Science for the people

Image of the Alchemist Cafe Committee used with the Irish Times article.
From L to R Belinda Grehan, Zara Qadir and Judith Moffett.

The Alchemist Cafe grinds up dry theories and turns them into stimulating scientific conversation.

From the Irish Times 31 May 2006
By Rosita Boland

“The idea was to bring science into the pub,” explains Judith Moffett (25), one of three scientists currently organising Dublin’s monthly Alchemist Cafe meetings. If “science” and “the pub” are not subjects you would usually associate with each other, then you have a lot in common with a sizeable percentage of the population.

The debate centred on the issue of what the public expects of science, in particular biotechnology, and whether promises given to the public can be fulfilled.

It was for this reason that Duncan Dallas, who had previously presented science-based television programmes, set up Britain’s first Cafe Scientifique in 1998. It was in a wine bar in Leeds. There are now dozens of such cafes across Europe, North and South America, Australasia, India and parts of Africa. Britain alone now has 30 cafes, with new ones opening periodically.

The organisation’s website explains that “Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings have taken place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context . . . Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.”

At present, Ireland has two Cafe Scientifiques; one in Limerick and one in Dublin. The Dublin one has been running since July 2004, and is called the Alchemist Cafe. The opening discussion was entitled Wireless Sensor Technology; Can Big Brother Be Good For Us? and given by Dermot Diamond of Dublin City University (DCU). That one was held in the Westmoreland Bar, and the venue has moved around over time. In recent months, the cafe has settled into the Library Bar of the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street

Moffett, Zara Qadir (27) and Belinda Grehan (24) all did a master’s degree in science and communications at DCU, and are now working in various science-related jobs. They took over the running of the Dublin cafe about a year ago from other DCU graduates who had set it up.

“We sit down and come up with the topics,” Moffett explains. “We try and keep an eye on the news, to have topics that reflect what’s happening in the news. Then we approach lecturers and experts in their field.” They have speakers booked and lined up until next January. Past topics at the monthly cafes have included: Stem Cell Research; Mental Health – It’s Genes and Environment; Maths in Everyday Life; The Human Genome Project; Suicide – Where, When, Why and How; and Cosmic Rays and Space Travellers – a Safe Combination?

EVERYTHING IS VOLUNTARY

Since there is no funding. The organisers give their time for free; the speakers speak for free; and the venue gives a space midweek for free, in the hope a few drinks will be bought at the bar to help the discussions along. There is no entrance fee either, although a hat is passed round for contributions at the end of the evening.

It’s the evening of the May meeting, and the topic is the rather daunting one of: Will a Worm a Day Keep Asthma at Bay? The speaker is Dr Pádraig Fallon of Trinity’s school of biochemistry and immunology. Armchairs are being rearranged in a room off the Library Bar and the punters start arriving. There are never as many of them as the organisers would like: they are having trouble publicising the events since they don’t have any funding, although a friend, Neasan O’Neill, updates the website.

Some 20 people eventually settle down to listen to Fallon speak. The idea at all cafes is to keep the talk to about 20 minutes, and then throw the topic open to discussion. It is to Fallon’s credit that he manages to speak about such a potentially off-putting subject as the parasitic worm and disease, and make us all (including me, who took no science subjects for Leaving Cert) both interested and engaged in what he says. I learn, for instance, the rather grotesque fact that every one of us has, on average between 50 and 100 tiny worms inside us. But that’s good news, because they help keep our immune systems in order.

“We see the worm as a drug cabinet,” Fallon explains. He speaks for some time on how the presence of different parasites in our bodies can fight allergies, and how his research is focused in this area. And that Irish children rank a worrying fourth in the world when it comes to suffering from allergies.

I also learn that you can buy live tapeworms on the internet. They are bought, apparently, by overweight people who have the tapeworms in mind for a bit of internal spring-cleaning. Fallon even has some parasitic worms with him.

The three little bottles of (dead) schistosome worms, which are water-borne and carry bilharzia (an exceptionally nasty life-threatening parasitic disease), are examined and passed around just as the nibbles arrive. They’re cocktail sausages, and piled up on plates they unfortunately look rather similar to the invertebrates we’ve been talking about all evening. Funnily enough, most of them remain uneaten.

Once Fallon’s talk is over, the questions begin. “Why are animals always being wormed if it’s good for you to have worms?” This, apparently, is because animals and humans have very different immune systems. “What kind of worms do children pick up at school?” Pin worms, is the answer to that. “It’s understandable that some allergies have developed out of changing lifestyle, through eating processed food, and living in clean houses with central heating, but what about specific food allergies like peanut allergy? Where and how did that come about?” I don’t understand the answer to that question, but it’s Fallon’s only answer of the evening that I can’t follow. Something to do with molecular structure – I think.

Of the 20 or so people present, only four of them have nothing to do with science, and two of those are Moffett’s parents. The rest are either all studying the sciences or work in the field of science. It seems a real shame that there aren’t more members of the general public attending, since the whole idea of the cafe is to attract a range of people. “I think it’s essential that scientists talk to the public,” Fallon says, explaining why he was happy to come along and talk for free. “The days of scientists just talking to scientists are over. The public are interested now. And besides, a lot of research is paid for out of taxpayers’ money, and the public are entitled to find out how their money is being spent.”

The Alchemist Cafe’s next event is on June 14th at 7.45pm in the Central Hotel. The topic is Cannabis – a Therapeutic or Drug of Abuse? with Dr Veronica Campbell from Trinity College’s Institute of Neuroscience. See www.cafescientifique.org and www.alchemistcafe.cjb.net for more details.

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