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PHOTO: Chris Shields

Drinkers and Thinkers

Albany hotspot mixes two parts alcohol with one part heady conversation to create the Science Lounge

By Chet Hardin

The peartini, I must admit, is excellent. Light chipped ice floats on the slightly sweet pink, which doesn’t burn but warms, and for some reason, I don’t even mind the flower blossom garnish clinging to the rim. It is a warm fall day, and with the rain halted and the wind pouring in, Noche Lounge is ridiculously pleasant. It almost makes me forget how poor this bar always makes me feel. I prop up my feet and watch as the people filter in for the new Science Lounge.

I was told that science-themed drinks have been specially prepared for the occasion. A drink for the boys and a drink for the girls. I wonder if the peartini is the girls’ drink. Probable mix-up; it couldn’t possibly be the boys’. Was there some mistake? Perhaps I was told it was their signature drink? I forget.

Another sip.

A small crowd is gathering awkwardly around the bar. Lili Kelly, the organizer of tonight’s event, works through the throng. A reporter from one of the local daily newspapers affects that uncomfortable sidling posture of the deadline-weary. He comes up to me: “What the hell exactly is a science cafe?” Don’t ask me, buddy, I got a peartini to consider. Ask her, I say, pointing to the girl sitting by herself at the bar. She works at the state museum, obviously young, seems intelligent. Talk to her. Or this guy. I know he’s 25 and totally jacked in. Works on the Internet. Get a good quote from him. Look credible. Or from her, the one in the suit. I’ve been watching her network like a pro for the past 15 minutes. She’ll tell you how much she loves science and stuff.

Another sip.

I guess I could feel guilty about drinking while “on duty,” but being a journamalist, I do have something of a reputation to uphold. Besides, science cafés, such as the one Kelly has organized for tonight, are basically pitched as science for the layman, plus drinks. For over a decade people have been getting together in this format to grill experts on fields of interest. In a bar. With drinks.

Sip.

Kelly’s energy for informal science education, as she puts it, is spectacular. Wanting a way to escape from the day-to-day of her employ (she works in the Senate), she sees this event as something of a homecoming for her. She used to work at a science museum, in the community outreach office.

“I saw an article in The New York Times last fall,” says Kelly. Since then, she has been vetting the idea through her circle of friends, one of whom is a co-owner of Noche. “It ties to the whole idea of Tech Valley, dealing with the issues of the day. I wanted to get all the players from Albany, RPI, and instead of focusing on an event, try to create a community.”

To create that community, she says, she has planned a four-part series focusing on the main educational institutions in the region. Tonight’s speaker is Dr. Nag Patibandla, director for the Center for Future Energy Systems, and a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The big question posed to him will be: “Can Albany become energy independent?”

The ice has melted, and my martini glass is beaded with condensation. The vodka has gone to my head, and I am questioning whether that question is a good one, and whether this professor-led conversation has been thought out well enough. It seems too vague. What does she mean by energy? Heating houses, propelling cars, powering toasters? Who is Albany supposed to be independent of? What does independent even mean? Where does this imaginary line of independence delineate and does it even make sense to draw such an imaginary line? What about those new batteries they have in Japan that recharge in urine?

Getting our attention, Kelly introduces Dr. Patibandla and outlines her vision for the event. A 15-minute lecture, followed by questions, and then more drinking. We settle in, and almost immediately, I am bored.

Ten minutes into the professor’s lecture, I am thumbing mindlessly through the stack of business cards that have been thrust tonight at me, nursing my peartini at the bar. As Patibandla spins off into a tangent I am having trouble caring about—I was right, the issue is just too broad—I see that the clever bartender has switched the television from football to Nova. Makes me wish I could hear the TV.

I think back to some of the more fascinating conversations I’ve had in my adult life. Alcohol has almost always been involved, so the science café model is on to something. But I doubt Kelly’s goal to create a community of eager science neophytes and experts around Noche Lounge will pan out. It is just the wrong environment to attract the geek grassroots needed to fuel this sort of thing. To be fair, she has drawn a respectable crowd of respectable looking 40- and 50-somethings for her first night out, but I suspect this crowd is here more for the networking than for the science.

Which is too bad. This is something I want in the Capital Region. Ideally, for me, there will be more people like Kelly out there, passionate and engaging, who will organize other similar events, but at the bars that attract a younger, nerdier crowd. With our obvious wealth of intelligentsia and bars, it seems like the region could support all sorts of efforts. It is something I want to happen. Cause I like to drink, and am a big fan of science, too.

chardin@metroland.net


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