A Not-So-Secret Science Club

Physicist Kyle Cranmer discusses theories about the universe with attendees at a Secret Science Club event.
WEIRD SCIENCE: Physicist Kyle Cranmer explains a scientific discovery to a packed house during a Secret Science Club event. Photo Credit: Raul Hernandez

BROOKLYN – Dorian Devins and Margaret Mittelbach listened offstage at the Bell House’s main event hall in Gowanus as Kyle Cranmer spoke to a packed house. Cranmer is a member of the team that made one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 21st century: the Higgs boson particle.

Cranmer explained the multiverse theory and how the dark matter that holds the universe together was discovered. He even worked in the occasional “Star Trek” reference. The event, which Cranmer described as “a long-format version of a TED Talk with a bar,” was made possible by Devins and Mittelbach’s Secret Science Club.

The brainchild of Devins and Mittelbach, the club puts on speaking events once a month at the music and events venue the Bell House. It features chemists, biologists and astrophysicists presenting new and interesting findings, but the audience is not limited to professionals or academics. The goal of the Secret Science Club is to get the public interested and involved in the world of science.

“I think the informality of the events, the ability to interact directly with the speakers, the party atmosphere with music, and of course, themed cocktails, make it more than a lecture,” Devins said. “It’s actually a social event. I’ve been on the subway heading home after an event and heard people discussing the concepts they just heard about very seriously, and I think they were on a date.”

Devins became involved in the science field first as a radio talk show host. She was subsequently hired by the National Academy of Sciences and the New York University Courant Institute of Mathematics to record audio and video interviews with prominent scientists. Mittelbach is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at NYU and has written several books on natural history and environmental issues.

The Secret Science Club was born out of an unusual press event – a taxidermy contest – for Mittelbach’s 2005 book, “Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger,” which she co-wrote with the third founding member of the club, Michael Crewdson. One of the winners, Andy Templar, approached the trio at the judges’ table about organizing a science-themed event at a bar he was opening: the Union Hall in Brooklyn. Using their contacts in the scientific community, Devins, Mittelbach and Crewdson, who relocated to Australia with his family a few years ago, found professionals willing to present their findings. The event’s audience quickly outgrew the small space and eventually moved to the Bell House, another of Templar’s properties.

The audience that Devins and Mittelbach have cultivated through the years is a diverse group of young and old, male and female, and deeply knowledgeable as well as inexperienced, yet curious.

“It is very admirable. They make it fun,” said Cranmer after his Bell House presentation. “They have nurtured a great audience and fan base. They get good speakers, and they really seem to have their hearts in the right place.”

Mick Garbarino, a regular attendee who has been posting summaries of each month’s presentation on his personal blog since 2009, proudly claims to have missed only a single event in all the years he has been attending the club’s meetings.

“I think that Dorian and Margaret realize that they are playing a significant role in the intellectual life of the city and that they are moved to serve not only the public at large, but the scientists who are presenting the lectures,” Garbarino said.

Devins said that the future of the Secret Science Club is contingent on her and Mittelbach’s constant brainstorming.

“Margaret and I always have several ideas floating,” Devins said. “It’s part of the process and the organic growth of the Secret Science Club that we explore many ideas — webcasting, satellite events in other cities, collaborations with other organizations, other types of events, for example — but we are always exploring new ideas.”

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