Building a night culture around scientific knowledge

What is gravity? What is spacetime and why does it get curved? These are some of the questions discussed at Science and Cocktails. Flickr

Scientific research is one of the most creative undertakings of human society, and one that never fails to capture the public’s imagination. Despite this, compared to other creative fields such as art and music, science plays a relatively minor role in the cultural landscape.

Going to hear about the latest scientific discoveries does not appear to be high on the list of priorities when people consider their entertainment options. Is it because science is difficult to understand, and the task of explaining it is best left to popular science publications, documentaries and the occasional university open day? Or can one imagine a world where going to a science talk is as natural as watching a movie?

We believe that such a world is possible. But to achieve it one needs to take science out of its usual academic context. It needs the creation of a new kind of platform for researchers and the public to engage directly with each other.

This is the motivation behind the initiative called Science & Cocktails, which recently had its debut in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Science & Cocktails was started in 2010 in Copenhagen, Denmark, to bring science out of academia and make it an integral part of the cultural and entertainment life of the city. It is a series of science-centred events held at Byens Lys, a cinema in the vibrant Christiania area of Copenhagen. Christiania is an autonomous community based on principles of acceptance, non-discrimination and equality.

The first Science and Cocktails talk in Johannesburg.

An integrated cultural event

The main scientific part of each event consists of a 45-minute science talk by a prominent scientist (local or from abroad) on a topic of current interest. However, it is framed within the context of an integrated cultural event, including art installations, specially crafted dry-ice cocktails, distinctive introductory videos and musical performances.

In this way Science & Cocktails is much more than presenting a science talk in a non-academic venue. It deconstructs most of the conservative academic format and creates a pleasant and stimulating atmosphere which resonates with the public at several levels. The end result is a unique experience which attracts a broad spectrum of participants and primes the audience to better appreciate the scientific part of the event.

In Copenhagen, Science & Cocktails has become a runaway success, with an average attendance of around 600 per event in the past few seasons. To our knowledge, this makes it into one of the most successful science outreach initiatives globally. It was awarded the 2014 Genius Prize for science communication by the Danish association of science journalists.

A distinctive feature is that Science & Cocktails Copenhagen does not receive direct financial support from public nor private sources. It relies on an extensive network of volunteers (scientists, bar staff, artists, and more) and its income comes purely from the sale of cocktails.

This funding scheme – perhaps slightly unusual for a science outreach initiative – has proven very successful. The income generated has allowed us to invite prestigious speakers from overseas. It has also enabled us to pay the initial costs of establishing Science & Cocktails in new locations – Johannesburg being the first such attempt.

Science & Cocktails comes to Johannesburg

The opportunity to bring Science & Cocktails to Johannesburg arose when one of the Copenhagen organisers moved to the University of Pretoria in 2013 and teamed up with a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The first season of the Johannesburg edition of Science & Cocktails started in July 2015 at the Orbit Jazz club in Braamfontein. It has already featured talks on string theory and AIDS vaccines, with upcoming topics ranging from entomology to human origins and laser physics. The events take place once a month, with scientific lectures followed by jazz performances by some of South Africa’s most talented musicians. A range of dry-ice cocktails are served at the bar.

The mission of Science & Cocktails is to make scientific research accessible to all members of the public, regardless of income or social status. The choice of the Orbit Jazz club in the inner-city Braamfontein area, close to transport hubs, student residences and within easy reach from lower-income population areas, is certainly compatible with this goal.

With support from the National Institute for Theoretical Physics as well as the non-profit Science & Cocktails Foundation in Denmark, it has been possible to require only a nominal entry fee (which can be waived upon request). The idea is to make events fully free in the future.

Apart from creating a platform where South African researchers can share their passion for science directly with the public, we also aim to showcase the best of South African science and to raise its visibility globally. We achieve this by recording the talks and making them available on our website.

Conversely, we also hope to expose the South African public to the best of international science by bringing high-profile researchers from abroad to Johannesburg.

Enhancing the public’s access to science

The overwhelmingly positive response that we have experienced since the start of the initiative demonstrates the strong interest in science that exists among the general public. We consider this to be a very encouraging sign that the project can be successfully brought to more locations around the world.

Science is an endeavour that touches upon every person’s curiosity about the world. It is the duty of scientists to share their discoveries, whether immediately applicable or seemingly far removed from everyday life.

A better general understanding of science and of the scientific method benefits society in many important ways. We believe that science also has much to gain from forging stronger interactions with other creative domains of human culture. At Science & Cocktails we aim to provide a catalyst for these interactions to happen, one cocktail at a time.