By Steve Koppes
Photo by Jason Smith

Allen Sanderson invited his audience in the banquet room at Grady’s Grille in Homewood one evening last September to treat his presentation as a seminar in economics at the University of Chicago. He welcomed interruptions and even rudeness, but drew the line at throwing bottles across the room.

Sanderson, a senior lecturer in economics, was speaker of the month at the Homewood-Flossmoor Science Pub, a new forum for freewheeling exchange between interested members of the public and researchers of all stripes. The topic on the menu for the evening was “Sports, Statistics, and Economics.”

Homewood resident Peter Doran, professor in earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, founded the H-F Science Pub after reading an article last January in USA Today.

“It was about a fad sweeping the nation called Science Pubs,” he says. “I thought this was a great idea and started looking around for one of the local bars to hold it.”

Such meet-ups create a valuable space for people who love science and research to come together as fans, rather than as students or professional colleagues. Organizers say the popular discussions have revealed a broad public appetite for informal events that are both intellectual and fun.

The venue alternates between Grady’s Grille in Homewood and the Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery, and routinely draws a capacity crowd of 40 or more. “Homewood-Flossmoor is a natural environment for this, with all the scientists who live in the area from the University of Chicago and the museum campus,” Doran notes.

Science events grow in popularity

Doran gave the first talk, on “Human and Robotic science in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica.” UChicago is contributing a continual stream of speakers, which began in May with Michael Coates, professor in organismal biology & anatomy at UChicago. Coates passed around a specially preserved dead fish during his humor-laced talk, playfully titled “The Incompleat Angler, or Fishing for Creatures from the Black Lagoon.”

Following suit the next month, without the dead fish, was Rocky Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Kolb, author of Blind Watchers of the Sky, signed a small stack of his books for one woman after he described “The Dark Side of the Universe” to an appreciative audience.

Still other Science Pub speakers have come from UIC, the American Institute of Steel Construction and Indiana University Northwest.

UChicago alumna Stephanie Levi, PhD’09, began doing science outreach events called Night Lab for the public in 2008 at Schubas Tavern in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. A molecular geneticist and cellular biologist, Levi tweets at @scienceissexy and operates a Science is Sexy website. Levi will discuss “Sex and Attraction” Feb. 15 at the Divinity School’s Wednesday Community Luncheon program, which offers speakers to the UChicago community in a spirit similar to the Science Pub and Café Scientifique. Her previous programs have been featured in the University of Chicago Magazine on coffee science and in a variety of other news outlets.

Public interest in science runs high in the Chicago area, if attendance at these and other events are any indication. Randy Landsberg, outreach director for the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, founded a Café Scientifique on the North Side in April 2006. The Café draws rave reviews at the Map Room, where it typically meets.

Last Nov. 1, more than 400 people attended Nobel laureate John Mather’s UChicago Brinson Lecture. “We were over capacity,” says Landsberg, a Brinson Lecture organizer. “Folks were almost literally hanging from the rafters.”

On that same night, just a few blocks away at the Harold Washington Public Library, another capacity crowd of more than 400 heard Harvard physics professor Lisa Randall discuss her new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door in an Illinois Science Council event. Talks by visiting scientists in October and April also filled the library’s auditorium.

The next H-F Science Pub takes place at 8 p.m. Nov. 29 at Grady’s Grille, 18147 Harwood Ave. in Homewood. The speaker will be UChicago’s Steven Simon, senior scientist in geophysical sciences, discussing “The Fall, Recovery, and Classification of the Park Forest Meteorite.”

The Dec. 20 Science Pub at the Flossmoor Station will feature Kay MacLeod, associate professor in the Ben May Department for Cancer Research at UChicago. Her topic, beginning at 8 p.m., will be “Cancer’s Sweet Tooth — How Tumors Acquire and Burn Energy Differently from Normal Tissue.”