UChicago scientists share knowledge, research with the public—now with a virtual beer

‘A Scientist Walks into a Bar’ keeps connection to community by moving events online

How exactly does one explain what the cosmic microwave background actually is? Kimmy Wu urges you to think of our universe as one big bowl of soup.

“You can think of just after the very earliest moments of the Big Bang, the whole universe is just like a soup of particles—so there’s not anything like stars or galaxies or anything like us around,” said Wu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Instead of planets and stars, there are tiny particles, like electrons and protons, floating around in this soup, interacting with each other.

No, Wu wasn’t giving a lecture to fellow scientists or to students studying astrophysics. Speaking in front of a Zoom background of Chilean and South Pole telescopes, she was just another UChicago researcher sharing her knowledge on the very popular—and now virtual—program titled “A Scientist Walks into a Bar,” hosted by the Hideout music venue in Chicago.

“As the universe expands and cools, it gets to the point where photons—or light—leave the soup, making the soup, or the universe, transparent,” Wu added during the August 11 event. “Cosmic microwave background is what’s left behind once the universe has cooled enough to become transparent to light.”

Wu was the fifth UChicago scientist within the last year to share her field-defining work—ranging from gastroenterology to string theory to rat empathy—at the monthly science series, which moved online in April after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person activities across the country.

Prof. Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist who has spent much of her career studying rat empathy, was the last University faculty member to experience the in-person feel of the stage with a sold-out crowd, beers in hand, hungry to learn.

Connecting her work to the public is a big priority for Mason, who—in addition to teaching her massive online open course (or MOOC, for short)—also writes a blog and tweets from the handle @neuroMOOC. She was pleased to spend nearly an hour speaking to attendees after her February appearance on the show.

“I thought it was phenomenal that so many people came out to talk about science,” she said. “It’s just people engaging with the ideas, and in fact with something academics have had a hard time with, which is that we have a connection to rats—a real fundamental truth, in my opinion. If more people feel that, and believe in that, that’s a good thing.”

Making cutting-edge science accessible 

Making the science behind astrophysics and neurobiology interesting to a lay audience might sound difficult to some, but the show—co-produced by Noah Cruickshank and Kate Golembiewski—is driven by the combination of a curious audience and researchers who know how to make their work accessible.

“We’re not pretentious when it comes to learning, and we’re not interested in becoming gatekeepers of knowledge,” said Cruickshank, AB’10, AM’11. “The whole point of this program is to make science—and more so, cutting-edge science—accessible to the public.

“That’s why it’s so great to partner with UChicago, because there is so much cutting-edge science going on there, and we get to hear from these amazing researchers who can connect their work to other people. It’s been really fun to witness.”

Golembiewski—who also heads science communications at the Field Museum—serves as the show’s comedic host, keeping the interview-style format light and active, setting up the scientists to deliver key ideas in conversational ways. Now held virtually through Zoom and hosted on the Hideout’s Facebook page, the show can feature scientists from any location. Wu, currently in California, joined University of Toronto astrophysicist Renée Hložek in the latest episode.

Like Wu, former guest and UChicago astrophysicist Tom Crawford conducts research with the South Pole Telescope collaborations. During his appearance on the show last July, he discussed his work related to capturing a groundbreaking image of a black hole.

Given the headlines that announcement created, Crawford said connecting his work to the public is key to broadening educational access to scientific research.

“We’re publicly funded … so having people understand what we do, that’s important,” he said. “It’s also part of our duty. We’re not a priesthood with a secret mystery that we talk to ourselves about. We’re trying to unlock the secrets of the universe, and we should share these with people.”

Connecting key ideas to the community

UChicago physicist Savdeep Sethi said his experience at the Hideout was unlike anything he’s done before. He said finding more opportunities to discuss his research about string theory in a similar manner is a personal goal.

“It’s super important for people in the city to know what’s going on at the University of Chicago—what the big ideas are, the connections, and why. There’s an enormous thirst for it,” said Sethi, Professor in Physics in the Enrico Fermi Institute, and Director of the Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics.

“I get queries from a lot of friends who want to know what I’m doing, but they want to know it in a big picture, fun way and then they want to ask questions. I have no doubt there is research across a lot of disciplines where people are curious about what is going on.”

For Wu, it can be easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of meetings, software coding, and bug-fixing that comes with her research. That’s one reason she participates in outreach programs like “A Scientist Walks into a Bar,” which give her a way to make a direct impact on people’s lives, by expanding their own knowledge of the universe.

“Every time I do an outreach event, I get reminded of the big picture questions I’m trying to answer and kind of re-realize how cool what I do is. What I do—being able to study the universe, the cosmos we inhabit, having the tools to do that, and test the science—it’s a really beautiful thing.”

A Scientist Walks into a Bar’ is virtually held every month the Hideout’s Facebook Channel, and is not affiliated with the University of Chicago. The event features scientists and researchers from around the city for a suggested donation of $10.