Science Cafe at Tavern in Porter Square

Science Cafe at Tavern in Porter Square

  • Posted on: 9 February 2011
  • By: mholbrow

Geologists from Brown University joined customers at the Tavern on the Square Tuesday night for a science cafe on global warming. Clockwise from left:  Prof. Jessica Whiteside, grad students Alexa Tzanova, Danielle Grogan, Rocio Caballero Gill, and Elizabeth Thomas.
Happy hour conversation took a long look at the past on Tuesday evening, when Cambridge pub patrons got together with geologists for a science cafe at the Tavern in the Square, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Porter Square. A science cafe is a new kind of event—an opportunity for scientists and non-scientists to meet informally and discuss a chosen topic. Rishi Jajoo, a Harvard graduate student in biology, organized the event for Science by the Pint, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Tuesday evening’s topic was one that is on a lot of people’s minds right now:  Climate Change Past and Present. About 30 people, ranging from students to retirees, showed up to talk about it with a team of five geologists from Brown University.

Leading off the brief opening presentation was Elizabeth Thomas, a NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown. She introduced her colleagues:   graduate students Alexa Tzanova, Danielle Grogan, and Rocio Caballero Gill, plus Prof. Jessica Whiteside, a member of the Brown faculty. Together their specialities cover a time frame extending from the distant past (Mesozoic era, “Age of Reptiles,” about 250 to 65 million years ago) to relatively recent times (Cenozoic era, “Age of Mammals,” 65 million years ago to the present).

Typically a science cafe opens with a brief presentation (not a lecture), after which the leaders mingle with attendees for one-on-one or group conversations about the topic.

In her opening remarks Thomas introduced her team and commented briefly on how conditions changed on Earth over time. “The farther back you go, the warmer it gets,” she said. She noted that temperatures have cycled from warmer to cooler within that overall framework, and new plant and animal species emerged as earlier ones died out; geologists analyze the trends by studying organic and inorganic materials that are laid down during the process.

After the introduction the team fanned out to talk with the audience, which included drop-ins from among the Tavern customers as well as people who were there for the science cafe. Some of the questions that came up:
Q. Were there really crocodiles at the earth’s poles, or did their fossils just end up there because of movements in the earth’s crust?
A. Yes, crocodiles did live at the poles, long before the era during which the current ice sheets formed.
really, really small: size of early mammal skull
Q. What sort of climate change might cause our own species to die out?
A. Our species has flourished during the relatively moderate temperatures since the last Ice Age ended nearly two million years ago, but very small mammals (photo: estimated skull size) had evolved alongside dinosaurs in earlier eras when temperatures were warmer. With global warming our species might evolve rather than dying out.

Q. Is global warming just part of a normal climate cycle, as skeptics claim, or is it a result of human activity (and how would you know)?
A. All the evidence points to the conclusion that the global warming we’re seeing now is significantly increased by human activity. Fossil records and geologic indicators show that there are warming and cooling cycles related to factors like the angle of Earth’s tilt relative to the sun, and these have been quite regular and predictable, but the current pace of warming goes well beyond what can be accounted for in that way.

The science cafe had both the advantages and the disadvantages of conversation at a party or in a busy restaurant. Audience members were animated and interested both in the company and in the journey through the long vistas of geologic time. Some noted that the noise level and the crowd made it hard to hear the conversation, but overall the combination of science with food and drink got a positive reception.

Science by the Pint is part of SITN (Science In The News), a student group project sponsored by The Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, with support from the Harvard Medical School. SITN organizes several kinds of events, among them Science by the Pint, to help the public understand and evaluate science reporting.

This was the first of six Science by the Pint cafes scheduled at the Tavern in the Square from now through July. Upcoming topics:
March 8: Molecular Fossils and Evolution
April 12: Oceanography and Oil Spills
May 10: The Near Future of Green Automobiles
June 14: Viral Infection and the Cell
July 12: Engineering Life: Learning from Models


Thanks for contributing to this interesting set of ideas.
Mary H.