One Thursday evening near the end of July, people sitting outside a local ice cream parlor watched a neurobiology Ph.D. student wave his hand in front of his face in imitation of a robot learning to sense itself as separate from its surroundings. Despite the trains arriving at the station in the background and the microphone feedback from a rival talk at an outdoor coffee shop across the plaza, the audience was engrossed in hearing how this simple robot, mostly built of Lego and a camera, is able to explore its environment in the same way a baby does.
All across the city of Rehovot, variations on this scene were taking place simultaneously. Thirty-two pubs, restaurants and coffee shops opened their premises to as many scientists, who ranged from Institute president Prof. Daniel Zajfman (giving his ever-popular talk on the possibility of life on other planets) to graduate students who used the opportunity to share their enthusiasm for their research subjects with the public. Many of them fearlessly addressed such difficult and/or controversial subjects as genetic engineering, evolution, quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence.
Some people came out of curiosity or because it gave them a reason to go out. (Thursday evening is the start of the weekend, here.) The setting seemed to be almost as important as the message. Over beer or coffee, even a straightforward, frontal presentation becomes informal; listeners feel free to laugh, ask questions and join in discussions. No one pays their bill and leaves in the middle. Everyone is entertained; everyone feels a tiny bit smarter, afterward.
Not every scientist is a big fan of presenting serious scientific research as entertainment. Yet for many of those speaking, this was their second or third appearance at a beer and science event, and scientists from other institutes have been asking to get in on the act. (This year, Prof. Ronnie Friedman, Dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot, was a guest speaker.) At the Institute, sharing science with the public is more than just an exercise in PR - it's deeply grounded in the philosophy of the place. There is a profound belief that increasing everyone's scientific literacy is a goal in itself, that helping people become more conversant with current scientific findings can produce better citizens, and that basic knowledge can help them make more informed day-to-day choices.
Back at that ice cream parlor, a family of four had come early to grab one of the few tables and buy their scoops before the start of the talk. Yet, throughout the hour+ session, one son, around 11 of 12, barely squirmed an inch in his plastic chair, his eyes following the speaker's every move as he waved, pointed and paced. Clearly, this boy was there, parents in tow, because the subject included robots. But as the topic jumped to mathematics and back around to neurobiology, the kid's eyes were shining. When the scientist prefaced his remarks on the rewards of knowledge by saying that scientific discovery is better than sex, the exact reference may have gone over the 11-year-old's head. But he definitely got the gist. Really, should we ever pass up the chance to inspire someone - whether they are 12 or 72 - with science?