Unique experiments at Caf

A dog with a mechanical gill and a swimming pool full of goo are some of the things chemical engineering and materials science professor Ed Cussler has used in the quirky experiments he does purely for fun.

“It has no value, no great contribution; it’s just interesting – that’s why you do it,” Cussler said.

Cussler will present his unique research projects at Bryant Lake Bowl tonight as part of Café Scientifique, a program that began three years ago with an idea from University alumna and Bell Museum program coordinator Shanai Matteson.

The idea behind Café Scientifique originated in London in 1998, and Matteson helped bring that movement to the University.

where to go

Café Scientifique
What: Professor Ed Cussler
When: 7 p.m., today
Where: Bryant Lake Bowl, Uptown
For more information: www.bellmuseum.org

“We try to pick some hot-button issues, and some fun stuff,” Matteson said. “I think (Cussler) falls under the latter.”

That “fun stuff” Cussler researches earned him an Ig Nobel Prize for his experiment involving a University swimming pool filled with goo.

The Ig Nobel Prizes, which are a parody of the real Nobel Prizes, are awarded each year for research that’s offbeat. They’re given to researchers at a two-day ceremony at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event features goofy outfits and a constant stream of paper airplanes. Actual Nobel laureates present the awards.

Cussler said the Nobel laureates’ presence at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony “provides some legitimacy to the absolutely bizarre.”

“I remember seeing one (researcher) dressed as Harpo Marx,” he said.

Cussler accepted his award in a University swimming suit.

Though related to his work in fluid mechanics, Cussler’s fascination with out-of-the-ordinary science has led him to investigate seemingly simple topics, like in his award-winning goo experiment.

“You’d think someone would swim slower in a medium more dense than water,” Cussler said. “But they didn’t, and now we know. It’s that kind of fascination that gets lost in classes.”

William Phillip, a fourth-year chemical engineering graduate student who has worked with Cussler for three years, said he believes programs like Café Scientifique provide an interesting alternative to traditional classroom lectures.

“There’s a value to being curious that gets snuffed out in lectures,” Phillip said. “Kids are more interested in getting the good grade than in learning something cool.”

Making science more accessible is part of the program’s mission. Though researchers have typically held public presentations and discussions on university campuses, Matteson feels the program provides an alternative.

“Campus is very intimidating,” said Matteson. “People still have that ivory tower feel about campus. We’re trying to (hold events) at a place that’s more social, where people can sit and have a beer, or a non-alcoholic drink.”

Café Scientifique has its roots in the small London cafes where scientists and the public can intermingle and have face-to-face conversations with leading researchers who are changing the world. In keeping with that tradition, Matteson has held the events at the Kitty Cat Klub and Varsity Theater in Dinkytown and Bryant Lake Bowl in Uptown.

“We moved it from the Varsity to the Kitty Cat Klub,” she said. “When we had it at the Varsity, 150 people would show up and it didn’t feel like a discussion.”

Café Scientifique has been very well attended since its introduction to the University, Matteson said. At Bryant Lake Bowl, where speakers present to an audience in a small theater, seats are consistently packed. However, Matteson said the Kitty Cat Klub is her preferred venue.

“There’s people coming in and out who didn’t even know about it,” Matteson said. “And they might just sit down for a science discussion. That’s how we get people involved who didn’t know about it.”

The current lineup of Café Scientifique events runs through Nov. 20.