Astro and Ale: Astronomy on Tap

Jul 12, 2018

Sean McLaughlin. (Courtesy S. McLaughlin.)

by Sean McLaughlin

By day, I am a humble graduate student working with KIPAC professor Risa Wechsler, studying analysis techniques of cosmological data. By night, I’ve picked up an interesting side gig doing astronomy outreach. I strongly believe outreach is one of the most important responsibilities of being a scientist, and also one of the most challenging. As most of our research is funded by taxpayers one way or another, we are obligated to inform them what their money is being spent on and why it is worthwhile. Additionally, outreach is responsible for inspiring the next generation of young scientists to follow in our footsteps.

Astronomy is often called the “gateway science” because of its abundance of beautiful pictures and suitability for Discovery Channel specials. Astronomers, therefore, have an especially heavy burden among scientists to advocate for the science behind the special effects. However, astronomy and astrophysics can seem terribly complex; how do we get people to come out and learn about space in a substantive way? Well, if you’re with Astronomy on Tap, it involves going to the bar a little more often.

Then-KIPAC postdoc Vanessa Bailey speaking during the first AoT Bay Area. (Credit: Mandeep Gill.)
Then-KIPAC postdoc Vanessa Bailey speaking during the first AoT Bay Area. (Credit: Mandeep Gill.)

The first Astronomy on Tap (AoT) Bay Area was held at The Patio in Palo Alto, in March of 2016. I opened with a short overview of "Astronomy in the News" including the very recent discovery of gravitational waves. I was followed by lectures from KIPAC members Vanessa Bailey, Phil Marshall, and Andrea Albert, who discussed everything from exoplanets to cosmological surveys. We all strived to achieve a difficulty level I would later refer to as "Discovery Channel +1," because we agreed that if our attendees were coming out to see us they deserved to learn something they couldn’t by watching TV at home. Some of the speakers (especially Andrea) were impassioned and a little blue in the language of their talks. The comic below isn't far off concerning the typical scientist's reaction to big discoveries. (With apologies to SMBC.) We weren’t following any template or guideline, so I really had no idea if what we were doing would work. But the audience feedback was clear: they wanted more!

Lightly edited version of an SMBC comic conveying a typical scientist's viewpoint. (Credit: SMBC.)
A slide featured in the very first AoT Bay Area that is a lightly edited version of a popular SMBC comic. Both versions accurately convey scientists' feelings about big discoveries. (Credit: SMBC.)

AoT is not my creation. I merely started a satellite event in the Bay Area (if you'll pardon the pun). The very first AoT, anywhere, was held in New York City in 2012 and hosted by Meg Schwamb and Emily Rice, who at the time were postdocs at Yale and the American Museum of Natural History, respectively. It was a spinoff of a similar event Schwamb and others had hosted called Astronomy Uncorked, held at a winery instead of a bar. The goal was to bring astronomy experts and enthusiasts together over drinks for a more casual discussion.

Since then, AoT has expanded to over 20 locations on four continents. AoT satellites (like AoT Bay Area/San Francisco) are completely under the control of their founders. The AoT leadership, for lack of a better term, is supportive but hands-off; the design, structure, and promotion of each satellite operation is up to their founders. Therefore, every location is unique and has its own character.

AoT Bay Area has grown quite a bit since its inception. For one, it is no longer called AoT Bay Area, but AoT San Francisco. We moved our events from Palo Alto to San Francisco early on, and a few of the scientists we worked with decided to spin off their own event in San Jose. We rebranded to reflect our new location and to clarify the distinction between ourselves and our friends in the South Bay. We’ve moved around a bit too. We held a few events at Black Hammer Brewing in SOMA—until it became clear we were violating fire codes with our audience sizes. We’re now down the street at the DNA Lounge. I never could’ve predicted our popularity and how quickly we've grown!

We’ve made other changes as well, including the addition of trivia and official AoTSF gear, but our core model is the same. Ten events and two years later, every AoTSF event opens with me emceeing and covering "Astronomy in the News." I am then followed by three eminently more qualified speakers. Those speakers usually share their own work, but sometimes they just discuss something they’re passionate about, like the Animaniacs, or the history of humanity’s understanding of cosmology.

During the intermission and after the show, myself, the speakers, and the other space cadets answer as many questions from our audience as we can. The space cadets are my fellow students, other researchers, former speakers, and just friends I’ve met through the years. They are essential to the continued existence and growth of AoT. We’ve grown to be one of the largest regular science outreach events in the Bay Area, attracting almost 200 guests every event. And we’re not done growing; the most universal request we receive from our attendees is to host more events!

The gathered crowd of enthusiasts at the most recent AoT SF. (Credit: Sahil Bansal.)
The gathered crowd of enthusiasts at the most recent AoT SF. (Credit: Sahil Bansal.)

What is the appeal of Astronomy on Tap? Why are AoTSFO and its partner events around the world so popular? I can take no credit for any success, because the key is all in the formula. Virtually everyone loves hearing about outer space, as much or even more than they love going to bars. So how could the pairing ever fail? But beyond the obvious, I think AoT has an appeal that other outreach lacks. Rather than have speakers just go over the basics and come off as some sort of unrelatable intellectuals, AoT presents scientists as people. They drink beer, curse, make mistakes, and are passionate about what they do, like anyone else. AoT works because attendees can relate to scientists on a personal level, while at the same time exploring a topic at a level they’ve never gotten the chance to before.

Me, speaking during the most recent AoT SF at DNA Lounge. (Credit: Sahil Bansal.)
Me, speaking during the most recent AoT SF at DNA Lounge. (Credit: Sahil Bansal.)

The motto of AoT is, "Space is better with beer." Is that idea so radical? After all, Tycho Brahe was famous for his parties, and Galileo once said, "Wine is sunlight held together by water." I think AoT confirms that science and nights out are a natural pair. So I hope that wherever you are, no matter your background or age (most events are all ages!), you find yourself at an AoT event soon. If I see you there, I’ll buy you a beer!

For more information

Astronomy on Tap website

AoT SF Facebook page