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Science

Prague café aims to bring science out of the lab

A Czech group is getting scientists to explain their work in public, in an informal atmosphere. Many Czech scientists lament the lack of scientific curiosity amongst their fellow citizens.

Patrik Spanel

Patrik Spanel (left) will be speaking at a Prague café

In most parts of the world, science research happens incrementally, day-by-day, and week-by-week in laboratories hidden away from public view. On Monday, a Prague café hoped to change that perception, and began hosting a series of week-long public talks given by scientists to the public.

Each evening, Czech researchers will lead an informal chat on some of the latest developments in their field. The evenings, which have been given the English name "Science Café Week," are being organized by an NGO called Czech Head, which tries to popularize Czech science.

The effort is the latest in a string of similar public events around Europe, most notably in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which have been hosting "Science Slams" for years.

One scientist that the Czech group has called upon is Patrik Spanel, a leading physicist at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

"It's not difficult to make [science] popular," he told Deutsche Welle.

"What is difficult is to be able to communicate exactly what's possible and what's not. On one side, we could make things far too complicated, and then the public loses interest. On the other side we could make the mistake of promising too much, and then people could be disappointed in 12 months, one year's time, that the results were not actually delivered."

Spanel's research is developing ways to analyze human breath for early signs of disease.

The ion flow tube mass spectrometer that he works with – a bulky machine about the size of a fridge – is essentially a very large breathalyser, but what he's looking for is not ethanol but a chemical compound called acetone.

aftermath of the Japan earthquake

Seismology and the aftermath of the Japan earthquake last week will surely be discussed at the Prague Science Café Week

Breath analysis is already used to diagnose asthma, fructose malabsorption and helicobacter pylori infection, responsible for stomach ulcers and some forms of stomach cancer. Spanel believes it could also detect a number of other diseases in their early stages, including type two diabetes.

Misconceptions of modern scientists

On Tuesday evening, Spanel will discuss his work on breath analysis and how it could help patients in the future.

Other topics during the week will include how science can help detectives track down criminals, and an explanation of seismology and earthquakes.

The event's organizers say that they hope that talks like Spanel's will renew Czech people's interest in science, both in understanding it, appreciating it, and hopefully being inspired by it.

"Unfortunately many people still think of scientists as slightly mad old men in dirty white coats, with thick glasses and wild, unkempt hair, who never finish their sentences and forget what they're doing half the time because they're so confused," said Iva Sladka, director of the Czech Head NGO, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"This is what the Science Café Week is all about – showing people that this is a stereotype which couldn't be further from the truth," she said, adding that her organisation – formed ten years ago – runs such events to improve the image and public awareness of science and technology, especially among young people.

Fewer and fewer students are choosing scientific subjects, in favor of the humanities, she said.

Czech inventor Otto Wichterle

The Czech inventor Otto Wichterle created soft contact lenses nearly a half-century ago

Inscrutable iPods

Part of the problem is that it's becoming more difficult for people – especially children - to pry apart their favorite gadgets with a screwdriver.

"I remember as a child I used to take in pieces for instance the alarm clock, but what can you do today with some digital device when you can only change the batteries?," said Jiri Benes from the Czech Academy of Sciences, which has a special department for the popularisation of science.

That natural curiosity has produced a number of important scientific breakthroughs in the past - for instance, the Czech inventor, Otto Wichterle, who created soft contact lenses back in the 1960s. People must keep tinkering with things, Benes added, for similar breakthroughs to be made in the future.

He pointed out that completely taking apart an iPod was virtually impossible without doing lasting damage, and anyway, all you would see would be a circuit board and a battery.

"It would make no sense," he said. "You cannot understand how it works. The higher complicacy and compactness of technical devices is paradoxically limiting the area for individual adventure of discovery."

Author: Rob Cameron, Prague
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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