Science café

High flying table talk…

The idea of a science café, in the Dutch town of Nijmegen, is definitely a winner. Eminent figures and even Nobel laureates are happy to come here and talk about their subjects. The public appreciates the cheerful informality of these events. On an otherwise normal March evening, the place is packed despite the somewhat abstruse topic: cord theory…

Gerard ’t Hooft (foreground) and Robbert Dijkgraaf Gerard ’t Hooft (foreground) and Robbert Dijkgraaf

‘Tonight we have an absolute record turnout!’ Françoise Touahri is exultant. She has been living in Holland for a number of years now, and the idea of a science café was something she borrowed from her native Montpellier. In 2004, there was nothing of the sort in Nijmegen, and the friends and colleagues she mentioned it to were promptly sold on the concept. The private sector (Phillips, where she was working at the time), supplied the initial financing. ‘Right from the first event, in February 2005, it was a success.’ Since then, several times a year, a hundred or so people have been packing themselves into a café in the centre of the city where, beer in hand, they listen to and engage in a discussion with men and women from the realm of science. Before and after the presentations and debate, a live orchestra discourses against the smokescreen of the venue. No platform, no stage set. The scientists sit on bar stools, in front of a white cloth. Once all the tables are full, people sit on the floor, or pull a folding stool out of their backpacks, or remain standing. ‘To get things going, we ask our guests to make a short presentation, giving their point of view,’ Françoise Touahri explains. ‘We usually invite several scientists, so people come to realise that different approaches are possible.’

On this particular evening, the guests are extremely eminent indeed: Gerard ’t Hooft (1), Nobel Prize for physics in 1999, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht’s Spinoza Institute (NL), and Robbert Dijkgraaf, professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam (NL). They are delighted with their largely student audience, and it shows. ‘We are especially glad to see them, because in our field most new ideas come from the minds of younger scientists,’ says Gerard ’t Hooft. ‘This informal type of discussion is particularly well suited to theoretical physicists, We don’t need any complicated equipment,’ adds Robbert Dijkgraaf, who remembers long debates on a Mediterranean beach with his professor (Gerard ’t Hooft himself), during a symposium.

Popularise, it’s good for you!

Here it’s more about passion than knowledge. ‘All the scientists we ask are happy to accept our invitation. Even famous people who are much in demand come to us. Obviously, we are delighted,’ says Françoise Touahri. ‘Right from the beginning, you can tell that they are talking less about their work than about their love for their science and the subject of their research.’

Gerard ’t Hooft adds that what he likes in this dialogue with a general audience, as in teaching, is that it forces you to step back: ‘It’s good for you. Explaining physics concepts and theories to someone who knows nothing about it, forces you to talk about the whole forest and not just one or two particular trees. That opens everything up to question and makes you think, step by step, about the intellectual edifice and how it was built up.’

The audience, listening attentively to the two speakers, is carried away by ideas of cords, membranes, 10- or 11-dimensional space and other highly abstract subjects. A mixture of the young and not-so-young – apparently from related disciplines – and a handful of man-in-the-street types. Everyone seems very happy. This is confirmed when the floor is opened to questions, some of them (apparently) naïve, some very much to the point. Cord theory is put to the debate, and not only in the scientific sphere…

If you could take away just one thing from an evening like this, what would it be? ‘For me, it would be that physics is full of big questions, to which we know only a fraction of the answers,’ is Robbert Dijkgraaf’s response. To which Gerard ’t Hooft adds that ‘to immerge yourself in physics is to let yourself be touched by a sense of the extraordinary.’ A couple of hours spent in this atmosphere was certainly enough to convince me…

  1. See the "portrait" in RDT info n°35.
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