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From GM crops to infinity

A new grass-roots discussion forum has succeeded in getting people to enjoy science. Kevin Berry reports

Saturday night in Settle, a small market town in the Pennines. The lights are on at Poppies, a popular tea room, and the place is packed with eager folk listening to a distinguished scientist.

The scientist is Verner Wheelock, a former Nottingham university professor and an expert on food science. He is giving a talk on Healthy Eating. Last month these same people were listening to a GM crop scientist. Before that there was someone explaining infinity. "That was good," says Jo Blackmore, with a wry smile. "We had to ask him to stop because we didn't understand.

He then pitched it at a different level and things became a little clearer."

The evenings at Poppies are called Cafe Scientifique. The first Cafe Scientifique was started in Leeds in 1998 and others followed. Their purpose is to get people talking informally about science, in much the same way that groups meet to discuss books, politics or paintings. Settle's Cafe Scientifique is believed to be the first in a rural area.

Friends Alison Marshall and Gill O'Donnell hit on the idea and got funding from Craven District Council. It was their contribution to a community movement aimed at reviving Settle after the devastation of Foot and Mouth.

On Saturday nights during the year of that crisis the place resembled a ghost town in the Wild West.

"Cafe Scientifique works because it is in a non-threatening, informal environment," says Ms O'Donnell. "People talk. If it was in a church hall it wouldn't work so well."

Ms O'Donnell tells me that Settle High School and Giggleswick School, in an adjoining village, are now keen to set up their own versions of Cafe Scientifique.

The people sitting in Poppies are a mixed bunch: pensioners, families and groups of friends.

"The GM talk was very interesting," says Poppies' owner, Steve Jackson.

"The speaker didn't want anyone to know where he lived. A few people came with an agenda. But they listened to him. Most went away with an understanding, though they still didn't agree, of why these things are done, especially in the Third World. It was based on vegetable science and not on animal production. I don't think he was in agreement with what is happening to animals."

"It beats going to the WI," quips Jo Blackmore. "Seriously though, when a discussion on this subject comes up again we'll be listening with different ears."

Andrew Breslin is visiting friends in Settle for the weekend.

"I'm amazed," he says. "I go to a Cafe Scientifique in Leeds regularly.

It's in a wine bar, as most of them tend to be, and the audience is usually mostly scientists. I'm told that here they could sell the tickets two or three times over."

Mr Wheelock's talk is well received. He has 20 minutes, then he answers questions and a discussion starts. The entire evening will last close to two and a half hours. There is a lovely moment when he mentions the value of nuts and five people, probably without thinking, stretch their hands forward to grab some nuts from the nibble selection on each table. Mr Wheelock has warned against over-consumption of salt and sugar, but he is not an alarmist. He does, however, re-commend seeking out foods containing Omega 3, and he reveals that he bakes his own bread.

"At the supermarket I often look in people's trolleys," Mr Wheelock tells everyone. "It's to see if what they're buying ties in with how they look."

Are people tempted to go on courses or read up on a subject as a result? Not all of them. The talk is interesting because the speaker is always an authority. Things are explained, and the discussion always flows freely.

They will feel qualified and confident enough to join in any future discussion.

"Mild curiosity has turned into a real interest," says Irene Rawnsley, a local writer. "I take more notice of what I read in the newspapers now. I'm becoming more adept at sorting things out."

Local small-holder Alistair Cook speaks with a science background, though he does admit to being baffled by the talk on infinity. He is delighted with how the evening has developed.

"There has been discussion," he says. "Not necessarily with the speaker, but between tables. The old word for physics was natural philosophy and you heard it tonight. Everybody was taking part in a scientific discussion - and enjoying themselves."

To find a Cafe Scientifique andor discover how to start one

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