At the Argonaut, a science fair with beer and cheap tacos

April 9, 2013

Sitting on the bar in front of me: A beer, a plate of tacos, 10 cotton balls, five popsicle sticks, five waxed paper cups, a handful of paper clips, a few rubber bands and a roll of tape.

The challenge, given to me and seven other teams in the upstairs bar of the Argonaut: Using only the (non-food) materials provided, build a contraption that can hold an egg and cushion it from breaking if dropped from the Argonaut’s second-story window onto H Street below.


Jeff Cooper, Will Bondurant and Lauren Phipps rack their brains to answer science trivia questions at The Argonaut. (Photo by Craig Hudson/For The Washington Post)

We have one hour to do our best MacGyver-in-elementary-school-science-class-impersonation before actually tossing eggs out the window. As we work, creating a cotton-cushioned chamber suspended from a paper-and-wood parachute, the hosts toss out trivia questions about Darwin and recent science news, creating a competition within a competition.

Welcome to the Argonaut’s weekly Science Night, which is part school science fair, part pub quiz. In a town like Washington, filled with overachieving nerds, PhDs and science wonks, it’s something that could really catch on.

“The idea was, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to be drinking and doing old middle school science experiments, blowing stuff up?’, ” says Argonaut owner Scott Magnuson, whose first Science Night was March 12. He spun the idea off the bar’s popular trivia night because, he says, “I was just trying to figure out something no one else was doing.” He enlisted Georgetown student Colin O’Connor to host and develop the experiments.

Each week’s theme is a different scientific principle, though the exact experiment and materials are not revealed until the event begins. The first week, “Buoyancy,” called for teams to construct boats out of tin foil, straws, toothpicks and index cards, which were then laden with coins and, eventually, silverware, to see which was the sturdiest. (Humblebrag: My team won.) Last week, the theme was electricity, so teams had to construct a basic circuit.

“I’m sure we’ll get into other stuff that will be a little messier once we get going,” Magnuson says. The goal will be to have seven or eight stations set up at which teams can work.

Science Night differs from a more typical round of bar trivia in that it requires couples and small groups to join up and chat while devising a solution to the problem at hand. And, as every fifth grade science teacher knows, the possibilities are endless. “In eight or nine weeks, we could go back and do the egg drop experiment again, but give people different materials, so it would be completely different,” Magnuson says.

The team that completes the experiment most successfully -- and there are plenty of tiebreakers, including time and style points -- wins a $50 gift certificate; the top trivia kings take home a $25 gift certificate. And because it happens on Taco Tuesday, everyone else gets discounted tacos -- and gains a little knowledge in the process.

Looking for more more places to nerd out? These events are less hands-on than Science Night, but will still stimulate your brain.

Nerd Nite
Unquestionably the hippest science party in town, the long-running Nerd Nite series is based around three witty and never-dry Power Point presentations created by self-described nerds. You might hear a local graduate student discuss his or her work on how a brain reacts to scary images or local author and NPR contributor Stefan Fatsis talking about the methods of champion Scrabble players. Between talks, rock bands take the stage and drinks flow at the bar. Want to give a presentation about your favorite subject? Speak to one of the hosts. How very D.C.: Be warned that this nerd-tastic event does sell out.

Next event: On April 13, the topics at DC9 will be the most effective uses of money in politics, how the public’s lack of understanding of science leads to outcries against scientific breakthroughs and explaining why it’s so hard to predict the weather.

Marian Koshland Science Museum
The Koshland Science Museum’s displays are heavy on interactive materials, and the same goes for its after-hours events. Depending on the month, you may participate in a question-and-answer session about microbes and superbugs with researchers from the National Institutes of Health or join a team to answer science trivia questions during a quiz night. Either way, snacks and drinks (wine, beer and soda) are usually included. Be sure to buy a ticket in advance, as these popular events tend to sell out.
Next event: On April 25, May Berenbaum, the head of the department of entomology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discusses the ecology of bees, their declining populations and the Beespotter program, in which non-scientists collect and share bee data.

Cafe Scientifique
Organized by the nonprofit group Ballston Science and Technology Alliance, Cafe Scientifique began in April 2006 as a way to discuss science in everyday English instead of jargon. (Sample discussion topics: “Are You a Cyborg?” and “Neuroweapons: Winning Minds and Hearts Through Drugs, Bugs & Slugs.”) Each event begins with a happy hour at the Front Page — Tuesday is half-price burger night — followed by an hour-long talk and a question-and-answer session.
Next event: On May 7, James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, will discuss the latest discoveries by Mars rover Opportunity.

D.C. Science Cafe
Speakers in this occasional series at Busboys and Poets, run eight times a year by the D.C. Science Writers Association, cover a wide range of topics, from ecology to quantum mechanics.
Next event: On April 23, George Washington University neuroscientist Sarah Shomstein presents a talk titled “Pay Attention! A Neuroscientist Ponders What It Takes To Stay On Task.” The event runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Fritz Hahn has written about bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. A product of Prince George's County public schools, Fritz majored in journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in the District.
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Fritz Hahn · April 9, 2013