With all that's ever been bantered about in a bar — unrequited love, mean bosses, that stupid neighbor of yours who plays his music...

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With all that’s ever been bantered about in a bar — unrequited love, mean bosses, that stupid neighbor of yours who plays his music too loudly — why not chatter about cloaking devices, genomes or an elevator shooting to space?

It was an especially warm and picturesque Monday evening, but still, they filed into the basement pub at Ravenna Third Place Books, where the walls and tables are carved from gorgeous old-growth wood, the flat-screen TV broadcasts baseball and the nachos are sculpted generously high.

A retired scientist. A landscape architect. A truck driver. The CEO of the Pacific Science Center as well as a pair of horticulturists in their 20s. They’re here for an informal salon called “Science on Tap,” a moniker brilliantly coined before organizers even knew they’d wind up in a bar.

“A place to eat, drink and talk about science”


Science on Tap: At 7 p.m. on the last Monday of every month in the downstairs pub at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E. in Seattle. The events are free, and no science background is required. The subject of Monday’s talk: “Beyond the Hype: The Weird World of String Theory.”

More information: www.scienceontap.org

“Science has always been on this pedestal,” says Terri Gilbert, a local science writer with a background in biomedical sciences. “This is a fun way to have people learn about science that’s important to them.”

“And drink a beer at the same time,” chimes in Gretchen Meller, a research scientist at Swedish Medical Center.

Recognizing scientists could do a better job explaining what they do, to their PhD colleagues and the general public alike, Gilbert joined forces with four of her scientific kin and launched Science on Tap in 2003.

“It’s much different than going to a science seminar where someone’s just spewing at you. These are a little more interactive,” said regular attendee Greg Martin, who manages a microscope facility at the University of Washington.

“There’s a real fear of looking stupid and asking the wrong questions, but those barriers come down when you’re in an environment like this,” said Alex Straiker, a neuroscientist also from the UW.

Accessible science

The most recent materialization of such casual-but-planned science happenings traces back to 1998, when Cafe Scientifique debuted in Leeds in the United Kingdom. Billed as a way to make science more accessible, accountable and a part of mainstream culture, the cafés — hosted also in restaurants, pubs and theaters — have since flourished throughout the world with some 140 regular gatherings. In Dublin, Santiago, Tokyo and, of late, Portland.

In Seattle, Meller, Gilbert and the other organizers — scientists from Harborview, Boeing and the University of Washington — figured a science café in these parts would be a no-brainer. Seattle is, after all, the smartest city in America, and there would be a plethora of potential speakers to choose from. And given cuts in federal research funding, they felt more people needed a better grasp of what science is and what scientists do.

“We want to give people the power to understand what science can tell them, rather than just relying on the media or popular opinion,” Meller says.

No one’s yet measured whether such venues have improved science literacy. (Handing out Scantrons and No. 2 pencils would squash the vibe that these aren’t your typical science gatherings.)

But the forums clearly step into a void that is Americans’ understanding about science. Although we express strong support for science and technology, we generally know little about these subjects, according to the National Science Foundation. And such knowledge, the NSF maintains, is necessary for good citizenship.

About that space elevator

In Seattle, guest speakers have touched upon a vast array of subjects — alien life, electric airplanes, even the science of beer brewing. Speakers are held to a 20-minute time limit, followed by a break and then a Q&A that can test the best of scientific craniums since no question, organizers insist, is a stupid one.

Speakers have described the café experience as falling somewhere “in between pontification and improv.”

A microphone is provided, and since organizers swear scientists cannot talk without pictures — “It’s just a fact of life” — a projector and screen can be set up. Which doesn’t help this night’s guest speaker, Michael Laine, the founder of LiftPort, since he doesn’t have the right electrical cord to connect his PowerBook.

So instead, he’s addressing some 30 people by standing in front of a blank screen and using his fingers to explain the mechanics of his space elevator, taking robots into the inner solar system via ribbons of carbon nanotubes. Gravity on one end, centrifugal acceleration on the other. No spacecraft needed.

Laine takes swigs of a Rogue Nut Brown. He talks more, about the cultural and commercial ramifications of his elevator, adding references to Bruce Lee and Ben Bova.

At one point, he tells the crowd this experience, here in the pub, is a lot more calming than, say, when he’s pushing his idea on Capitol Hill. “The Air Force Academy is also not this relaxed.”

His repartee, some folks remark afterwards, scores high points, although some say they just couldn’t believe his whole space-elevator idea. Then again, where would science be without the skeptics?

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com