Brilliant Idea: The 10-Minute Lecture

Now that I have a nice site for Boston Skeptics, I’ll be posting there more often. When I feel it’s a subject the general Skepchick crowd might also like, I’ll be cross-posting. Those of you in Boston may want to sign up for the RSS over there (or check in over there more often), since I won’t be cross-posting everything (like local events, for instance).

Here’s the first, x-posted from here.

As mentioned, last night I (and frequent Skepchick commenter Expatria) attended Nature Network’s pub event, which featured two guest scientists delivering 10-minute talks about what they’d do with limitless research funding. The first was Antoine van Oijen, who talked about the possibilities of studying a single molecule. His apt metaphor: if aliens visited Earth and collectively reported on the characteristics of humans, they’d conclude that each has one testicle and one ovary. He dreams of having the resources to color-tag a single molecule as it moves across a strand of DNA, watching as it encounters another molecule. To a layperson like myself, it sounded pretty neat, and van Oijen was very charismatic and accessible. Hearing the technical questions that came from the audience of scientists, though, I suspect I’m missing quite a lot. Homework!

The other scientist to speak was Andreas Mershin from the Center for Biomedical Engineering at MIT. I found him to be even more accessible, mostly because of the fact that his research has such clear practical applications in the real world. He’s working on developing bioelectronic photovoltaic applications, which I believe is a fancy way of saying that he’s trying to find a way to harness solar energy using plants. This is, in a word, rad. In multiple words, it is rad as all hell. Allow me to explain further.

Andreas said that ultimately he envisions a bag of stuff – stuff that’s easy to pack, easy to ship, and not too fragile. We’d be able to send that bag of stuff to someone in a place with little access to electricity but loads of access to the sun, like, say, a village somewhere in Africa. The bag would come with a page of instructions for how to combine it with easily harvested materials, like grass clippings or leaves, to make a cell that can be laid out to collect solar energy. I’m picturing those little sacks of flour, sugar, and chocolate chips with a recipe card tied to the top that you buy at craft fairs, add an egg to, and make cupcakes out of. Only instead of cupcakes, you get energy. (Though technically cupcakes are a form of energy, they will not power your home. Yet.)

I asked Andreas if he’s considered teaming up with folks like the One Laptop Per Child organization, which provides cheap, web-ready computers to kids in developing nations. He mentioned that he has talked with them, but then the conversation sort of moved on before I really had time to get the dirt.

Altogether, it was a really fun night. Mostly everyone there was a working scientist, but at least one spoke up and suggested that this sort of event would be a great way to connect with a more general audience (at least, I think that’s what he said, I was well into my second giant beer at that point). My ears perked up, because that’s pretty much what Skeptics in the Pub is all about (and I gave that guy a handy flier about Boston SitP coming up this Monday, because I am so awesome at networking).

I love the idea of having working scientists deliver 5-10 minute talks on their work, simplified for a crowd that may not be scientists but who appreciate science and love learning. Expatria and I were earlier talking about ways to expand the role of Boston Skeptics to include more meet-ups that are less about lectures and more about discussion. I had considered just having Drinking Skeptically-type meet-ups on non-SitP Mondays, but now I’d like to try the quickie-talk idea. I’ll be talking with the Boston Nature editor, Corie, about ways we can team up to do more events like last night’s.

So, stay tuned for future fun events!

Amusing Postscript

What I really love about events like this is that I always seem to run into My Kind of People. See, I had planned to make it a quick evening, but Expatria and I happened to sit at a table with Brian and Natalie, an artist and a scientist (respectively), who work at Harvard Medical School. It was immediately obvious that we all shared a similar sense of humor, plus they had really interesting things to talk about. They told me about Brian’s current project, which involves giving very tiny worms existential crises. He mentioned that he works with the Boston Cyberarts Festival, which I remembered reading about and loving, though sadly I wasn’t able to make it to any installations last year. Throughout the night, I was struggling to remember one of the installations I read about that I really enjoyed. Something about frogs, I knew, but didn’t bother bringing it up since I couldn’t recall the exact details well enough to hold up my end of the conversation.

This morning, I decided to flex my Google-fu and check out Brian’s work. Guess what I found?


Yes, I spent many hours talking, laughing, and drinking with a person about whom I unknowingly blogged nearly two years ago. This job sure doesn’t pay well, but these bizarre moments really make it worth it.


Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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  1. This job sure doesn’t pay well, but these bizarre moments really make it worth it.

    Bizarre moments? Perhaps like a drunken ice cream run after 10:00pm on a below-freezing winter Wednesday night? Cause yeah…that’s pretty much always worth it :-D

    And I’d be happy, as well, to have additional events each month… be they more like last night’s Nature Network event, or like some of the other things Rebecca and I have discussed: smaller group discussions, “open mic” skeptics nights, or even family events like group trips to museums or the aquarium.

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