The idea originated from ben-Avraham’s association with Paolo Politi, an Italian academic who had approached him with a problem about diffusion-limited reactions, which is one of ben-Avraham’s areas of expertise. After several months of collaboration, ben-Avraham discovered that his colleague had started a series of public science talks in Florence. Inspired, he decided to bring the idea to Potsdam.
Over the last four years, the talk series has grown considerably. It is currently held at La Casbah, a Potsdam village restaurant.
Drawing on the combined, multidisciplinary expertise of the Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley, and the knowledge of area specialists, the Science Café has tackled such interesting topics as the mathematical modeling of how gossip travels, chaos theory, and “tensor” computations that mimic selective hearing.
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” ben-Avraham says. “It forced me out of my shell, looking around at the different colleges and the area for professionals.” He gave the first talk in the lecture series, and remembers being terrified. “I spent all my career talking to colleagues. How was I going to make myself interesting to the public?”
The informal atmosphere of the Science Café has been an important part of its success, according to ben-Avraham. “The idea of the Science Café was to bring science to the public. I sensed there was a big rift between the academics and the people on the street. The fact that we’re meeting informally means that everyone’s kind of on even ground.” He estimates that this talk series draws upwards of 200 people per season from all over the Adirondack region.
This fall Science Café topics included a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power and the implications of Galileo’s revolutionary discovery of the uneven surface of the moon.
When he is not organizing the Science Café, ben-Avraham researches statistical physics and teaches physics at Clarkson. With his list of over 150 publications, he is well-known, even among non-physicists. He is a recognized authority in the fields of fractals, diffusion-limited reactions, and complex networks. “I spend about a decade on each subject, then move on to a new project,” he said with a laugh. “But I bring with me everything that’s gone before.”