Going on a date has certain conventions, but Dorian Devins and Margaret Mittelbach, the minds behind the Secret Science Club, aim to widen those boundaries with their monthly science talk/cocktail social in New York City. Now they’re bringing the Secret Science Club to Mass MoCA to drop some science.
“Dorian is renowned in New York for her parties, in the past at any rate, and part of the concept initially was to create a party atmosphere,” said Mittelbach, a writer.
This party atmosphere included live music or special playlists, as well as theme drinks and the opportunity to socialize, but all built around a science lecture — a party with knowledge that was inspired by personal experience and the desire for something fun built around a topic they love.
“I used to go to a lot of science talks when I did the show, and a lot of them were so dry and quite often I’d be the only non-scientist there and sometimes the only female,” said Devins. “There was a kind of pervasive snobbery at these things. And they were pretty dry, a lot of them, and it didn’t seem like there were a lot of accessible talks. “
Devins met when Mittelbach was a guest on Devins’ radio show at WFMU. It was a science and arts talk show, and out of the interview grew an idea for a taxidermy contest, which took place at Union Hall in New York City. Devins appeared at that as a judge and the owners of the club where it took place were so thrilled by the turnout that the three were offered a regular event. Devins met plenty of scientists through her radio show and other science-related interview work, and was able to filter in some of the most interesting and energetic to take part in Secret Science Club — they’ve even featured Neil Degrasse Tyson.
“Union Hall would have the CMJ Music Festival there and we’d be downstairs and packed, and they’d barely have people for some of the bands,” said Devins. “They were like, what the hell? A science talk?”
The club eventually moved to a bigger venue — the club currently calls the Bell House in Brooklyn its home — and has sustained its audience, still growing and also having special events in other locations. like the one at Mass MoCA. It also grew as a popular place for dating couples, as well as those looking for love — the website Refinery 29 recently named Secret Science Club one of the best “15 Spots to Meet Your Nerdy Soulmate In NYC.”
“It’s really funny, I’ll be on the subway and hear this couple discuss the Secret Science Club that just happened, and they were obviously on a date,” said Devins.
Who knew science had such a power in regard to the heart? Well, maybe the Secret Science Club did, since they viewed science as just one more way that people can bond and get to know one another.
“We’re proposing that science is part of the culture and science can be a cultural event, just like going to the movies or seeing a band or seeing comedy,” Mittelbach said. “Most people are interested in science, but in the same way that most people who go to a movie are interested in film, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do both things at the same time, social and science.
And while the talks contain technical information, there is plenty also about the process of science that it gives participants multiple levels to latch onto and talk about with each other, a shared encounter of someone else’s narrative.
“Some of these studies might sound really boring, like the DNA of leeches, but that might involve going to Madagascar and collecting a new species of leeches to bring home to study, so they have this experience of being explorers as well as working in a lab,” said Mittelbach.
And like viewing certain art or performance on a date, science can also add some excitement to the intellectual dance of a date by offering a shared challenge.
“Several people have said to me that their favorite ones are the ones where it’s just a little tiny bit above their head,” Devins said. “They understand most of it, but there’s a little bit that they don’t quite get one hundred percent. It’s challenging. The audience doesn’t seem to want things just totally easy, they want to be challenged to think, and I think that’s the appeal. That’s what engages the audience. It’s not just a bunch of stuff thrown at them. They are actually in the process of thinking and realizing what’s going on there, what they’re hearing.”
Mittelbach and Devins also believe that knowledge is empowerment — especially knowledge directly from the source. In building relationships through this philosophy, Secret Science Club is creating an empowered community that treats romance as part of bettering oneself, as well as fun.
“It’s good for people to have direct access to information from the scientists who are actually doing the work, rather than having it filtered through the media, which can be good or bad,” said Devins. “Learning doesn’t have to be drudgery. It can fun.