“The speakers we get are doing mind-boggling work, and I love to learn.”
a Café Sci regular
Carnegie Science Center is the new home of Café Scientifique, Pittsburgh’s popular grown-up gathering that serves up all kinds of science—straight up or on the rocks.
By Niki Kapsambelis
Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, talks about evolution inside the Science Center’s Works Theater.
Carnegie Science Center’s Works Theater has always been something of a chameleon.
By day, it serves as the backdrop for live, in-your-face-science: a million-volt electrical display from a Tesla coil, the use of liquid nitrogen to freeze balloons and marshmallows, and explosive hydrogen in a demonstration of rocket chemistry.
By night, it’s been a paradise for wanna-be-rock stars, serving as a big-time stage for the popular Guitar Hero video game, and, on occasion, it’s the setting for science-infused corporate gatherings. And now, on the first Monday of each month, it tames its theatrics just long enough to morph into a gently-lit bistro where adults come to talk science over a cold beer and a pub-style meal.
Known as Café Scientifique, this interactive program invites some of Pittsburgh’s best and brightest in science and technology to talk about what they do for a living over dinner and drinks, then engage a mixed audience—more scientifically curious than science geek—in a question-and-answer session. Past speakers have included Irving Wender, an engineering professor who worked on the Manhattan Project, the secret military venture created in 1942 to produce the first nuclear weapon, and Julius S. Youngner, the last living member of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine team.
This past October, Priya Narasimhan, an engineering professor from Carnegie Mellon University and president of a start-up company that spun out of the university, spoke about YinzCam, technology she developed for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Petite and full of energy, Narasimhan admitted that she’s a latecomer to the sports fanaticism that characterizes Pittsburgh, her adopted hometown. Born in India and raised in Africa, she arrived in the city in 2001, and quickly became a hardcore Steelers and Penguins fan.
“On Saturdays and Sundays, you can’t get me out of the home,” she said with a laugh, flashing a picture of herself and her son posing with the Stanley Cup. The idea for YinzCam, she confessed, was born out of her own frustration with the lack of control she had over Mellon Arena’s scoreboard video clips.
“I always get nosebleed seats,” she professed to her captive audience, “and the Jumbotron guy decides what I see on the replay.”
But by using YinzCam, she explained, fans inside the arena can tap into whatever camera angle they choose using their cell phones. Instead of watching instant replays selected for the scoreboard, they can elect to follow every move of one specific player, the home or visiting team’s bench, Russian forward Evgeni Malkin’s parents sitting in the stands, or even Malkin himself chewing on his gold chain necklace during the national anthem.
“Mascots slipping and falling on the ice —this is very popular,” offered Narasimhan, evoking laughs from the crowd.
She was eager to present her work at Café Sci, as the program is informally known, because she knows those same audience members have a reputation for asking thoughtful questions and creating unpredictable dialogue.
“I’m expecting to walk away with half a dozen ideas for what I could be doing,” Narasimhan said at the start of the session.
Seated at round, cloth-draped tables, the crowd numbered about 40, mostly middle-aged, with a handful of twenty-somethings lingering around the perimeter. Before the question-and-answer session kicked into gear, Ramona Nelson of Allison Park accepted a beer fetched by her husband, Glenn, and recalled one of her favorite Café Sci topics to date: the science of lie detection.
“It’s impressive how the speakers translate science for ordinary people,” she says.
Though Café Sci has only been hosted by the Science Center since February, it’s been a Pittsburgh staple since 2004, and a labor of love for founder Tim Palucka, a science writer who holds degrees in chemistry and materials science. In the summer of 2003, Palucka read an article about a program in Great Britain that brought scientists to pubs and coffee houses to talk about their work with ordinary people in a cozy, unintimidating environment. He kept hoping the idea would get a foothold in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t. So he decided to make it happen.
“I had never organized anything in my life before—not even a surprise birthday party,” said Palucka, who first wound up getting permission to host the event at Penn Brewery on Pittsburgh’s North Side, choosing Monday nights because it was a time when the pub’s business was traditionally slow.
“Within a couple months, we overflowed our original space, and there were people standing on the stairs,” he recalls. So the group moved to the larger main floor and Palucka started renting a sound system, becoming what he calls the program’s “chief roadie.”
Angela Stabryla was one of Café Sci’s early groupies. Now an accountant at PNC Bank and a student at Duquesne University, she once worked for the medical examiner’s office in Phoenix and missed the daily contact with science. Friends recommended the event as a means of filling the void, and soon she was hooked.
“I think I’ve only missed about three,” she said at the October event. “The speakers we get are doing mind-boggling work, and I love to learn.”
In late 2008, Café Sci was dealt a near-fatal blow when the Penn Brewery announced it was closing. Palucka, Stabryla, and a few other regulars started looking for a new venue that could accommodate 60 to 80 people, offered decent food and drink at reasonable prices, and wouldn’t charge them rent. The lectures are free and the speakers uncompensated; Palucka paid for the sound system and speakers’ dinner-and-drinks tab out of his own pocket.
When Linda Ortenzo, the Science Center’s director of the Regional SciTech Initiative, reached out to them, the arrangement seemed almost too good to be true. Gone are the days of the rented sound system, which could be balky in the hands of an amateur. Today, Café Sci enjoys state-of-the-art presentation quality, with eight giant video screens, a professional audio system, technicians who can work the equipment, and science educators with even more connections to top-notch scientists and entrepreneurs willing to share their passion.
“Now we have an ideal situation,” says Palucka.
Don’t miss the last Café Sci of the year. On December 7, David Vorp of the University of Pittsburgh talks about his research on engineering blood vessels and its promise in helping those with cardiovascular disease.