Almost a decade ago, British Council Library organized the first Indian Science Cafe at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Science cafes began with the Café Scientifique movement in United Kingdom in 1998, and they quickly grew popular in Europe. Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya, a scientist at TIFR and an ardent outreach enthusiast, was excited with the concept being introduced in India. But he worried that a science cafe held inside a scientific institute would have a rather limited public appeal.
He was right. In his subsequent visit to the Edinburgh Science Festival, he saw greater public participation at informal science events when they are conducted outside the usually imposing academic settings. This confirmed his hunch that people are more relaxed and open to attending such events at ‘neutral’ or public locations. Bhattacharya recognized the changes that needed to be made for an Indian Science Cafe to be popular.
Soon after his visit, a serendipitous meeting with eminent Indian theatre personalities Sanjana Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar set the course. They offered the famed Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai as a venue for Bhattacharya’s first science cafe experiment. However, with an intimidating public perception of the word ‘science’ and a rather youth-only reach of ‘cafes’ in urban India, he needed to come up with a more all-inclusive name. After much brainstorming, he named it ‘Chai and Why?’, and conducted his first session on 4th January 2009. Its ensuing success offers many lessons.
“We have not missed a single session in the last 8 years”, points out Bhattacharya, proof of regular commitment not just from his team but also from their growing, loyal audience. Conducted on alternate Sundays at 3 venues across Mumbai, Chai and Why? has now done over 190 sessions and has become a regular feature of the Mumbai weekend calendar. Its uniqueness lies in its informal way of covering diverse science topics, often connecting them to the Indian context. For example, when the 2G spectrum scam hit India in 2011, Bhattacharya saw the opportunity to explain the basics of wireless telecommunications to public. The talk was titled, “2G, 3G, 4G – yeh kya hai ji?”!
“A catchy title always helps! After all, you need to first get people to come in and listen to you”, valuable advice from Bhattacharya who has witnessed the popularity of such sessions. Apart from fun titles, he also looks for ways to connect science to our daily lives. Indian festivals offer many possibilities. For example, this Diwali, Chai and Why? explained the science behind fireworks. Not just through words, but through on-stage experiments and matchstick rockets! Live demonstrations, whenever possible, have become an important feature of Chai and Why? – a feature that distinguishes it from other science cafes around the world.
“We regularly get a lot of school children in our audience”, explains Bhattacharya, “and nothing connects with them better than what I call ‘wow experiments’! Especially when talking about concepts related to chemistry, a simple demonstration makes a huge impact.”
The impact is such that Chai and Why? regularly gets invited to schools in and around Mumbai. Hence, his team developed a science demonstration kit using everyday items – A Wonderful Lab called Home. This kit consists of simple hands-on experiments that demonstrate scientific concepts to school children, often the most curious and hungry consumers of knowledge. “The fact is that most of our school kids do not have the luxury of performing experiments,” rues Bhattacharya, “they are so eager to try and learn on their own.”
Over the last three years, this kit has traveled to many cities and towns in India, and often adapted to locally available materials. Enthusiastic volunteers have also helped to develop a Marathi-version of this kit for rural science camps, reaching out to 7000 – 10,000 children across the state of Maharashtra. Meanwhile, Bhattacharya also started a facebook page of his science cafe and is the online face of the program, providing latest event updates and connecting almost 7000 people per week.
Through various outreach programs – in and outside Mumbai, Bhattacharya and his team convey science to over 18,000 people every year. If the enthusiasm of one scientist can extend to so many, imagine the possibilities if science outreach were an integral part of all research institutions.