Miracle of Science (Cambridge)

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So a science writer walks into a bar. He’s by himself.

Actually, that’s not a joke, that was just my Monday night.

The bar is called Miracle of Science, close to the MIT campus in Cambridge. I’ve been drawn in by the bar’s most prominent feature: its enormous menu, in the form of a periodic table. It’s hand-drawn on a chalkboard covering an entire wall. In the top corner of the table, where hydrogen would be, sits the most fundamental element of a bar menu, Hb for hamburger, below it Cb for cheeseburger, Vb for, well, you get the idea. Yes, just like the periodic table, the menu is grouped into columns and color-codedd based on the item’s properties. Br for brownie, not bromine.

Miracle of Science opened in 1991; the menu was designed by a bartender in 2002, who’s long since moved on. His initials RR are still visible in the corner.

The Ronie Burger is the best thing on the menu, according to a bartender and the guy sitting next to me at the bar. “It comes with pepperjack cheese and jalapeños actually stuffed inside the patty,” he tells me. It lives up to expectations, spicy enough to make me break out sweating. The skillet home fries and salsa that come with it are a nice touch.

Two years after the menu went up, Popular Science named it one of the “top nerd bars” in the nation. Back then, PopSci said the tables were “surrounded by microscopes and other lab paraphernalia.” But today, the decor is modern, minimalist and trendy. Game 5 of the World Series is on TV, but it’s on mute. The ESPN logo is burned into the corner of the screen. A 90s mix is playing. It’s a young techy professional crowd drawn from nearby tech firms—girls with big hipster glasses, guys huddled over laptops and their drinks.

Despite the name, there’s not much more of a science theme. But if you want real science with your drinks, you can go next door to Middlesex Lounge, run by the same owners. Middlesex actually hosts nerdy events, including Boston’s monthly Nerd Nite and science cafes hosted by WGBH’s long running science program Nova. Together, these two bars form a decent scientific core in the Central Square scene.

Matthew Curtis and Chris Lutes, the co-owners, also own Audubon Circle, Cambridge 1, and Tory Row, all similarly decorated trendy pubs. But they’re not too interested in advertising, says a bartender who declines to tell me his name and pleads with me: “Keep it unofficial, ok?”

Explaining your research in six seconds is hard.

That’s one of my takeaways from the AAAS conference in Boston, where ScienceNow challenged scientists to explain their research within the time constraints of a Vine video. Here’s my attempt:

With hindsight, I can see that I was trying to give the best answer I could. I tried to come up with the most concise, succinct, yet still accurate summary of the concept of magnetic star–planet interaction within the time constraint of six seconds. But as I watched the others, I think I had it backwards: to me, the best ones came from researchers who gave the questions that they are trying to answer. In comparison, mine seems oddly specific, out of context, and a still-confusing explanation of an unmotivated problem.

Here are some of my favorites, which are far more compelling than mine:

I love how it lulls you into a state of confusion with the initial phrase, “We’re trying to make a square…” (Huh? A square?) Then there’s a tiny dramatic beat, and the punch line: “…that rolls across the ground with the same energy loss as a wheel.” (Whaaaa?!) This is one that immediately draws me in and makes me want to find out more.

Here’s another:

Not only does Luna clearly explain the scientific problem to be solved, he also slips in what keeps him going at it—it’s beautiful. A great answer.

And this one seems to have just the right amount of snark for Twitter:

A hook, a motivation, and humor—three things I’ll keep in mind the next time I only have six seconds to make an impression.