A British program invites citizens to debate contemporary science
It's seven o'clock -- official cocktail hour around the globe -- and culturally active London hipsters in their 20s and 30s skip the reality shows on the telly for a night out with a group of ethnically diverse strangers. About half of them have a scientific background, but many come from the U.K.'s museum-, theater- and comedy-going scenes. They relax at cafe tables and sip pinot grigio and vodka gimlets.
What brings them together? Naked Science, one of a series of programs sponsored by London's Dana Centre, a stylish, multipurpose gallery space where people are encouraged to take part in lively discussions about contemporary science, technology, and culture. 'This is about adults, and this is about science,' explains Lisa Jamieson, the center's program coordinator.
Those participating in Naked Science are asked to discuss whether people should define themselves by gender. Other weekly programs have included Punk Science, stand-up comedy about serious science buzz, and Future Face, which addressed issues like the reliability of over half a million closed circuit security cameras throughout London and whether cosmetics really deliver on their promise. Jamieson spearheads it all.
With an undergraduate degree in honors chemistry, a master's degree in science communication, and a career beginning in chemistry as well, this native Scot traded in her lab coat for a Palm Pilot two years ago and started bringing science into the lives of others. 'I wanted to be involved in all areas of science without having to become increasingly specialized in one,' she says.
Jamieson draws inspiration from cafe scientifique (www.cafescientifique.org), a grassroots, volunteer-led collective that uses the Internet to help people find informal discussions about science throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. These discussions usually take place in cafes, bookshops, or neighbors' front rooms, where a scientist speaks briefly and then the audience asks questions.
In designing the center's programs, Jamieson and her team take on audience concerns and topics undergoing policy review in the U.K. They make sure that the subjects are timely and relevant and that they invoke an element of risk -- to individuals, society, and the planet. 'Our model of controversy says that for an issue to be considered appropriate for the Dana Centre, it must have an ethical or moral debate,' Jamieson says.
Why? Because controversy sparks conversation. When real people converse with real scientists, distinctions that tend to divide these communities begin to disappear. 'Science has all kinds of idols -- the many great thinkers of science,' Jamieson says. 'We were trying to demystify some of that by allowing the public to interact with scientists in a very relaxed, informal kind of level playing field.'
Excerpted from Pistil (Spring 2005). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues) from Box 220225, Chicago, IL 60622; www.pistilmag.com.