The tiny upstairs private room at the Fox & Feather was crammed for the most recent meeting of Café Scientifiques.
Servers carrying plates of food and pints of beer struggled to squeeze past the 80 people occupying the available seating and leaning space in the tiny room.
Café Scientifiques is a joint project between the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. According to the Museum of Nature Website, the casual monthly meeting “provides a forum where adults can explore current issues relating to science, technology and the environment.”
The topic of discussion for the evening was “Breaking the Bad News: What Do We Do When Science Tells Us What We Don’t Want To Hear?” The evening’s speakers were Nathan Young, assistant professor of sociology and Louise Lemyre, professor of psychology, both from Ottawa University. Also there was Tim Lougheed, a science writer.
Isabelle Kingsley, of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, organized this month’s meeting. She says turnout to the meetings has been steadily increasing. Last year, about 30 people were expected at each meeting, but attendance has almost tripled since then.
And aside from taking up seats and rubbing shoulders, this increase shows an impressive public interest in what she sees as an important issue.
“Science is in everyday life and it affects everyone differently,” says Kingsley.
Lougheed shares Kingsley’s enthusiasm for public discussion.
“Science is not an elite pursuit, it’s for everyone,” he said. “In terms of scientific literacy, it’s an individual responsibility with social implications, and consequently a gathering like this is an opportunity for people to think about this.”
Young also agrees that increased interest in scientific issues is a good thing, and was happy to see that so many people came out for the discussion.
“It’s great to see that some of what we can do can be relevant to people, it’s very energizing,” he says.
Richard Beare, an electrical engineering student at Carleton University, says the collaboration of ideas in the discussion is helpful.
“The experts also give you a different perspective on the actual topics that you normally wouldn’t think of,” he says. This was Beare’s second café, and this time brought two of his friends.
According to Lemyre, there is a healthy scientific community in Ottawa.
“I think Ottawa’s actually quite lucky because we have quite a number of scientists here at the two Universities,” she says. “It’s a very scientifically literate place.”
Ottawa’s large scientific community could be one of the factors leading to the café’s increasing popularity.
The meeting began at 6 p.m., with each speaker giving roughly 10 minutes of introductory statements related to the topic. This was followed by an hour and a half of questions and comments from the audience, most of which were responded to by the speakers.
Some of the points raised in this meeting’s heady discussion included the role of philosophy in science, the role of public participation in scientific issues and even the role of science fiction in generating public interest. Lougheed noted how some areas of science, such as nanotechnology, got significantly more funding after the topic was featured on Star Trek.
But Star Trek also warned about the dangers of nanotechnology. In the episode, a grey cloud of nanobots tried to eat through the ship’s hull. Lougheed remarked that one day, Ottawa city council will have to decide if there are enough safety precautions for handling nanobots at the University of Ottawa, all because of a Star Trek episode.
The next meeting is scheduled for April 27 at 6 p.m. The topic for discussion will be “Living well or living fair – is there an eco-balance?”
Once again, it will be held in the upstairs bar at the Fox and Feather, perhaps with extra chairs.