Science cafes have sprouted in almost every state including a tapas restaurant near downtown Orlando where Sean Walsh, 27, a graphic designer, describes himself and his friends as some of the laymen in the crowd. "We just want to learn and whatever we take in, we take in. But we're also socialising and having a nice time," said Walsh, who a drank beer, ate Tater Tots and learned a little about asteroids and radiation at two recent events.
Others in the crowd come with scientific credentials to hear particular scientists lecture on a narrowly focused field of interest. “However, the typical participant brings at least some college-level education or at least a lively curiosity”, said Edward Haddad, executive director of the Florida Academy of Sciences, which helped start up Orlando's original cafe and organizes the events.
"You're going to engage the (National Public Radio) crowd very easily here," said Linda Walters, a marine conservation biologist from the University of Central Florida who has lectured twice at the Orlando-area science cafes. Haddad said the current national push to increase the number of US graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, or the STEM fields, is driving up the number of science cafes.
The U.S. science cafe movement has grown out of 'Cafe Scientifique' in the United Kingdom. The first Cafe Scientifique popped up in Leeds in 1998 as a regularly scheduled event where all interested parties could participate in informal forums about the latest in science and technology. Traditionally held in pubs and restaurants, the Cafe Scientifique would start as a short lecture, followed by a short break to re-fill glasses, and then proceed to an open discussion.
However, anyone with a venue, a speaker and a marketing plan can start a science cafe. On the sciencecafe.org website, an interactive map shows the location of cafes across the United States and around the globe from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Antwerp, Belgium, to the Hawaiian islands.
Some cafes have even cropped up in bookstores, theaters and high school campuses. In Viera, Florida, about 60 mostly retirees regularly pack a pizzeria to hear speakers from the well-regarded Brevard Zoo or NASA's nearby Kennedy Space Center. In Daytona Beach, scientists from the internationally known Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University draw standing-room-only crowds at a local coffee shop.