A nightclub for nerds makes science cool in New York

The Secret Science Club meets once a month, drawing lofty speakers and large numbers of young people, who yearn to discuss sci-tech issues in an informal setting.

By , Correspondent

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    Science chic: Meetings of the Secret Science Club in New York draw people of all ages and interests.
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A long queue has formed inside Union Hall, a popular club in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, as it does on the first Wednesday of every month. The line snakes through the main room, past the indoor bocce court, and down the narrow stairs to a basement space with a low, stamped-tin ceiling.

The crowd is young and hip, mostly in their 20s and 30s, eager to gain entry to tonight’s hot-ticket entertainment event. Once the doors open, about 50 lucky people secure chairs, while another 50 stand four-deep around the room, and another 50 are gently turned away at the door.

“This is the third time I haven’t made it in,” a disappointed young woman sighs.

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A mixtape of music plays through the speakers and the audience sips drinks from plastic cups while waiting for the featured act to begin. It won’t be the latest indie band, or an up-and-coming comedian. This is not the typical New York club scene. This is the monthly meeting of the Secret Science Club.

“Here at the Secret Science Club, all scientists are rock stars,” announces Margaret Mittelbach, one of the group’s founders, introducing the evening’s headliner: a microbiologist from Columbia University, who will talk about vertical farming within skyscrapers to create sustainable ecocities.

“So please give a rock-star welcome to ... Dr. Dickson Despommier.” The audience cheers and whistles for the bearded professor, who looks pleasantly startled as he walks onstage. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Dr. Despommier, squinting into the colored spotlights focused on him. “This is remarkable. An absolute surprise.”

Despommier is just the latest scientist to be surprised – and amazed – by the rock-star reception accorded them by the Secret Science Club, which likes to describe itself as: “Underground, shrouded in mystery, and chock-full of brainiacs.”

Neuroscientists, marine biologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, and genomics experts have all taken a bow at the Secret Science Club since it started three years ago, and come away dazzled by the experience.

“Our goal is to make science fun and vibrant and part of the culture of the city,” says Ms. Mittelbach, a journalist and author of two quirky books on natural history. “Not something separate, beyond reach, in an ivory tower. We want to integrate it, make science a part of people’s lives.”

The laid-back atmosphere, science-themed beverage concoctions, eclectic music (often live bands play topic-appropriate tunes), and occasional films help attract a chic, cerebral crowd.

“I come every month if I can,” says Rebecca McMackin. “It’s a good place to meet people who like science.”

“It’s a lot of fun to come out to see people who are actually going out of their way to learn something,” explains another Secret Science Club regular. “It’s dorky, I guess – but it’s filled with people who are just curious and want to learn.”

The sessions attract an eclectic mix of people in all professions, from carpenters, painters, and photographers to musicians, graphic designers, and Wall Street wizards.

“People say science is a dying field,” says Despommier. “Clearly it’s not!”

• • •

The Secret Science Club was founded by Mittelbach, together with Michael Crewdson, a fellow natural history writer, and Dorian Devins, a radio producer. It grew out of a publicity event Mittelbach and Crewdson cooked-up to launch their first book, “Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger.” The event was a wacky taxidermy contest, but it was such a surprising hit that the group thought about starting a club where people could talk about science in an informal setting.

“The first one, I was very worried no one would come,” admits Mittlebach, but “instantly, it became very popular.”

It may, in fact, have become too popular. The room in the Union Hall basement is now too small to accommodate the throngs of people who want to attend the gatherings. “We had one speaker [Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel], and they were lined up outside almost to 6th Avenue,” says Andrew Templar, a co-owner of Union Hall.

What attracts young people to the meetings is perhaps understandable – a nightclub atmosphere and a talk on neurons by a Nobel laureate. But why do renowned scientists agree to do a stand-up routine in a funky basement space? It’s certainly not the money: The scientists do it for free.

“It’s a very different audience from what I might have at a typical popular talk,” says Dr. David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist. “It’s much younger and more diverse. It’s a very engaged and informed audience, and there’s a lot of energy in the room. They ask lots of questions – some very sophisticated questions. The whole feel is different.”

When Despommier was invited to speak, he had no idea what the Secret Science Club was. He thought he might have to use a secret hand signal to get in the door. Yet when he heard who had addressed the group in the past, he packed his briefcase.

“They were very famous people,” he says. “I knew those names, and, I thought, how can I say no?”

• • •

The Secret Science Club belongs to a burgeoning international community of “science cafes” – places where scientists and ordinary citizens can have a lively discussion in a social setting far from the lecture hall or laboratory. The concept was born in Europe about a decade ago, and the “cafe scientifique” movement has spread to dozens of European cities as well as to Asia, Africa, and South America. Even Iran has a cafe scientifique.

The idea took root in the US just a few years ago. In 2005, only a half dozen science cafes existed. Today, 80 to 90 operate around the country. “We’re creating new opportunities for scientists and people to interact,” says Ben Wiehe, outreach project director for the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston.

Stimulating the growth of science cafes has become part of the mission of Nova ScienceNow, the popular program produced by WGBH TV, and Wiehe acts as both evangelist and air-traffic controller. He argues that in an era when so many urgent policy issues involve science and technology, the nation, and the world, can ill afford a scientifically illiterate, or uninterested, citizenry. Science cafes can help.

The best science club venues tend to be restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, but some are held in bookstores and even theaters. Each science cafe is homegrown. Some are across-the-table dinner conversations, some take the form of casual question-and-answer sessions, and a few, like the Secret Science Club in New York, prefer a more “straight-up lecture” – structured, but not stuffy.

Back in the eccentric basement headquarters of the Secret Science Club, Despommier and Michael Garbarino laugh and chat in a circle of science-clubbers eager to continue the conversation about ecology. They stand near an illuminated wildlife diorama and just to the side of a cabinet of “curiosities.”

“I’ve never encountered so many wide-eyed, enthusiastic people,” says Despommier. “To see this outpouring of enthusiasm – it’s extremely encouraging. I think it’s thrilling.”

Mr. Garbarino, who works for a security guard training company, travels from the Bronx by subway to attend the meetings – unfailingly. “I’ve been to every single lecture since it started in 2006,” he says. Garbarino thinks the club helps puncture stereotypes of how science works. “You realize science is a way of looking at the world,” he says. “It’s not a bunch of people in white coats handing down edicts from on high.”

And he enjoys the way the secret club makes learning about science seem cool. As he puts it: “Nerd is the new chic.”

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