Cafe Sci: When Nerds Unite

If anyone can make dirt fascinating, it's J. John Cohen. That's why a recent meeting of Colorado Cafe Scientifique, a popular free seminar that takes place ten times a year at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, was standing room only. Everyone was there to listen to Cohen, an immunologist at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, explain how our lack of muck-filled surroundings is making us sick — in a way that doesn't make the crowd fall asleep in their beers.

Cohen, who won an Excellence in Teaching award nineteen years straight for his lectures, breaks the ice with a Large Hadron Collider joke, noting that the new underground particle-accelerator behemoth may span both France and Switzerland, but that the cafeteria is beneath Switzerland, "where the food is better."

Then he launches into the Hygiene Hypothesis. He describes how our modern, urban and clean environments are weakening our immune systems so that they're attacking beneficial organisms, pollens and foods as if they were hazardous, leading to rampant allergic and autoimmune diseases.

In other words, forget the ten-second rule for picking up food on the floor: "I have a week-and-a-half rule. As long as it's still recognizable, go ahead and eat it," he says.

Cohen founded Colorado Cafe Sci six years ago, and there are now 75 Cafe Scis around the country; he borrowed the name from a similar British program. The idea is that a casual, liquor-fueled approach to cerebral topics — sort of like the European salons of yesteryear — is a perfect way to get Americans thinking.

"In the dumbing-down of society, people who want to use their brains are left out in the cold," he says. "There are many people who are smart and educated but find themselves in a day-to-day routine that doesn't value them as thinking people."

And since the Front Range boasts one of the highest concentrations of science and research labs in the country, he knew there were plenty of thinkers around.

The Tuesday-evening events regularly draw 100-plus people despite no advertising aside from a website, Cohen and his co-advisor, Helen McFarlan, are now planning another series titled Cafe Pedagogique to get science teachers talking in the same informal atmosphere. He even has a grad student writing her thesis about the academic implications of Cafe Sci's success.

In six years, brags Cohen, who was recently named one of the Rocky Mountain News's 150 unsung heroes for his work on Cafe Sci and the CU Mini Med School, his other wildly successful lecture series, he's never had a dud. Not the presentation on dark matter, or Denver DA Mitch Morrissey's chat about DNA forensics.

And on the evening he discussed dirt, Cohen wrapped up with an account of what he calls one of the "most extraordinary experiments in the last ten years": In 2002, researchers were able to drastically reduce the effects of certain debilitating stomach diseases by repeatedly feeding patients milkshakes of liquefied pig whipworm eggs.

Surely after that scrumptious tidbit, everyone was hungry for some grub.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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