Dr. Paul Zehr has been hosting Café Scientifique

Café Scientifique puts research in perspective

When University of Victoria astronomy and physics professor Chris Pritchet held a talk about dark energy and cosmology

When University of Victoria astronomy and physics professor Chris Pritchet held a talk about dark energy and cosmology at a Calgary pub, he knew he had to bring the initiative back to Victoria.

“I was just blown away. The level of questions was really high, the enthusiasm of the audience was really high,” Pritchet said.

“There is a feeling among scientists that we don’t do enough to communicate what we do to the public. And when we do, we use media such as Powerpoint (that) create some distance between the speaker and the audience.”

When Pritchet began organizing the events in 2009 — independently held discussions, in a casual setting, on popular topics between scientists and the public — he found he wasn’t the first to conceive of the plan.

The Centre for Biomedical Research, led by Paul Zehr, had already hopped onto the worldwide trend in 2008 and has been hosting open discussions on medical issues at casual downtown Victoria locales ever since.

“It’s a real first-person narrative,” Zehr said. “We’re really talking to the people who are doing those things, in many cases who are world leaders in what they’re discussing.”

Last year Zehr welcomed Pritchet and the UVic Faculty of Science onto their slate of presenters. With growing demand, the two groups have split to double their public outreach.

“The Victoria community has really bought into UVic researchers coming out and working with them in an informal way,” Zehr said. “I’ve been keen to encourage more colleagues to do these kinds of events because there is a real appetite for them.”

Colin Goldblatt, professor in the Earth and ocean sciences department, discussed the evolution of the universe in layman’s terms on Jan. 10 when he presented the Physics and Chemistry of the Apocalypse: Runaway Greenhouses, Earth’s Future and Venus’ Past — a challenge he puts into perspective with a quote from famed chemist Ernest Rutherford.

“Back in the day, when you could say politically incorrect things like this, he’d say ‘if you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, your physics probably aren’t very good,’” Goldblatt said.

“If we can’t explain what we’re doing to everybody who’s intelligent and interested, but not trained, then I don’t think it necessarily helps us to learn anything. I’m a public servant and it’s my job to go tell people what I’m doing with their money.”

The Centre for Biomedical Research has held 30 talks and continues to fill the Maple Room at the Strathcona Hotel to capacity each month. Zehr hopes the success will inspire more of his colleagues to get involved, as UVic’s Centre on Aging has recently.

“I think it’s really important to have this informal exchange between the university and the communities who are hosting these universities,” Zehr said.

“It’s really nice interplay between the theory and the practical applications,” Pritchet added.

Next open discussion

• All Café Scientifique events for the Centre for Biomedical Research will be held in the Maple Room of the Strathcona Hotel, 919 Douglas St. at 6:30 p.m. Events are free, but seating is limited. Reserve at cfbr@uvic.ca or 250-472-4067.

• Up next: Dr. Alexandra Branzan Albu will lead Artificial intelligence: Friend or Foe, on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

This season features an all-female line-up of neuroscientists in honour of the department’s new neuroscience biomedical grad program.

For an updated list of all Café Scientifique events, visit events.uvic.ca.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com