San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Café Scientifique: Science, Straight Up or With a Twist

SCIENTIFIC research and margaritas may seem like odd companions – but at Café Scientifique, they appear to get along just fine.The event is a forum for presenting and discussing science news in a relaxed, social atmosphere, says Alejandra León, executive director of the National Science and Technology Center (CIENTEC), which sponsors the gathering and hopes to make it a monthly event. Previous editions of Café Scientifique, which began in September 2004, have included “Mars as Viewed from Earth,” a presentation accompanied by “Martian cocktails.”The August installment, held at the Barrio La California restaurant and bar El Observatorio, featured U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineer Mike Gaunce, whose English-language presentation on hurricane research, “Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes,” was moderated by Pedro León, director of the National Center for High Technology (CENAT). In his introduction, he emphasized the Café’s dual objective of nurturing a science culture – “I look forward to the day this room is full of people,” he said to the 25 or so assembled audience members – and a laid-back environment.“Come on, you guys,” he exhorted some colleagues shortly before Gaunce began. “Take off your ties!”GAUNCE gave a slide show and spoke about his recent work as project manager of the NASA mission, which was based out of a lab-outfitted airline hangar at the Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela, northwest of San José. Approximately 100 scientists, engineers, technicians and support personnel, including NASA and CENAT staffers and representatives from the National Meteorological Institute and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are participating in the mission, which is one of the largest NASA has conducted in Central America (TT, Aug. 19).Although Costa Rica lies south of the typical hurricane path (which falls along 8-20 degrees north latitude), NASA is interested in the country because of its mountainous topography, microclimates and unique lightning formation. Local students have visited the hangar to learn about the operation, and the data – including substantial information on microclimates – will be made available to local scientists and university students to help them develop their own research projects.WITH this mission, scientists are striving to gain a better understanding of weather, and how minor depressions become major storms. There are clear economic advantages to NASA honing its meteorological knowledge; hurricanes have caused billions of dollars in damage in the United States over the past 20 years. But predicting hurricanes, Gaunce said, is still a notoriously tricky task, as variables such as wind, rainfall and humidity can shift quickly.And hurricanes don’t necessarily follow scientific logic – Gaunce said there is some question about whether hurricane activity is cyclical over time, and scientists are still unsure how global warming is affecting hurricanes, as the melting of polar ice caps should, in theory, cool the ocean and slow hurricane activity. What scientists have gotten better at, he said, is tracking big storms and alerting the public in time for people to prepare themselves. NASA’s next mission will be to transform the data they gathered here into a cogent analysis.“That’s all I have to say,” Gaunce said in conclusion. “And I’d like that beer now.”SEPTEMBER’S Café Scientifique will again focus skyward, as nature photographer Marco Saborio speaks on the annual October raptor migration over Costa Rica. Millions of raptors fly through the country, Alejandra León said, and are especially visible in the Limón area, on the Caribbean coast. The presentation in Spanish is scheduled for Sept. 22, so that attendees have time to make birdwatching plans for the following month.“We want people to learn, observe and enjoy,” she said. For information and reservations, call 223-0725.

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