Nights of science in Gowanus

Margaret Mittelbach will gladly call herself a nerd, but refrain from calling her a geek. She stood in the corner of a large performance hall with her arms folded, leaning against the wall with a smile etched on her face, and watched as a boisterous crowd drank in game theory and evolutionary biology as if they were all gathered there to see a favorite stand-up comic. Mittelbach brought on local artist Jen Rondeau to play the haunting, operatic notes of a theremin, an early electronic instrument that appears to magically produce notes without it being touched, as if Rondeau were playing it with an invisible string. But after the applause subsided, it was time for the main event. The crowd quieted as the lights dimmed.

Since 2006, the stripped-down iron and brick streets deep in Gowanus greet an an overflow audience that gathers every month or biweekly to watch a lecture by a scientist chosen by a trio of amateur knowledge hunters called the Secret Science Club who select a speaker from a wide range of scientific fields to give a demonstration to a packed ballroom at a bar called the Bell House, a bar located on 7th Street and 2nd Ave in what used to be a warehouse. On Sunday, April 3, Paul Glimcher, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics at New York University and author of “Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis” and “Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain,” explained to a rapt crowd there that when it comes to making decisions, our vanity aside, we are really no better than chimps. Glimcher is the latest of many scientists who have electrified audiences here every month, popularizing sometimes arcane areas of research over beer and good cheer.

Glimcher even got a warm-up act. “Good evening, secret science scenesters!” gleefully shouted Rich Kelly, there to represent the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one of the financial backers of Mittelbach and her friends. After Kelly handed out free tickets for museums and plays, Glimcher strode onto the stage as a slide behind him read, “From Economics to the ‘Standard Model.’” No matter: the crowd was pumped.

Glimcher’s talk was heavy with numbers and charts, exploring the basic dilemma faced by neuroscientists: how do people make decisions? What parts of the brain “light up” when we make choices? Before the show, Glimcher sat as patrons ordered drinks, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger. Wearing slacks and a sports jacket, he seemed tired but, when he appeared on stage, he suddenly lit up as he went into the finer points of the theory he and his research team created.

The theory says the human brain is actually reasonable and that certain cortices actually decide what different things are worth and how to evaluate them before making a decision. “Much of neuroscience over the last 10 years has been a struggle to parse out what we value to make choices,” he said. It turns out that the midline orbital frontal cortex, the middle section of the cerebrum above the eyes, is the “final common step for making choices between ‘subjective values,’” for example, the choice between eating an apple or eating an orange. “Don’t let anyone tell you that we know nothing about the brain,” Glimcher declared.

The public reaction is no surprise to Mittelbach, who has known the other curator of the Secret Science Club, radio producer Dorian Devins, for the past seven years. The third organizer, Michael Crewdson, was working on a project in Australia. As dozens and dozens of people milled out chatting, Devins held a large donation bin that began to get rapidly filled. Their finances, in part, come from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

“This has become standard,” Mittelbach said, standing aside in the noisy atrium as dozens of people milled out and chatted. “A lot of people come to try something new.” Devins was too busy handling donations to comment.

Nick Russell was one of the attendees, sitting on a lounge chair toward the entrance door an hour before the show began dressed in jeans and green-sided glasses, reading “The Limits of Safety” by Scott Sagan, a book about nuclear accidents. Bearing a resemblance to John Hodgman, Russell said he moved to New York two and a half years ago from Washington, DC, and is now a photographer of high-energy particle colliders. “I’ve known about the club for at least a year and a half,” he said. “I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson speak,” Russell added, referring to the famous astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. “It was really cool.”

Mittelbach and friends have hosted Tyson twice, the first time in March 2007 and again in March 2009, that time for a $3 cover charge, according to their website. Among the speakers Mittelbach helped host, Tyson belongs in the roster of rockstar scientists, like NASA climatologist James Hansen, who performed in December 2009. The most common field from which Mittelbach and her friends have drawn is anything related to the brain, and so Glimcher was no exception. Other fields have included molecular biology, genomics, computer science, anthropology, mathematics and even “smellology.”

Byron Roberts, a Cornell alum who now lives in Astoria, Queens, stood in line as people were beginning to gather to file into several rows of metal fold-out chairs in the ballroom. “I’m a general science nerd,” he said, and added that the field of neuroscience involves a lot of computational modeling, a theme that Glimcher often returned to as the method by which his lab can decode the mysteries of the brain.

A public science show for an eager audience in Brooklyn that has been going on for more than four years is no longer such a secret, but the name harkens back to older times. “There’s an element of secrecy in that we often don’t announce our events months and months in advance,” Mittelbach said while Devins collected money. “But really the idea is when you were in high school in a science club, kinda nerdy right? Maybe you want to keep it a secret.”

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