Under the microscope: Bar science nights

If you are a jaded graduate student or a really eager undergrad who gets high on science, then you have probably found yourself sitting in a too-long science talk, struggling to stay awake and focused while the speaker rambles on about “the juxtaposition of cellular transcriptional programs against the quiescent transverse order in Jurassic theropods.”

Unless you are one of those overachieving med-school sorts, you will agree that science seemed much simpler back in grade school. One reason for that, as highlighted by numerous studies, is that high school ends up covering a lot about very specific subtopics, whereas in university, one has to learn a little bit about everything.

This is no easy feat in today’s world. Even as I write this, existing areas of art and science are flirting with each other, having unsafe sex and actively popping out “interdisciplinary babies” every minute. It gets worse. Fake fact one: a new inter-interdisciplinary field is born in the world every 80 seconds.

That is to say, too many things to know, too little time. Scientists have a quick fix for this though: bar science.

When you think of all the Friday night plans you have had to cancel, opting to stay in and study instead, you’ll realize this is actually a rather genius idea. Go to the pub, grab a beer and have a scientist come around and explain their research to you — while you get more and more inebriated and feel comfortable asking them things like, “If I shout really loudly, will they hear me on the moon?”

Nerd Nite, with its amazingly clever and enthusiastic (often tipsy) hosts — Brandon, Michael, and Kaylee — has been rather instrumental in developing the bar science scene in Vancouver over the years.

Meeting regularly since 2014 at Fox Cabaret, they have really set the tone for getting folks inspired by the latest and greatest in local science, art and culture. Additional initiatives promoting interdisciplinary partnerships and exciting conversations around art and science have sprung up around town since then, including Cafe Scientifique, Anecdotal Evidence, Science Slam and Curiosity Collider.

On September 20, at the Fox, these five groups came together for a marathon bar science night, commemorating Science Literacy Week in the best way possible.

The event opened with a circular blip on the back projector, morphing to the beat of recorded sounds from the large hadron collider. This sound visualisation — a series of shapes responded to the recorded sounds of the large hadron collider — was hosted by Curiosity Collider throughout the event.

The creator of the piece, a student from Emily Carr, highlighted the interdisciplinarity and experimental nature of his work. He explained that the visualization of sounds is an interesting way to bring attention to phenomena that may be ignored. “I’m not a physicist, but if you are, I’d love to talk to you afterwards to see if what I’m saying makes any sense,” he said.

Next, scientists from Anecdotal Evidence each took turns sharing stories from their field work.

One researcher relayed her four year work on amphibian conservation in Haida Gwaii. Rather than highlight her own contributions to science, she spotlighted the community of locals who supported her work and encouraged her to break up with her long-term boyfriend. “He is in YVR right now,” said the speaker of her boyfriend, “about to get on a plane to go home.”

Two biologists shared a hair-raising and humorous story of getting lost, being sucked into deep mud and seeing a bear, all with the aim of finding their field site. “Scalebars and north arrows are very important,” they concluded.

Three graduate students from Science Slam then hopped on stage. Each of them explained scientific concepts — such as how molecules are transported across membranes in cells — in under two minutes. They proved that even the most jargon-y of topics can be communicated simply without undermining accuracy.

The event wrapped up with a celebration of Cassini, a spacecraft that accomplished its mission of visiting Saturn on September 15.

The night was a fitting tribute to some of the most important aspects of science: personal experiences, cool discoveries and engaging communication of these discoveries. As I looked around the audience, sipping on my beer and laughing, I hoped that those in attendance were not just experienced scientists like me. But I couldn’t pinpoint who was who in the crowd. I hoped there were some non-nerdy folks amongst us and wanted them to feel welcome at bar science nights.

I will leave you with fake fact three: an article should list at least three facts for it to be taken seriously.

Jasleen Grewal is a PhD student in UBC’s bioinformatics program. She interested in machine learning and its applications for genomic analysis, especially in human cancers.