“The scientific story, to me, is the greatest story ever told,” Ivan Amato says to me. “It’s a revelatory thing, scientific discovery.” Ivan isn’t just talking about a scientist’s “eureka” moment, but rather the equally important discoveries of participants at the DC Science Café. To date, Ivan has organized 17 evenings of discussion led by neuroscientists, geneticists, ecologists, and physicists as well as historians, artists, and even a poet familiar to LPR, Michael Salcman. And people are showing up in droves at the Busboys and Poets at 5th & K to receive that revelation.
The first science cafés started in the 1990s in England and France where scientists and the public started to share concerns about social issues arising out of modern technology such as genetically modified foods and mad cow disease. Neither party felt that the government or media could be trusted to give an accurate picture of controversial developments of the day. The DC Science Café is driven by a similar desire for direct access to scientific experts for an open, less mediated discourse.
I was curious to learn what that discourse would look like. Ivan walks me through the evening, which begins at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. A slideshow of science imagery pulled from the night’s topic as well as Ivan’s book, Super Vision, serves as a backdrop while the audience socializes with a themed drink. After a half hour, Ivan opens the mic up to the audience, inviting participants to take a minute to share a creative project of their own. That night’s discussion leader then takes the mic and gives a twenty to thirty minute presentation. The entirety of the remaining time (roughly an hour) is dedicated to active discussion. After the event concludes, no one seems to want to leave, with large crowds forming around the discussion leader and elsewhere, continuing to question, connect, and talk.
But this is only the structural element of what the discourse looks like. What language would be used? How would the metaphors common in scientific lexicon play between experts and audience?
Writers and scientists face similar problems in this regard. Figurative language is symbolic and abstract, and oftentimes the communicating parties don’t share the common background upon which such language relies. Depending on the science (or the writing), these abstractions may be symbolic of phenomena that are already themselves abstract and inaccessible, such as chemical bonding or black holes.
The key, Ivan says, is in becoming “comfortable with the compromise in rigor and specificity” and “valuing the feel it gives to the layperson.” This sounds familiar to me as a writer; at some point I had to make my peace with post-modernism.
As a scientist who, like Ivan, ultimately desires the audience coming to value the “scientific way of knowing,” I’ve stayed restless. My allegiance still lies with the devil in the details, and it’s hard for me to trust that I’ve communicated that scientific way of knowing unless the metaphors are somehow made transparent.
It is difficult for me to reconcile my two different reactions to what is essentially the same problem: trusting your audience to find meaning and value in your expression, even if it is not precisely the meaning and value you intended. Is it possible that some of the hostile contemporary public perceptions of science and literature are shaped by a lack of this trust? Are scientists and writers perceived as refusing to set aside the inscrutable particulars of their business and commit to engaging with audiences in whatever form the conversation must take?
Ivan’s efforts have proven quite successful. He noted he sometimes must intervene during discussion to define jargon used by discussion leaders or to recast questions asked by audience members, but discussion leaders like Steve Rolston noted, “A number of people stopped by to thank me and comment about how interesting the topic [quantum mechanics] was.” Evidently participants have been undeterred by technical difficulty; some audience members have only missed one or two events out of the entire series. Discussion leaders also feel like the Café is filling a unique niche. Poet and biologist, Myra Sklarew (who will be interviewed in our upcoming Science issue), said, “It was a great pleasure to finally address an aspect of poetry that had always been part of the way I saw the world and to do so with an audience informed and curious about science.”
It seems that if my questions are on the mark, then Ivan, Myra, and all the audience members and discussion leaders at the DC Science Café are finding great success in building a more complete and open discussion of science and our society.
If you’re interested in the DC Science Café, visit their website or view this video from the Joint Quantum Institute at University of Maryland, who filmed physicist Steve Rolston’s night at the Café (the discussion portion is in a separate video). The next Café will be held Monday, September 30th (more details here).