Boozy boffins: Japan’s first Pint of Science was a bilingual smash

The audience are a few drinks down and smiles are on most faces. Image by Takahisa Fukadai

The clock strikes midday in Good Heavens British Bar in the heart of Tokyo’s student area Shimo-kitazawa, and I am handed a microphone and told “it’s showtime”. At this point, I realize I have blanked out. I find myself with a mic in my clammy hand, addressing an audience, mindlessly moonwalking backwards and falling off the stage. So much for an introduction. This kind of thing really doesn’t come up in ‘soft skills’ training in graduate programs around the world: that is, how to be a confident MC commanding the stage for a science communication event. Researchers like me can feel way out of their comfort zone just doing something as simple as telling an audience the what, why, and how of their research.

I have no idea what I am saying, or what I am doing #KeepCalmAndcCarryOn. Image by Takahisa Fukadai

In the beginning there were two

Back in 2014 Praveen Paul, the co-founder of the global Pint of Science organization, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in organizing similar events in Japan, since I’d lived here for a year-and-a-half as a postdoctoral researcher in Kyoto. Praveen, along with co-founder Michael Motskin, started Pint of Science in 2013 in London and it has now spread to 11 countries and several languages. The idea is simple: During three days in mid-May every year, invite the best researchers from local universities to as many pubs in the same city as possible. Non-scientists and scientists alike then drink the night away along with other fun activities. While public engagement is far from a new idea, Pint of Science wanted to move away from the standard model of inviting the public into the university and instead takes science out on the road to more informal settings.

With the usual excuse of a lack of time, it wasn’t until 2017 that we finally got to organizing Pint of Science Japan under the direction of our manager Mao Fukadai. For the inaugural year we decided to split the talks into a Japanese day and an English day so everyone would have the chance to listen and understand. The talks covered diverse topics such as quantum computing, collective behavior, and even an anthropological view of scientists and how they do science (I know, very meta). Walid Yassin, the second speaker on the English day, gave a very interactive talk on autism, leading the audience through a short self-diagnosis on the autism spectrum. He then invited two very willing but sober audience members up onto the stage to hug it out for a full two minutes in front of everyone. Sounds embarrassing? It was, believe me. But there was a good reason for it. And in the wise words of the Irish 90s boy band, Boyzone, that reason was:

Don’t hug me for fun, girl
Let me be the one, girl
Hug me for a reason
And the let the reason be oxytocin

The latest miracle hormone, oxytocin, often nicknamed the love chemical, has been linked to pretty much every aspect of our biology, so it may not be so surprising that it could also one day be a real treatment for those with severe autism. Currently, Yassin is conducting research on this very topic at the University of Tokyo.

All you is need is oxytocin, that famous Beatles B-side. Image by Takahisa Fukadai

As both an organizer and a speaker, I am not quite sure what is more nerve-wracking: delivering a talk to experts who are just waiting to rip you apart, or giving a talk to the public, hoping you do not bore them to death. There is often the instinctive tendency to dumb down the material when doing public engagement but we found that the audience were bubbling with questions and wanted more information. It was actually a novel experience to see people excited about my research area and I hope outreach like this gives them the incentive to engage more with science, even if it is just to double-check some dubious news story like burnt toast causing cancer! (It’s always cancer.)

In any case, the feeling of enjoyment was shared by all our speakers and I was happy that they got something out of the experience as well. The first sip of cool beer after giving a talk, surely there is nothing more satisfying. As for the audience? It was heartening to see many stay behind after the event to talk amongst themselves about issues raised in the talks.Over the two days we saw people from all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities come together and hopefully this community will grow in the years to come.

We judge you robots! Image by Takahisa Fukadai

Once more unto the stage, dear scientists, once more

Looking to the future, we want to organize more frequent smaller meetups and activities to allow interaction with scientists, such as hiking with a botanist, bio-hacking with a molecular biologist or star gazing with a cosmologist! And we are also looking for budding PhD scientists who want to get experience in public engagement to give talks, in what we are preliminarily dubbing ‘Mini Pint of Science’ or ‘Half a Pint of Science’ (trademarks pending). They will be the next generation of scientists so it’s imperative they start practicing now before bad habits set in.

For Pint of Science 2018 we want to expand to more venues in Tokyo and more cities in Japan, so we also need volunteers and venues. If you are interested, please get in touch with us through Facebook, Twitter or email us pintofsciencejp@gmail.com. Of course we have fun meetings with pints!

The 2017 team: (left to right) Callum Parr, Mao Fukadai, Ryuji Misawa, Diego Tavares Vasques, Viviane Casaroli, Takahisa Fukadai. Image by Takahisa Fukadai