Science in the public sphere: What a university should be about“People will open up and ask different sorts of questions,” said physicist Ian Dell’Antonio, presenting at Science Underground. “They’re not in a setting where they’re trying to impress somebody. They’re just curious. I like that.”Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Science in the classroom and science in the lab are wonderful but can be daunting for the uninitiated. Talking science at a meeting of the Science Underground is different. The group has sponsored three presentations for general audiences in a Providence pub — on the Martian rover, the potential of robotics, and the mysteries of dark matter. The only requirement for admission: curiosity.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It’s hard to think of a better way to ponder the expanding universe than over a pint or a pizza at the local pub. Last Thursday night at the English Cellar Alehouse in Providence, a group of science enthusiasts did just that as they listened physicist Ian Dell’Antonio discuss the mysteries of dark energy.
Dell’Antonio’s talk was part of Science Underground, a series of informal science talks sponsored by the Brown Science Center and the Brown chapters of the Triple Helix and Sigma Xi. Dell’Antonio, professor of physics at Brown, discussed how the discovery that the expansion of the universe following the big bang is speeding up led scientists to a theory of dark energy. Dell’Antonio is part of two large-scale experiments just getting underway that are aimed at understanding what dark energy is and how it works.
“I thought the whole talk was really exciting,” said Mariami Bekauri, a graduate student in the School of Engineering. “I really liked Professor Dell'Antonio as a speaker. He was funny and engaging and presented the topic in a way that was understandable to a wide audience range.”
That’s the whole idea of Science Underground, said Jessica Brodsky, a senior at Brown who organizes the events. She wanted to create a series that made science — and scientists — accessible to the general public in an informal setting.
“It gives professors a chance to present on the things they’re passionate about to people they may not normally get a chance to chat with,” Brodsky said. She hopes the series will continue to draw people from the Brown community, Providence, and around Rhode Island to “build more community around the sciences.”
Thursday night was the third installment in the series. The first speaker was Ralph Milliken, a scientist on the Mars Curiosity mission and professor of geological sciences at Brown. In November, Stefanie Tellex, professor of computer science at Brown, discussed her work in robotics.
“One of the things I like about this kind of event is the informality,” Dell’Antonio said. “In its most basic essence, it’s a conversation over beers. That type of conversation — one that it isn’t a lecture per se — is appealing to me because people will open up and ask different sorts of questions. They’re not in a setting where they’re trying to impress somebody. They’re just curious. I like that and I think it’s a very valuable thing.”
David Fox, a retired businessman, has attended all three Science Underground sessions. He said he likes the idea of bringing science out of the classroom and into the public sphere. “That’s what a university should be about,” Fox said.
Brodsky said the crowds have grown each time the event has been held. Around 60 people took in Thursday’s talk, filling the back room at the English Cellar to capacity.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from people at Brown and in the Providence community,” she said. “The English Cellar provides a great atmosphere and we love it very much here, but given the interest we’ve had I think we’re going to look for a bigger venue, one that will hold more people but still offer a cozy environment and the same set of refreshments.”
Brodsky hopes to have a new venue picked before the next event in the series, which is to be held in March.
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