Prague’s Café Braun will host an unusual event this week; each evening members of the public will be invited to sit down over coffee or a glass of wine with a leading scientist, to discuss some of the exciting developments in their field. The event’s called ‘a Week of Science Cafés’, and it’s part of a broader campaign by the NGO Czech Head to try and popularise science.
Professor Patrik Španěl from the J. Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry, demonstrating something called a ‘selected ion flow tube mass spectrometer’. This bulky, fridge-sized machine is in a sense just a very big breathalyser. What Professor Španěl is measuring, however, is not alcohol, but acetone – a chemical compound present in tiny concentrations in human breath.
Detecting the presence of acetone in breath already serves as a useful early warning system for asthma, stomach ulcers and other health conditions. Professor Španěl believes with the right research, it could detect many more.
“It’s got enormous potential. However the research is not that easy, because we are talking about gases or vapours which are present at extremely low concentrations. Just to put it into perspective: in everybody’s breath there is some acetone, and typically there is one molecule of acetone for one million molecules of exhaled air.”
This is when the science begins to get a bit complicated, although Professor Španěl does a sterling job of keeping it lucid and interesting. And that, he says, is the biggest challenge facing scientists when they speak to the public about what they’re doing all day in the lab.
“It’s not difficult to make it popular, but 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.”
Professor Španěl and four fellow scientists will be all too aware of that when they sit down at the Café Braun this week, for a series of discussions on topics ranging from the destructive power of earthquakes to how science can help solve crime.
The idea is the brainchild of an NGO called Česká Hlava or Czech Head, whose mission is to popularise Czech science. I asked director Iva Sladká whether it was hard to make science sexy.
“It’s terribly hard! It’s hard because 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. This is what the Week of Science Cafes is all about – showing people that this is a stereotype which couldn’t be further from the truth!”
There’s even a special department at the Czech Academy of Sciences devoted to the popularisation of science. The Academy's Jiří Beneš explained to me an interesting paradox facing those who try and get young people interested in science and technology: we’re increasingly surrounded by breathtakingly powerful technology, but we know less and less about how it works.
“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?”
Young people today are not taking apart their iPods or mp3 players and so on.
“It’s not possible. It would have no sense. You cannot understand how it works. The higher complicacy and compactness of technical devices is paradoxically limiting the area for individual adventure of discovery.”
The Week of Science Cafés is just one of numerous projects run by Czech Head to popularise science. They want to remind Czechs, especially young people, of the many glorious achievements of Czech scientists and engineers gone by, as well as the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of future generations by choosing a career in science and technology.