Even on the wild and woolly frontiers of science, things can sometimes sound let's face it a little dull. Not to mention confusing, full of jargon and footnotes. So some of us shy away.
That's one reason why Pierre Sokolsky, dean of the College of Science at the University of Utah, has begun Science Night Live, or SNL for short. Like another famous SNL, this one is designed to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, sometimes even funny.
The idea is to bring research scientists into informal settings that include a beverage or two. In Oregon, they call a similar program, run by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Science Pub. And in England, where the idea took hold 10 years ago, it's called Cafe Scientifique.
The Science Pub Web site describes their monthly event this way: "an informal get-together where you can interact with experts and where there's no such thing as a silly question. No scientific background is required just curiosity, a sense of humor, and an appetite for food, drinks and knowledge."
The popularization of science in Salt Lake City also includes the Science at Breakfast lectures, presented by the U.'s College of Science Advisory Board, and the Utah Science Center's Science in Society public dialogue series. But Science Night Live is even more laid-back. The inaugural evening of SNL took place last week at Port O' Call, a private club in downtown Salt Lake City, featuring University of Utah biology professor Erik Jorgensen.
Jorgensen looks like your prototypical mad scientist, complete with a thatch of wild hair, but sounds more like a stand-up comedian. As the evening progressed he chatted amiably and then took the microphone to present a talk called, alternately, "Gay Worms" and "Boy Meets Hermaphrodite: Sexual Attraction in Worms."
Jorgensen, who is also scientific director of the U.'s Brain Institute, does basic research on the tiny nematode, c. elegans, in an effort to understand the biology of the brain. On the same day that he kicked off SNL his latest ground-breaking research was published in the journal Cell, this time looking at how worms poop. What he and his graduate student assistant, M. Wayne Davis, discovered, along the way, was startling: that subatomic protons in the worms' gut act like cell-communicating neurotransmitters. It's the first time researchers have found protons that act as transmitters, a fact that may have implications about the brain. Previously the only recognized neurotransmitters were molecules, which are 100 times larger than protons.
At Science Night Live, Jorgensen focused his attention on sexual attraction in worms, research that was published last fall in the journal Current Biology. The research explored the wiring of the male and female brain in an effort to tease apart how the brain produces behavior, in this case sexual attraction. Jorgensen's slide show included a picture of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg standing in the Trevi Fountain in "La Dolce Vita," a schematic of the wiring of the dashboard of a 1982 DeLorean and the question "Do worms have sex and what's it like?" (The answer, the professor explained, is "Yes, and it's strange.")
Jorgensen then proceeded to explain the details of his research and its interesting conclusion: brain wiring determines sexual preference in worms. (For more information about Jorgensen's research, visit unews.utah.edu/p/?r=101207-1 and unews.utah.edu/p/?r=112707-3.
Science education has failed in the United States, Jorgensen opined, as people mingled before his talk. Case in point, he says, is that only 22 percent of Americans polled believe that humans evolved from earlier species. "This is a failure of our culture, to some extent, but it's up to scientists to change it," he said. Scientists have to get out of their ivory towers, he said.
Science Night Live founders, including Salt Lake lawyer Pat Shea, hope that the events will draw the general public as well as scientists themselves, who often aren't familiar with the research of scientists in other disciplines.Future events are planned for Feb. 29 and April 15; tentative topics are ice and explosives. For more information about Science Night Live and the Science at Breakfast series, visit the College of Science Web site, www.science.utah.edu.