Night out with science

Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

Caf Scientifique

Where can you debate the ethics of genetic engineering or know about nanotechnology while sipping coffee or wine? At Caf Scientifique. The idea was started by French physicists in 1997, but now there are Cafs Scientifique in 11 countries, from Argentina to Japan, reports Nature (May 27, 2004, Vol 429, Issue 6990). A typical Caf Scientifique involves a talk by a speaker, who is usually a scientist or a writer on science, followed by questions and debate. The talks are not like lectures or seminars: instead of one person lecturing others, Caf Scientifique promotes group discussion. As uk's Guardian newspaper says: "The watchwords are informality and democracy". Speakers never use a lectern or stand on a raised platform, and the scientist and audience are treated equally.

The audience comprises people who are interested in science but don't get a chance to discuss their views. Caf are usually hosted at bars or cafes, but sometimes at bookshops and theatres.

The idea is based on the Caf Philosophique movement, which was started in 1992 as venues where ordinary people could discuss philosophy. But Caf Scientifique is going much further. Nature reports that one caf linked people in London, Istanbul and Ramallah, on the West Bank near Jerusalem, through video conferencing. In France, cafs have been organised in teacher training colleges to make new teachers more confident about discussing science.

The talks don't merely interest lay people; they stimulate scientists too. As Grady Booch, chief scientist at ibm and a speaker at a caf in Colorado Springs, usa, says: "It's wonderful to be among a group of intelligent and diverse people who are passionate about pursuing knowledge and understanding."

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