You can watch things on television, and you can read about things in newspapers and magazines. But a lot of people would really like to talk to a scientist, and that's why this venue is successful."
Harrison Prosper, a physics professor at Florida State University, was wowed by the reaction he got last fall from the audience that greeted him at a Science Cafe event at Ray's Steel City Saloon in Tallahassee.
Judging by the continuous string of questions — which had to be interrupted because the program ran so long — the crowd was fascinated with his talk about the search for the mysterious Higgs boson, a particle critical to understanding how the universe is put together and works.
"It's, for me, great because it makes me think about things, and sometimes I get questions [on things] I haven't thought about lately," Prosper said, adding that scientists are eager to speak about their work in hopes the public will continue to support research, which can be expensive.
Dozens of similar Science Cafe programs are scattered across the country, some of which go by other names, including "Science on Tap," "Ask a Scientist" and "Science Pub," according to sciencecafes.org, a website produced by NOVA Education, a division within NOVA, the long-standing science-television program.
The website offers a searchable, national database of about 300 programs. Seventeen are in Florida.
Tammy Kozinski started offering a monthly Science Cafe event at her coffee shop in Daytona Beach shortly after it opened more than two years ago. A customer suggested the idea, and Kozinski figured it wouldn't hurt to try attracting a different demographic to the fledgling shop.
On the third Thursday of each month, crowds cram into Sweet Marlays' Coffee. The events start at 6:30 p.m., but if you're not there by 6 p.m., you'll likely have to stand — a problem that still baffles Kozinski, who said she clearly underestimated the local interest in science topics.
"It surprised ... me," said Kozinski, who joked that she didn't know many people growing up who were rushing to get to science class.
Still, she's glad for the interest. On Science Cafe nights, business is brisk. The shop sometimes even makes cupcakes with decorations to match the theme for the evening.
Among those who have held court are a funeral director who spoke about embalming around Halloween time and a neurologist, in recognition of Valentine's Day, who explained how the brain acts when it's in love.
Wehrheim, who visited the Science Cafe in College Park for the first time last week, said she'll be back. She jumped at the chance to interact with an internationally recognized scientist.
"That almost sent me running," she said.