A Thirst For Knowledge
Head to a local bar to get answers from really smart people
If you have a burning science-related question, you could watch PBS — or you could go to a bar.
Perhaps you are curious: Instead of plowing snow off the roads in Maine, would it be possible to store it and use it as a refrigerant to cool a grocery store or restaurant refrigerator for an extended period of time?
That was a question a patron at Polite Provisions posed to Graig Zethner, a staff design engineer for Qualcomm, and Alyssa Finlay, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and is a marine science Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Fortunately, Graig and Alyssa were at the bar specifically to field such questions. The duo, who met for the first time that night, were participating in the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center’s quarterly Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar.
Talk about public outreach. On a given night, the center’s year-old program operates like a centrifuge, sending up to 50 paired scientists to bars throughout San Diego County. Experts in biochemistry, microbiology, electrical engineering, oceanography, genomics, neuroscience, atmospheric chemistry, thermodynamics and myriad other specialties carry with them a sign and wear buttons reading, “I am a scientist. Ask me anything.”
“Questions range from what I would consider a good science question — a philosophical question that makes you think — to pretty outrageous and absurd,” says Ty Roach, a valedictorian graduate of North Carolina State University with a triple major in biology, botany and chemistry; a professional surfer; and now molecular biologist at San Diego State University.
“Probably the best philosophical question I got was, ‘What would be the evolutionary implications of stem cells being implemented in medicine?’” Ty recounts after his evening at Small Bar paired with a biology/marine ecology scientist. “I get a lot of questions about sequencing the genome and synthetic DNA. GMOs come up almost every time; everyone wants my opinion on it.”
Graig and Alyssa also were asked how India managed to put a satellite into orbit around Mars for a lot less money than the United States spent to do so. Neither is a specialist in space exploration, so Graig used his smart phone to determine there were multiple factors, including labor cost and satellite size and features. Sure, anyone could have performed a Google search on their own; but perhaps the conversation never would have come up but for the presence of a pair of scientists soliciting questions. And it opened a further dialogue that one might not typically overhear in a bar.
“It led to another question: ‘Are all the features NASA added to the mission worth the cost?’” Graig says. “We had a good discussion that mostly revolved around what else that money could have been spent on.”
The Fleet’s Andrea Decker selects the bars, lines up scientists and makes the rounds on Two Scientists nights to check on several venues, especially those new to the program. In February, she stopped by Zymology 21, where Alyssa and C.J. Pickett, a molecular biologist at San Diego State University, were holding court in the chemistry-inspired bar and restaurant.
“All the bars are loving it,” she said. “We have people that bar hop; they look at the list of bars [on the Fleet’s website] and go where [specialists] can answer different questions.”
According to Andrea, Two Scientists was begun by CEO Steven Snyder based on a similar program at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pa., where he worked before joining the Fleet. The Franklin museum has scientists on staff, but San Diego has more scientists per capita.
“San Diego is one of the leading science communities in the country, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Alyssa says. “There is a lot of cutting-edge work being done here in a variety of fields.” In fact, the local population is so rich with scientists that it’s not uncommon for the assigned participants to be approached by one looking for a peer’s perspective.
“A chemist in a lab asked me a question she couldn’t solve. I couldn’t answer it either, but we talked about it,” Graig says. “And a couple who read about the event on the Fleet Center’s website stopped by specifically to speak with Alyssa. They are in school studying geology and wanted to get some insight from a professional in the field.”
Alyssa recalls being asked by other patrons about the geology of Anza Borrego State Park, the different types of volcanoes and whether the sun could become a black hole into which the entire universe could fall (the short answer being no).
The Fleet runs a slightly more structured outreach program in local bars: Suds & Science: An Evening of Thinking and Drinking. On a bi-monthly basis, scientists give a 15- to 20-minute presentation on a topic and then take questions from the audience. The last one — on the subject of toxicity in foods — took place at Callahan’s Pub & Brewery. The next one, scheduled for July 13, should attract CSI fans or, for that matter, anyone curious about forensic anthropology and crime solving.
This month, the Fleet is helping scientists at UCSD promote Pint of Science, a program founded in the United Kingdom and launched last year in the United States, including in San Diego.
“The goal is to foster community interest in science by bringing scientists into an approachable environment to have a conversation over drinks,” says geneticist Erilynn Heinrichsen, one of the local organizers.
“It’s similar to Two Scientists, except we have a specific topic, and it’s slightly more structured. But it’s still discussion based.”
From 7 to 9 p.m. on May 18-20, scientists will give presentations followed by Q&A time. Topics include stem cells, evolution, space, climate change, neuroscience, robotics, the science of language and, appropriately, the science of alcohol.
“Last year, we had three venues and attracted people beyond capacity each night. This year, we’re doing three nights with three venues each night,” Erilynn says, noting that reservations must be made online.
“I think people, whether they are scientists or just interested in science, enjoy a chance to sit down and talk in a relatively intimate environment with top people in a field on a basic level,” she continues. “Even within the scientific community, that’s often missing. I think people are curious, and it’s a great chance to satisfy that curiosity.”
Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar
Pint of Science