By Steve Koppes

Clem Pryke’s Café Scientifique offering on “The Biggest Map in the Universe—the Afterglow of the Big Bang” in December 2007 provided just about all the intellectual stimulation that at least one attendee could handle.

“My mind is officially blown. Thank you!” wrote the person on a survey form following the presentation.

Pryke, an Assistant Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, is one of 13 University of Chicago scientists who have made Café Scientifique appearances since the April 2006 debut of the local series. Other topics covered in the series include “Global Warming,” “Biology of Gender,” and “Flying Snakes.”

The University’s Randy Landsberg founded Café Scientific Chicago, extending a global network such of events that began more than a decade ago in Leeds, United Kingdom. Café Scientifique provides a forum for public engagement with science in bars, restaurants, and venues outside the traditional academic context.

Mostly held at the Map Room, 1949 N. Hoyne Ave., the Chicago Cafés offer free admission, with attendance limited to the first 50 arrivals. The Cafés consistently fill to capacity and garner high survey ratings from their audiences.

‘A Burger, A Beer, and a Side of Science’

The Chicago Café email list now has more than 500 subscribers. “A Burger, a Beer, and a Side of Science” is how Landsberg and three co-authors summed up the Café experience last year in an article published in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series.

“Like any good conversation, a successful café fosters an energetic, unscripted dialogue controlled by the audience as much as by the presenting scientist,” wrote Landsberg and co-authors.

As the director of education and outreach for the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP), Landsberg continually seeks opportunities for Chicago astronomers and astrophysicists to share their expertise with the local and even global community. Creating Café Scientifique has provided many such opportunities, while partnering with local museums fosters others.

The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum provides a more traditional and high-tech outreach venue for University scientists. Earlier this year, Chicago astronomers and astrophysicists presented three KICP Tours of the Universe as part of the Science Chicago Science Saturdays program at the Adler Planetarium’s Space Visualization Laboratory.

Another discussed the Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory during Adler’s “So You Want to Be an Astronomer” day. And four others contributed images to the “From Earth to the Universe” exhibit, on display at O’Hare International Airport through Dec. 31, 2009.

Hsiao-Wen Chen and Mike Gladders, assistant professors in astronomy & astrophysics at the University, teamed up to offer the “Big Questions, Big Glass Tour” last January at the planetarium. Chen and Gladders use “big glass” (large telescopes) in their pursuit of “Big Answers” about the origin and evolution of the universe.

Big Questions, Big Glass

Planetarium visitors who attended “Big Questions, Big Glass” toured the world’s largest telescopes virtually, through Adler’s Space Visualization Laboratory. The tour included stops at the twin 6.5-meter Magellan Telescopes in the Andes Mountains of South America, where Chen and Gladders both conduct much of their research.

Chen maps the hidden universe with the Magellan Telescopes. In the cosmic ledger, the atoms that make up stars, planets, and people add up to only 10 percent of all matter in the universe. “There’s still 90 percent of the universe's atoms missing,” Chen says. “That’s a big opportunity for discovery.”

Chen and Gladders showed their audience how to browse the universe using Google Sky and the Worldwide Telescope, and played simulations of evolving galaxies in 3-D. For Chen, the event brought a nice change from the rewarding but often solitary toil of a research scientist.

“The immediate and enthusiastic feedback we get from talking to kids and people from outside our field is very rewarding,” she says.

Originally published on June 15, 2009.