Booze, books and biochemistry

 It’s 6:30 on a Monday night, and I’m crammed into the lobby of the Bagdad Theater, standing in a line of people that snakes out the door and down the sidewalk.

It’s 6:30 on a Monday night, and I’m crammed into the lobby of the Bagdad Theater, standing in a line of people that snakes out the door and down the sidewalk. We’re waiting patiently to get into OMSI’s Science Pub, and even though organizer Amanda Thomas and OMSI’s website warned me to get there early, I’m still surprised at the turnout.

“We’re too popular for our own good,” said Thomas.

OMSI started doing Science Pubs in 2006, after Thomas read an article about science cafes in The New York Times.

“I thought they were a great idea, and Portland seemed a natural fit,” she said.

Science Pubs are not a new phenomenon. Denver’s Café Scientifique claims theirs is the oldest in North America, dating back to 2003. suggests that many American cafés draw inspiration from the original cafés scientifiques around the UK, which date back to Leeds in 1998.

One might even be tempted to trace these cafés back to the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries—social gatherings focused on inspiring philosophical conversation—albeit much less exclusive. describes the modern science café’s “casual meeting place, plain language, and inclusive conversation” as the factors that create a welcoming atmosphere and draw people who don’t necessarily have backgrounds in science.

“The average age is about 42 years old and typically there are more women (60 percent) than men (40 percent),” says Thomas. “While many people in the audience are interested in science, you definitely do NOT have to be a scientist to understand.”

The basic equation: science + beer = science fans.

Portland hosts two Science Pubs, one at the Bagdad typically on the first Monday of every month, and another at the Mission Theater closer to the middle of the month. There are also four more regular Pubs in the surrounding area: Corvallis, Eugene, Hillsboro and Salem. McMenamins kindly donates its local venues, and the $3 suggested cover charge goes right back into OMSI.

The Science Pub I attended at the Bagdad featured author and game designer Jane McGonigal, who discusssed her book “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” As the theater fills up (science pub attendance often allows for standing-room only) witty science trivia questions flash on the silver screen, warming the audience up for the pub’s actual trivia, which Thomas hosts as part of the event’s introduction. The trivia part of the pub engages both your brain and your social skills, as you are encouraged to swap answer sheets and grade your neighbor’s expertise. Top scorers receive prizes like pub glasses and free passes to the museum and its events.

The heart of the pub is an interactive lecture and slideshow that operates much like a TED talk. McGonigal’s lecture was engaging and enlightening, and despite the fact that I am not a scientist—or a gamer—I remained engrossed for its entirety. With a Ph.D. and years of experience in game development and design, she knows her stuff, but she didn’t bog down her talk with theory. She addressed the science and research in an accessible way, and related it back to the social concerns at the heart of her project.

When seeking out potential speakers, Thomas is conscious of finding people who are a good fit for the casual Pub atmosphere.

“I usually tell them they can have a microphone in one hand and a beer in the other,” she says.

McGonigal’s Pub was co-sponsored by Powell’s Books as part of her book tour, but most of the speakers are local professionals who volunteer their time and knowledge.

Overall, the event was educational, inspiring and entertaining. It was refreshing to see such a large crowd come out for an industrious cause. Of course, there was also pizza and beer, which didn’t discourage anyone, but we all left the Bagdad a little brighter. ?