by Rabab Charafeddine
Before attending my first Secret Science Club lecture, which took place at a bar in Brooklyn, I imagined the room to be full of scientists and experts in the night’s topic, fueled by alcohol, excitedly dissecting the direction of the field. I was pleasantly proven wrong.
As we walked towards the Bell House on a frigid Tuesday evening, half an hour before the talk, we saw that the line of people waiting to get in already stretched down the sidewalk. When we finally entered what resembled a concert hall, a far cry from the small room I was expecting, there were no longer any free seats available and the place was filled with at least a few hundred people. They were all there to sip on Cosmological Constant, the cocktail of the evening and, of course, to watch esteemed astrophysicist Dr. Jeremiah Ostriker talk about how invisible dark energy and dark matter control the architecture of the universe.
When the talk started, the hall went dark and the remaining source of light came from the spotlight aimed towards Dr. Ostriker. It looked like he was about to give a performance rather than a talk. Although he presented to a lay audience he was able to balance data and scientific accuracy with entertaining facts and funny comments. It reminded me of a smaller scale TED talk. When the time came for questions, people fired away. It was obvious that the audience was comprised of non-scientists, mostly average working people with 9 to 5 jobs, who were simply interested in science and how stuff works. This fact nicely validated the mission of the club: to bring science out of the lab to the people. Indeed, making science accessible to everyone may be exactly what we need to help us in this dire funding situation. People seem to be delighted to know where their tax money is going and want to be involved. This is a whole separate issue to be saved for next time.
The club was co-founded six years ago by Dorian Devins, a jazz musician, Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, both writers. The lectures are a monthly event and topics range from astrophysics to neuroscience. And with names like Super Organism and Gama Ray, they are also very proud of their themed cocktails.
I attended two of their events and highly encourage others to do the same. You will get to learn about things like dark matter and dark energy, which were discussed by Dr. Ostricker. His insights were so eye opening to the wonders of the universe. Although we still don’t know what constitutes this dark duo, their control over the structure and expansion of the universe is easily measured and uncontested in the field. His large audience slowly shrank as he began to explain the calculations that prove that our universe is indeed expanding, another testament to the fact that science needs to be interesting in order to capture the attention of a lay audience.
The audience was mesmerized by the intangibility of something so essential for preventing everything around us from collapsing. On the surface, the talk prompted questions from people trying to relate to this dark duo but deep down everyone, big and small, was thinking about how tiny they are in this big complex universe.
A second, more relatable and even more captivating talk by microbiologist Dr. Martin Blaser, was about embracing our microbiome, the microorganisms that make our bodies two pounds heavier. Fear not, Blaser assured, these microorganisms, living mainly in our digestive tract and mucosal tissues as well as on our skin, create a balanced ecosystem that enables us to fight diseases. They not only help us digest the burrito we wish we didn’t eat for lunch, but prevent harmful bacteria from infesting and infecting our bodies.
For example, he talked about how the recent disappearance of a prevalent bacterium Heliobacter pylori from the digestive tract of people living in developed countries perturbed this balance. Even though stomach cancer and ulcers, conditions known to be caused by H. pylori, are at all time low in this population, there is a rise of other diseases correlating with its disappearance. These diseases include modern world problems, such as childhood onset asthma and obesity, as well as esophageal cancer. Dr. Blaser attributed this disturbance of our microbiome to the overuse of antiseptics and antibiotics in today’s society especially in children whose microbiomes have not yet matured.
The audience asked a plethora of questions illustrating their engagement and grasp of the concept, but also their fear. Summarizing this fear, one member asked: “Would you give your kids antibiotics if they got an infection?” Dr. Blaser stressed that he is not against the use of antibiotics but their overuse. Children should not be getting a dose every few months for a tiny drop of a cough. Not only is this time period too short for the microbiome to recover, but can lead to bacterial antibiotic resistance. Think about that the next time you grab your sanitizer and give your balanced microbiome a break.
Aside from the talks being very informative, I learned a few things about talking to a lay audience about my work- I had a lot of fun talking to people who did not give me the “you must be smart” comment when I told them I was a graduate student. So today, I leave lab early to learn why our brains forget and bask in the science love.