On Thursday night, the National Academy of Sciences' LabX initiative is launching its “Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar” program, which will bring pairs of scientists into five D.C. bars for two hours at a time. They'll be at a table with a sign that says, “We are scientists. Ask us anything,” and they mean it.
Nell Champlin Nelson, a senior program assistant with the NAS, says the idea originated three years ago at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, and it's been such a success there that they're hoping it can translate to the D.C. region. Sometimes, Nelson says, people who are curious about science just aren't drawn to events at museums. “Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar” is less intimidating because it's not an academic setting: “Because it's in a bar, you can get a drink, hang out and ask a question.”
A group of scientists, including physicists and post-doctorate students working on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health, volunteered for a test run at the Columbia Heights Day festival in June, and Nelson says they were surprised by the range of queries: Some people asked complicated questions about physics and gene splicing, but “most questions were pretty basic,” Nelson says, along the lines of “Why is the sky blue?” “Why are there volcanoes?” “How do airplanes stay in the air?”
On Thursday, the team of 10 volunteer scientists — which includes employees from the NAS, NIH, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and local colleges — will pair up based on their favorite subjects. In the 3 Stars Brewery taproom, for example, the fields include cancer research, physics and earth science. Neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists will take up residence at the Cotton and Reed distillery, and experts on inorganic chemistry and infectious disease will be at the Royal. (A full list of times and locations is on the LabX website.)
Nelson hopes the casual nature of the event — no need to register or buy tickets — will foster conversations between scientists and regular bargoers, even those who don't know the event is happening. If all goes well, Nelson says, they'd like to hold similar events every few months. When they sent out the announcement about the program, Nelson says, “the inbox filled up immediately” with fellow scientists who wanted to get involved.
Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar isn't the only program in Washington that seeks to educate and entertain over drinks. Here are a few ongoing events where you can learn while you imbibe. They work equally well for dates as for anyone who wants to get smarter.
Nerd Nite: The grandfather of these kinds of events in the District, Nerd Nite launched at Shaw's DC9 in December 2009. One Saturday a month, volunteers get up in front of a whiskey and beer-swilling crowd to share PowerPoint presentations about their passions. But these aren't just people who dabble in obscure topics: Some memorable talks featured doctoral candidates from NIH sharing their research on the physical effects of sleep debt; scientists discussing the sex lives of insects; and experts from the National Museum of Natural History talking about pathogens with the potential to wipe out humanity.
This month's special edition of Nerd Nite takes place Saturday at the National Zoo, with three speakers discussing animal-related topics, including “The Amazing Fecal Powers of the Most Dangerous Bird in the World.” 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sold out.
Nat Geo Nights: The National Geographic Museum's monthly gatherings are the biggest and splashiest of all the knowledge-based happy hours in the Washington area. Held on the third Thursday of the month, they're centered around TED-style “lightning talks” with scientists from the National Geographic Explorers program. You might hear presentations about preventing trafficking in rare birds and illegal logging in the Amazon, or learn about the latest advances in Egyptian archaeology, illustrated with stunning video and graphics. Beyond the main event, Nat Geo Nights include trivia, interactive games and DJs, with food and drinks available from a cash bar.
The next Nat Geo Nights, on Oct. 18, is titled “Into the Underworld” and features underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda, an expert in Mayan burials deep in Yucatan caves, and biologists Ingi Agnarsson and Daniela Cafaggi, who are experts on cave-dwelling spiders and bats, respectively. 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. $20.
Profs and Pints: If you're interested in a scholarly discussion about a particular topic over a couple of beers, Profs and Pints is the way to go. It helps that the weekly talks at the Bier Baron Tavern are led by actual college professors, bringing a bit of the classroom into the barroom. The topics vary from light to serious: Upcoming talks include Mikki Brock of Washington and Lee University on “Witches and Witch Trials” (Wednesday); Richard C. Sha of American University discussing “The Science of Frankenstein” (Oct. 15); and, just in time for Election Day, Joshua A. Geltzer of Georgetown's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection exploring “Digital-Age Democracy” (Nov. 5). Admission to each 90-minute talk is $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Most begin at 6 p.m., but times can vary.
Astronomy on Tap: This national program launched in New York City in 2014, and is now held in more than a dozen “satellite locations,” including DC9. Much like Nerd Nite, it features presentations led by volunteers, but focused on cosmic topics, such as the Cassini mission to Saturn or the wonders of astronaut ice cream. There's a special treat after most gatherings: telescope viewings on the rooftop bar, courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum. The next event hasn't been announced; follow Astronomy on Tap Baltimore/D.C. on Facebook for updates.