“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Generally, yes… I know it’s around here somewhere…”
“How did Joey find this place?”
“I have no clue…”
On February 28 I met Connor, a fellow physics graduate student at McMaster, for dinner (which he still owes me for). As we ate I described a science outreach event that I would be attending later that night. After explaining that beer would be served, it was fairly easy to convince him to come with me. The event was being hosted at Artword Artbar, just down the street from where we were eating. Investigating their website, it seemed they were predominantly an event space, hosting poetry and jazz several nights a month.
Joey Rucska and a handful of physics graduate students had been planning this event for several months. Inspired by the very successful Astronomy on Tap event hosted by the University of Toronto, Science on Tap places short and accessible lectures by local scientists in a welcoming pub atmosphere. For the first event, the speakers included Ashley Bemis, an astrophysics graduate student, McMaster’s Radiation Sciences Program Director Dr. Fiona McNeill, and Dr. Paolo Bianchini, a post-doc in the Astronomy department. To keep things light, informal question-answer periods were sprinkled throughout the night, as well as small discussions about scientific stories that had been featured in the news recently. Additionally, a rotating set of images were displayed throughout the night and guests were challenged to guess whether the images were “micro”, “macro”, or “celestial” scale. Prizes were awarded to the top three scorers.
Connor and I arrived slightly before 7:00 pm, entering a cozy single-room dotted with round tables and chairs. A piano lurked in the corner of the room, opposite a short, dramatically-lit stage. We were immediately received by a cheerful older couple, clearly the owners of the bar, and clearly very busy preparing for the evening.
Connor (left) talking to another physics graduate student between lectures.
“Hello! Come in, come in! We have a special event tonight, are you two interested in science?” the couple asked. “You bet. I’m actually helping with the event, they have me taking pictures.” “That’s really great. Do you know how many people will come?” “I have no idea…”
The room filled steadily as we drifted closer to the official 8:00 pm start time. The space boasted a perhaps ambitious 60-person capacity and it seemed like this would become a relevant factor. As the room filled, anticipatory buzz grew out of the crowd. A several-people-deep row lined the bar as the hosts made final preparations next to the stage.
Local science enthusiasts began arriving at Artword Artbar at 7:00 pm, nearly filling the space by 8:00 pm.
At 8:00 pm, Ryan Plestid presented a short, and only slightly sarcastic look at recent science headlines. After a brief discussion with the audience, he introduced the first speaker of the evening – Ashley Bemis.
Ashley Bemis explained that good science comes out of learning from your mistakes.
Ashley led us down a winding path of scientific accidents that resulted in paradigm-shifting realizations. We learned about the first-discovered collection of Jovian moons, that the universe is expanding… and actually speeding up, and of course the many mistakes that resulted from trying to shoe-horn real astronomical observations into an Earth-centered “theory” of the Universe. The last point turned into an interesting discussion with the audience on the conflict between science and politics. In hindsight it seems ridiculous that Galileo would be put under house arrest for claiming the Earth orbits the Sun, yet you can still find examples of “controversial” science being censored today. The discussion took an introspective twist, ending with the question from the audience, “if you were Galileo, would you have the courage to go against the church?”
After a short break, Dr. Fiona McNeill, the Radiation Sciences Program Director at McMaster University, took to the stage. Dr. McNeill chose to address something that brings all Hamiltonians together – a distrust towards tap water. Specifically, Dr. McNeill addressed the fluoride that is put into tap water. Studies show that some fluoride intake is beneficial to bone health, but like most things, moderation is key. Too much fluoride has also been shown to be detrimental to bone health. So where is Hamilton’s tap water on this scale? “It’s actually pretty good!” Dr. McNeill assured us. “And it happens to be very, very clean.”
Dr. Fiona McNeill assuring the audience “Hamilton’s tap water is actually very clean.” Even still, Carmen chose beer instead.
The story changes, however, for avid tea drinkers. “I’m Scottish, and I love my cup of tea, so of course I was also worried about this” she said. Dr. McNeill’s findings show that drinking several cups of tea a day increases the uptake of fluoride in humans, and in fact can push people into the danger-zone. Her research group tested a wide variety of teas, finding small differences in brand name, but most importantly showed this effect to be greatest with black teas. However, she finished by bringing the tea-lovers in the room back from the brink. “So black tea is the worst, but there is good news – adding some form of dairy will actually neutralize the threat.”
The last speaker was Dr. Paolo Bianchini, and he was a treat.
Dr. Paolo Bianchini looking over his slides before his talk.
Paolo ascended the stage to cheers from the audience – I guess he has some fans in Hamilton. On this particular evening, Paolo showed us the entire life-cycle of a star. In short, depending on its size, a star may go “supernova” or collapse into a black hole. However, this is an extremely simplified description. Condensing millions of years into 30 minutes is not an easy task and required some ingenuity. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and emoji are the hieroglyphics of our time, then Dr. Paolo Bianchini may have found the sweet spot in conveying information.
A summary of Paolo’s talk – the life cycle of a star.
During the discussion period, Paolo addressed a common misconception about black holes. “Black holes don’t actually suck you in,” Paolo explained. “They behave like any massive body from a distance. It’s only when you get too close does it become impossible to escape.” That is to say, if the Sun were to suddenly be compressed to the size of McMaster campus, it would become a black hole, but the planets would continue orbiting the same way they always have.
After the final talk, the winners of the trivia contest were announced. Congratulations to Katie C., Annie W., and Katie P., who were among 8 people who tied for first.
The trivia winners (left to right) Katie C., Annie W., and Katie P.
The event continued for some time as guests discussed what they heard that evening with the presenters, volunteers, and other guests. As I talked to some of the attendees, a common sentiment was that this sort of event was sadly lacking in Hamilton. Case in point – trivia nights have become increasingly popular, showing there is a desire to both have a night out and be mentally engaged.
Kathleen, a health science researcher had been “looking forward to this event for weeks”. She thought that there was a real lack of mentally stimulating night-out events and is looking forward to the next one.
The response to this event was so favorable that many attendees asked if another Science on Tap is in the works. It’s likely that a follow up will be scheduled some time this summer. Follow their Facebook page and be the first to know when and where it will be. I am excited to see this event grow, and reach out to other scientific disciplines. I am grateful to Joey, Artword Artbar, and everyone else who helped organize this event. And of course, thank you to the speakers who made the night so enjoyable.
Ashley Bemis is a PhD candidate at McMaster University studying astronomy. She received a bachelor’s of science from the University of Amherst, Massachusetts, and a master’s of science from the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn Area, Germany.
Dr. Fiona McNeill is the Radiation Sciences Program Director at McMaster University. Her research focuses on advancing radiation-based measurement techniques and uses them to study trace toxic elements in humans, as well as performing behind-the-paint measurements on famous pieces of art (the latter of which was featured in a travelling exhibition. Check out The Unvarnished Truth interactive website.)
Dr. Paolo Bianchini is a post-doctoral researcher from Milan. He received his MSc from the University of Milan, and his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. His work focuses on the structure and internal dynamics of stellar systems.