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Café Scientifique

It sounds a dauntingly highbrow term, but the intention is just the opposite — to demystify science and help people engage with it. The technique is based on the discussion of topical scientific ideas with interested people in determinedly non-academic surroundings. The Cafés sum up their intentions with a maxim, too long to be considered a slogan, “We want people to be as opinionated about science as they are about football”. Informal meetings are usually held in cafés or bars; a guest speaker talks briefly on a topic and then leads a discussion. The first Café Scientifique was held in Leeds in 1998, with its name invented by the man who started it, Duncan Dallas. “I was reading the paper’s obituary of Marc Sautet, the man who founded the cafés philosophiques in France,” he recalls, “and I thought ‘I’d like to do that’. But the British don’t think philosophy is a real subject, so I opted for science instead.” The scheme has extended with the help of funding from the Wellcome Trust from 2001 onwards. Most Cafés are in university towns and cities — the fifteenth, in Bristol, was inaugurated in April 2003.

Organiser Duncan Dallas said the Café Scientifique sessions attracted a very mixed audience, half of them women and half with no professional science connections. “They ask good questions — that’s why the speakers enjoy it. They are not nit-picking questions, people really want to know the answers and they are often quite difficult to answer.”

Guardian, 18 Nov. 2002

Science in the Pub is an Australian format that does exactly what the name suggests. Last year I found myself in the Harlequin Inn in Sydney discussing Fermat’s last theorem — which turned out to be easier to explain after a few pints. Britain’s Café Scientifique is a more genteel version of the Australian format. There are now nine cafés, from Newcastle to London. And hopes are high that moving science out of the lecture theatre will get a broader range of people involved.

New Scientist, 13 Apr. 2002

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Last modified: 28 June 2003.