Scientific Salons

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.

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