It all started with a conversation that went something like this:
(Sabrina) Hi, I’m coming back to Turku. I have an idea, let’s start a science cafe!
(Me) Ooh, nice! What’s a science cafe?
–It’s an informal meeting where you discuss science, just around a table at a café or a pub. There’s a scientist talking and anyone can come and listen and have a chat afterwards.
-Sounds great! Let’s do it!
–But do you think there will be any interest in Turku?
–Oh yes, I do believe so.
–So people would come?
–I’m pretty sure there would always be at least some people…
–Great, let’s try it!
And so the first meeting was set up on September 20th, 2014 at Tiirikkala. We soon discovered the original estimate was slightly off: it turned out there would always be a couple of dozen people at the very least, often more. Meeting around a café table would not do. The second Science Cafe took place in the History Class of Koulu, which became our regular haunt, with occasional digressions to other spaces around Turku. Koulu is the place that most agrees with the event with its cosy atmosphere, comfy sofas and a decent selection of pleasant alcoholic substances. Not to forget the picture of an eagle owl on the wall, keeping a stern eye on our scientific shenanigans.
Our Science Cafe soon found its basic form: most of the time there’s only one speaker who will talk for about 30–40 minutes, after which the audience gets to ask questions or offer comments for general discussion. Speakers are requested to stay a while afterwards so that anyone not comfortable with speaking up in public gets a chance to ask questions face-to-face. As many participants stay a bit longer in any case, the room soon erupts in cheerful chatter.
In this tried and tested manner Science Cafe has dealt with topics from astronomy to zoology: we’ve gone from bedrock to biosynthesis, from guts to brain, peered at a centipede and at a picture of comet dust particle sent by Rosetta, discussed gravitational waves and mediaeval pigs, been super alert whilst discussing sleep and swept away by dreamy auroras. Every now and then there’s been a special event with arts and music, the Big Bang Tango, The Moon Jazz Jam, and we’ve even gone to movies. My nerdy heart weeps for many wonderful events that weren’t yet recorded on video to share with everyone.
In five years the event has turned from fairly frequent but randomly occurring meetings to fewer but more regular ones. It’s still fun. We get great speakers and we get an audience for them. The website stats record traffic not only from Finland but from various parts of the world. Science Cafe is a thing. It’s established. But sometimes my (also established) glass of house red stops midway to my lips as I look at the room filling with people and excited buzz and think, wow. A few years ago we had a chat and this happened?
Let that momentary bewilderment serve as a reminder of not taking any of this for granted. While a science cafe is, at its core, a simple and inexpensive idea, there would certainly be many more ongoing science cafes if it were that easy. Instead, we’re sometimes asked ”How do you do it? How do you keep it going?” or ”Why don’t we have this kind of thing in our city?”
Well. All I know is that it takes a shared love and fascination with science and interest in communicating it. Speakers willing to give part of their Saturday afternoons to share their knowledge. People who want to hear and discuss it, ready to discover something they didn’t know before – even if they’re not always sure the topic will interest them. It takes support and input from various individuals. We happen to have eye-catching posters, too, thanks to Boris Sokolov, co-organizer and a visual wizard.
Yet none of this would be possible without the face, voice, heart and soul of Science Cafe, the wonderful Sabrina Maniscalco. It takes her energy to make things happen, her passion for making science more accessible and her readiness to spend some of her less than abundant free time on this endeavour, again and again. Without her there would still probably be just a bunch of people vaguely wishing something like this existed.
So there: a spark, support, speakers, science lovers and, most importantly, shoulders to carry the main responsibility. And here we are, five years later, eager for many more years of fascinating topics to dig into. Cheers to science and cheers to the whole Science Cafe Turku community!
With thanks to all the speakers, supporters and the lovely people who take part in the events.