It’s not exactly a scientific formula but Skip Evans has discovered that if you combine a scientist, good beer, and a crowd of curious people, you come up with a very interesting Sunday afternoon.
Evans is the founder of a unique Madison event called Science Pub. There have been other, earlier versions of the science gatherings but this one has been going strong for nearly two years now.
About once a month at Brocach Irish Pub and Restaurant on the Capitol Square, the Science Pub has hosted a leisurely and free-wheeling discussion with a scientist, often from UW-Madison.
The subjects are diverse, ranging from climate change and evolution to the science of birdsong.
“I have a lot of questions I want to ask scientists about,” said Evans. “And I’ve found that they are susceptible to beer.”
Evans is a web programmer who spends about 10 hours a month keeping Science Pub alive. The salon has developed a loyal following of between 20 to 30 regulars, though some sessions have attracted upwards of 45.
Anybody can come and the sessions are intended to share the seemingly mysterious world of science with the larger, less scientific world.
Topics as difficult as evolution and genetics are generally tamed by beer, a welcoming crowd and a scientist who quickly warms to an atmosphere much more relaxed than most academic settings.
“I’ve been a guest twice,” said John Hawks, a UW-Madison anthropologist who studies evolution and genetics. “Both times it was great. It is so great to get out and meet people you wouldn’t meet otherwise.”
Evans himself is not a scientist but has long had an interest in all things scientific. Before he came to Madison he worked for a non-profit in Oakland, Calif., called the “National Center for Science Communication.” There, his job was to explain and communicate evolutionary science.
Upon his move to Madison, he found not only a world-class research university but also a city full of people who love to read and talk about science. So in 2009, Evans teamed with a group called Madison Skeptics, booked an upstairs room at Brocach, and invited Hawks to talk about his research.
From the beginning, part of the charm of the gatherings has been their informality. That has appealed to scientists, Evans said, many of whom are not accustomed to talking about their work with a general audience. The sessions open with a short talk by the scientist but the bulk of the time is taken up by questions and answers.
“One of the surprises,” Evans said, “has been how enthusiastic scientists are to do it. They sit in the big chair up front with the beverage of their choice. It’s really an open dialog more than a lecture.”
Hawks agreed and added that the audience is a big part of what makes an appearance at Science Pub so appealing to a scientist.
“People come in and they are knowledgeable about science,” Hawks said. “But they also want to know about what is going to happen at that next level.”
One of Evans’ goals is to broaden the Science Pub audience. He’d like, for example, to involve Madison’s religious community and has written letters to a number of churches to extend invitations to their congregations. He would also like to work more with area science teachers and perhaps get more young people involved in the discussions.
In the end, Evans said, Science Pub becomes not only a way for scientists to talk about their work with a receptive audience, it also allows the public an inside and personal look at scientists who are most often hidden away in laboratories hunched over a computer, microscope or Petri dish.
“Scientists actually are members of the Homo sapiens species,” Evans said.