Want to get your head around the thorny and seemingly impenetrable topic of quantum theory? Or discover what antimatter actually is – apart from something mentioned frequently on episodes of Star Trek?
Café Scientifique, the international movement that began in Leeds in 1998 and seeks to widen the public’s understanding of science, has the answers and is now a presence in Huddersfield.
This week saw the inauguration of a Café Scientifique in the town, with the first free lecture delivered by Huddersfield University physicist Professor Bob Cywinski, dean of the Graduate School.
Prof Cywinski, whose address, Q is for Quantum: A Beginners Guide to Quantum Physics, was heard by an audience of over 100 in a packed Bar 1:22 in the town centre, is one of the organisers of the new venture.
It is, he says: “A way to make you think a little more deeply about the sort of things you hear about on the news, see on television or read about. Cafés Scientifique are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable and understandable. They are not a shop window for science but a forum for debating scientific ideas – and audience discussion plays an important role.”
While he jokes that he drew the ‘short straw’ with the inaugural talk on the famously difficult topic of quantum mechanics, Prof Cywinski is used to explaining the inexplicable to those with a limited grasp of science or maths. As the Quantum Cowboy, a role he created for an educational movie entitled The Pocket Professor, he teaches children the basic concepts behind quantum physics.
One of the core principles of the Café Scientifique movement is that they should be run by members of the public who want to know more about science and not by scientists, so Prof Cywinski and his colleagues are looking for interested parties outside the university to take over the long-term running of the Huddersfield Cafe.
In the meantime they have put together a programme of talks on topics that range from modern forensic techniques to nautical engineering.
Public lectures were hugely popular during the Victorian era when knowledge of science and technology was growing exponentially.
Victorian audiences, who didn’t have access to television or the internet, enjoyed such lectures as a form of entertainment as well as education.
However, Prof Cywinski, who has delivered talks to Cafés Scientifique around the country, says there’s been a resurgence of interest in learning about science first hand from experts – often world-class experts. He said: “I gave a lecture at Dean Clough Mills in Halifax and there must have been 80 or 90 people packed into the café there and I was asked to talk at a jazz club in Leeds that attracted a similar number in the audience – the cafés are very well attended.
“In Huddersfield the audience was fantastic – the youngest were sixth formers that a teacher had brought but there were people of all ages and from different backgrounds.
“There were musicians, artists and students – the topic crosses a lot of boundaries and everyone asked a lot of questions, there was a lot of discussion.”
For the first few months all the speakers at the Huddersfield café will be from the university, but once it is established it is hoped to invite well-known scientists from all over the country to present their ideas and discuss recent developments. They will cover all areas of science – from physics, chemistry and biology to engineering, pharmacy, archaeology and psychology.
Of course, Huddersfield has its fair share of high-calibre experts familiar with presenting science to a wider public. They include Prof Cywinski himself and his colleague Professor Roger Barlow, who is to speak on the subject of antimatter at April’s Café Scientifique.
Prof Barlow, who is director of the International Institute for Accelerator Applications, and former ‘boss’ of celebrity physicist Brian Cox, is also an old hand at Café Scientifique talks and says his antimatter lecture is suitable for anyone who understands what an electron is.
Next up, however – on February 23 at Café 1:22 in New Street – will be Dr Stefano Vanin with Maggots, Mummies and Other Friends: Forensics and Archaeology.
Dr Vanin, a reader in forensic biology at the university, will speak on the information gleaned by scientists from the study of insects. While a biologist and entomologist, he works closely with archaeologists and forensic scientists.
He said: “Insects are the most important organisms around and I’ll be talking about how we can use them on the crime scene. For example, flies will lay eggs on a dead body and from them we can estimate a time of death. In this university we are working to develop some new techniques for this approach.”
Dr Vanin will also look at how insect remains and parasites can tell scientists much about ancient cultures, the health of populations in the past, what people died from and when.
Future talks will include topics such as Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and how the body uses iron. The university has information on its website at www.hud.ac.uk/cafesci/ and Bar 1:22 has a Facebook page with details.
Cafés Scientifiques are held in cafes, bars and restaurants where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a snack, people can find out what’s happening in science, but in a non-academic environment.
The events are always free but Huddersfield’s café organisers will be passing round a hat at the end of each evening to help pay for speakers’ travelling expenses and live musical entertainment during the break.
There are now 70 such cafés in the UK and more worldwide. Founded by Duncan Dallas in Leeds, they were modelled on the French Café Philosophique movement, created in 1992 by philosopher Marc Sautet.