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Editorial: Cafes of the scientific mind

Science is complicated — and what scientists do can be hard to understand.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But here in the Valley, scientists with a knack for talking about their research in engaging, direct, sometimes humorous ways are turning that around.

Laypeople — adults and children with inquiring minds, but not necessarily any scientific knowledge — are showing up at science cafes, local gatherings where they can listen to scientists talk about what they do, and ask all the questions they want. (Sometimes there’s even an award for Best Question of the Night.)

Locally, there are two science cafes. The SciTech Cafe, which holds monthly meetings in Amherst, was started by Kathy Aidala, a physics professor at Mount Holyoke College. And the OEB Cafe — the initials stand for Organismic and Evolutionary Biology — is now on break for the summer, but will resume in September. It was launched by several organizers, including Sarah Goodwin, a graduate student in biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We desperately want to make science more approachable,” Goodwin recently told the Gazette.

They are doing just that. Speakers at the science cafes have given talks on topics ranging from black holes to the discovery of Higgs boson, to the biomechanics of a leaping frog. Listeners say the presentations are well done, fascinating and even fun. If a few of the children who attend get turned on to science, so much the better.

These cafes are a great idea, especially in a college area thick with potential speakers. The next SciTech Cafe meets June 24 at the Amherst Brewing Co. The evening’s topic will be “Seeing at the Nano Scale,” and all are welcome — especially those who have no idea what that subject is about.

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