Stars swirled in and out of focus behind Stella Offner (pictured) as she lifted her arms enthusiastically and waxed romantic on one particular component of our solar system: the sun, and what makes ours so distinct.
In front of her, a room packed with close to 130 doctoral students, science geeks, and curious members of the public nursed night-sky-dark ales and Blue Moons, preparing even their taste buds for the astronomical knowledge that was about to be dropped on them.
A normal Monday night for an astronomer? Maybe. But for many there, something entirely new and exciting.
Welcome to the second iteration of Astronomy on Tap (AoT), a two-hour lecture and discussion session. Held Monday night at BAR on Crown Street, it was part science lesson, part drinking game, and all fun. Organized by Stephanie LaMassa, postdoctoral fellow in Yale’s Department of Astronomy, the Connecticut chapter of AoT (based on its eponymous NYC-born sister) seeks to bring together astro-aficionados, fans of Battlestar Galactica, and even inquisitive folks in the arts and humanities in the name of continuing education in science.
Or, in the group’s words, “because science is even better with beer.”
“We just want anyone who is interested to come on out and have fun,” said LaMassa, merrily lifting a half-full pale ale in front of the bubbling crowd.
Far from a primer in astronomy for dummies, each session of AoT takes several complex themes and baffling questions – literally, queries formed around the vastness of galaxies – and renders them accessible through a series of informal 15-minute lectures followed directly by a Q and A from the crowd. On tap Monday: Supersonic Winds and Massive Black Holes, why that one beloved star in our solar system is all by itself, and how to tell between science fact and science fiction.
In just two hours, presenters didn’t just make astronomy, often pitched as prickly and inaccessible, fun: they boiled it down to an extremely human scale.
The sun, it turns out, is rather lonely. Galaxies, like bodies, come in different shapes and sizes. And we are all one step closer to science at any given time than we think.
Nowhere was this more evident than Dr. Roy Kilgard’s brief and laughter-filled lecture, “Astronomy, Pop Culture, and the End of the World.” Between clips of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (“You don’t have to be a physicist to know bad physics,” he explained of a scene where figures hurdled effortlessly toward the earth, unimpeded by the atmosphere), Kilgard revealed the fine line between science fact and science fiction – and science fiction parading as fact, as is too often the case in the nascent 21st century. His rules for not being fooled, modeled especially for non-scientists wishing to be a bit more savvy about the world we live in: Words matter, science fact plays a part in science fiction, and audiences must know their enemy. In this case, pop culture and media personnel trying to pass SciFi off as something factually tenable.
“I’m a simple soul,” he said of his approach to science. “I like beer, I like explosions, but I’m also a geek at heart and I need science in my life.”
Also illustrative of this were Offner’s and Louise Edwards’ presentations, which used popular media references to illustrate scientific ideas. Speaking on “Our Lonely Sun: Why Does Our Solar System Have Only One Star?,” Offner answered the question: “Why is our sun lonely and how do two or three or four stars end up together” with a most unexpected visual: Diane Arbus’ jarring and uncanny Twins. Similar was Edwards’ use of a figure skater, deep in a spin, to illustrate movements of a galaxy.
The project’s success is tied to its casual tone. Those scarred by 11th grade physics should take note: there is no science shaming here. Far from it, audience members win glow sticks for their brave forays into scientific questioning and laughter sets the tone for the evening, even among the presenters.
“Ever since I knew these things existed, I’ve wanted to come because it seems like such an environment of camaraderie” said Kayleigh Boehemier (pictured), a Yale science research support librarian with a specialty in astronomy, physics and geology, citing the evening’s atmosphere as a main reason to attend.
The evening also raised relevant themes in academia. During an “Ask the Astronomer” session following the three lectures, one audience member asked: “what do you think your responsibility [as a professional in the field] is?”
Kilgard reached for the brightest star in the galaxy. “It is our absolute responsibility not just to publish in journals that our colleagues will read, but to share this knowledge…most scientists don’t feel any responsibility, because it doesn’t help with tenure, but a lot of us are pushing for altmetrics. There is a movement in the community.”