RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 41 - May 2004

Cafés scientifiques

They are springing up everywhere in the United Kingdom and France, and are beginning to appear elsewhere in Europe. Generally, you will find them in bars and pubs, but also in libraries, theatres and fast-food restaurants. Although cafés scientifiques are intended to take scientific discussion out of the academic domain, you will frequently run into top scientists at them. Many of those attending these informal meetings have no scientific background. What they share is an interest in culture and science.

A topic is announced in advance of these evening get-togethers. A couple of invited guests then kick off the discussion, in simple, jargon-free language, before answering the audience's questions. The organisers start from the principle that no question is too stupid to be disregarded. A chair is on hand to summarise interventions, decide whose turn it is to speak, and generally mediate the discussion. Subjects discussed can be the time which passes, DNA, Darwinism, cloning, euthanasia, nuclear technology or nanotechnologies. Some researchers come armed with visuals and illustrations, such as pictures of fractal structures within cauliflowers, bracken or snowflakes to explain the concepts of order and chaos. "For the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can explore the latest developments in science and technology," say the British organisers of these 'free exchange zones.'

In France, similar discussions are taking place in certain grammar school cafeterias, where cafés scientifiques’ informal discussions and meetings with scientists become school activities. Some cafés scientifiques like to have a common thread. Copenhagen’s Videnskabscafe , with its diversified and strongly motivated audiences, focuses on the relationship between science and society, and on how technology affects our daily lives. Its organisers are particularly keen on the relationship between science and culture, and round tables regularly discuss questions concerning science and art, science and science fiction, or computers and creativity.

Bullet To find out more

Internet-connected schools

A videoconference brings together pupils from Sant Quirze secondary school in Spain with pupils from Cleveland in the United States.
A videoconference brings together pupils from Sant Quirze secondary school in Spain with pupils from Cleveland in the United States.
Exploring science locally, sharing insights globally. This is the objective of the vast Science Across the World (SAW) network developed and run by the ASE (Association for Science Education) in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline. ASE is proposing a mixture of internet-based teaching methods and approaches to enable teachers and pupils to examine in greater detail the relationship between society and science and technology. Most data is in English, but certain documents are accessible only in French, Germany, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

More than 2 500 teachers from 95 countries have signed up to SAW, which also offers them an opportunity to develop their own projects. ‘When Norm Schmidt proposed that I undertake a videoconferencing experiment with pupils from Cleveland, USA,’ explains Xavier Juan, a science teacher from Sant Quirze secondary school near Barcelona (ES), ‘my first thought was “This is impossible. I have no experience with this communication technology.” But a colleague, Jaume Pinto, who is an expert in this area, told me, “Yes, we can do it.” Language teacher Marta Pardell also provided valuable help. It was marvellous watching pupils prepare what they had to say in English, using the language like they have never done before…. In fact, SAW has dynamised intra-school relationships as much as it has understanding between continents'.

Layered information

Teachers, journalists, economic decision-makers, politicians … Who today has time to plunge into a thousand page scientific report on a subject that interests them? The GreenFacts Foundation which specialises in environment and health, proposes a special stepped communication method to get readers rapidly to the information they really need. On its internet site, you start at a summary level, and then click to “go deeper”. Within three levels, surfers can move from a brief resume of the subject to a more in-depth summary (written by specialists and reviewed by scientists) to the complete underlying document. Files can be accessed on climate change, endocrine disrupters, power lines, non-sugar sweeteners (aspartame), dioxins and water disinfectants.

The GreenFacts Foundation was set up by the Solvay group in 2001.  But the Foundation seeks to be independent of its sponsor’s influence and upholds its own rules of objectivity. The foundation’s managers believe that scientific information is often difficult to understand for non-specialists and, when “popularised”, easily becomes tendentious.

The meaning of pain

Chinese torture chair, 18th or 19th century   © The Science Museum
Chinese torture chair, 18th or 19th century

© The Science Museum

Pain: passion, compassion, sensibility
Science Museum, London, until 20 June

Suffering, passion, compassion … pain can be approached through experiences as varied as childbirth, illness, torture, sadism and masochism. Humanity’s relationship to suffering is also influenced by culture and religion. This unusual exhibition at London’s Science Museum, organized by the Wellcome Trust under the guidance of Spanish philosopher Javier Moscoso, presents the complex physical and mental experience of pain through scientific concepts (both the exact sciences and the human sciences) and works of art.

How do neurons detect pain and transmit it to the central nervous system? How can medical progress open the way for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new painkillers?   Why can certain types of medicine, such as acupuncture, have anaesthetic effects? What is the placebo effect?

Aside from the medical aspects, history, sociology and psychology also shed light on suffering. The exhibition presents, for example, the Christian justifications for pain (this “gift of God” which humanity was required to accept) and the connections between pain and eroticism. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) – from whose name we derive the term ‘sadism’ – and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) – after whom ‘masochism’ is named – are both analysed. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud is also there. 

‘The meaning of pain is not unchanging,’ Moscoso explains. ‘Despite its universality, it has not always been put at the centre of the human condition. It has multiple histories – of those who suffer, those who contemplate it and those who inflict or alleviate it. . Pain has variously been seen as a means of salvation, as the sign of injury or illness, or as a route to self-enhancement.’

The exhibition includes an extensive programme of documentary films.

Sun-powered marathon car

Nuna II, the ambassador of renewable energy throughout Europe, surrounded by the Dutch student team that designed it.
Nuna II, the ambassador of renewable energy throughout Europe, surrounded by the Dutch student team that designed it.
Nuna II is not your common-or-garden family car. Last year, it took part in Australia’s 3 000km-long World Solar Challenge race – following its elder brother Nuna I, which participated in the same race in 2001. Both cars were fitted with clean solar-powered engines designed by the Nuon Solar Team of students from the Technological University of Delft (NL). The team’s coach is none other than Wubbo Ockels, the Netherlands’ first astronaut. ‘After seeing the Earth from space, it is a truly satisfying experience for me to work with young people on a sustainable development-related project,’ he told us.

With Australia behind it, Nuna is about to start out on the new 8 000km-long Adiante marathon,  leaving Athens (EL)on 29 May and arriving in Porto (PT) on 11 June. En route, the Nuon Solar Team will be stopping off at Skopje, Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, Bonn, The Hague, Brussels, Paris, Geneva, Genoa, Toulouse and Madrid. Nuna II will also be making frequent stops at schools, which will take part in a huge drawing contest – yes, hand-drawn with crayons or markers on good old-fashioned paper – on the topic of a sustainable future. All these works (around 50 000 in all) will accompany the team to Portugal before being presented to the United Nations.

With 13 countries and 16 stops in different cities in just 14 days, the solar race is also a battle against fatigue. ‘After it, there will be no excuse for being unaware of aerospace technology’s potential contribution to the transport industry in the form of solar cells, light-weight structures and advanced aerodynamics, or of the enthusiasm that students are capable of,’ Ockels concludes. ‘With Adiante, we are going to demonstrate to Europe that solar-powered transport is not science fiction. Through schools, and in particular primary schools, we will be showing our youngest citizens what sustainable technology is capable of.’

  In issue no. 40 [ http://ec.europa.eu/research/rtdinfo/40/communicating_en.html ] , we announced that the CreepyCrawly   exhibition was being held at the Finnish Science Centre at Vantaa (better known as Heureka) close to Helsinki. In fact, this travelling exhibition is taking place at the Experimentarium in Copenhagen until 12 September.