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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 Elaine F. WeissCorrespondent / March 4, 2009

Science chic: Meetings of the Secret Science Club in New York draw people of all ages and interests.

Abigail Krolik/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


New York

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.

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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.

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.”