Have You Ever Been to a Science Cafe?
published during a waning crescent moon.
07/29/2016

Science Cafe

The Dahlonega Science Cafe, held at the Bourbon Street Grill, in Dahlonega, GA. Credit: Donna Governor

Lively conversation spilled out from the small room, already crowded though we had arrived early. Scanning the space with the hope of finding two seats together, I spotted available chairs at a long table near the front. My teenage daughter and I couldn’t believe how packed it was—although we knew there was a waitlist for the evening, we were impressed to see so many people were gathered to hear about science.

Dawn and I were attending our very first science café, free public events held at restaurants around the world that provide an outlet for scientists to chat with people in their community. Tonight’s topic was on “Extraterrestrial Impacts,” and Scott Harris, an impact specialist at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia, was going to talk to us about some major crashes.

Science Cafe

My daughter, Dawn, with scientist, Scott Harris, after his presentation at the science cafe. Credit: Author

While Harris set up his laptop, attendees munched on their dinners while chatting with one another. Dawn wasn’t the only high school student, though she was the only girl her age. Two teenage boys sat in separate groups near us. One of them was homeschooled (and, like my homeschooled daughter, was counting the presentation as part of his school day), while the other was a public school kid. The adults were varied, a mix of men and women, old and young. All of them had an interest in science—though there was a little miscommunication about the event. The woman sitting across from me told me that she was looking forward to hearing about aliens. Apparently, she thought the ‘extraterrestrial’ origin of the impacts involved visitors from other worlds rather than rocks from beyond Earth. I was a little worried she’d be disappointed once she figured out we wouldn’t be talking about those kinds of extraterrestrials.

Harris began his talk. The soft pitter-patter of rain came through the screened windows, providing a terrestrial backdrop for his extraterrestrial lecture. In addition to describing impacts around the world—both those that hit the ground and those that burn up in the atmosphere—Harris showed us photos of several research trips he’s taken to mines. One of the mines located in South Carolina was of particular scientific interest to me for being the site of past meteorological activity. I marked “potential field trip” on the page. I noticed I wasn’t the only one taking notes. Beside me, Dawn was scribbling down her own observations.

Science Cafe

Meteorite samples passed around the room gave us the chance to hold something extraterrestrial in our hands. Credit: Author

Afterward, Harris invited the group to ask questions during a generous Q&A session that lasted well over half an hour. Dawn and I hung around to ask a few follow-up questions, but while several people thanked him for his presentation, I was surprised that only two other people had inquiries. I wondered if it had to do with the nature of the talk or the crowd’s discomfort with talking to scientists. Many people don’t realize how open and approachable scientists tend to be. I hoped that might change as the group continued to meet.

After Dawn and I rushed back to the car through the pouring rain, she gave me an enormous grin.

“That was awesome,” she said.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

Dawn and I also agreed that we will definitely be regular attendees at future science cafés. As a parent, I feel that they’re terrific, inexpensive ways to spark my child’s interest in various aspects of science. It’s fantastic to see science embraced by the community, and to give my children the chance to chat with other people interested in the physical occurrences in the world around us.

While both of the sessions we attended involved space (because we’re space nuts), upcoming lectures involve geology, dinosaurs, and insects.

To find a science café in your area, visit http://www.sciencecafes.org/

There’s at least one group listed in almost every state in the US, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as instructions on how to create your own group if you can’t find one nearby.