A different spin
So far, there are 20 Astronomy on Tap programs: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Bay Area, California; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Denver/Boulder; Lansing, Michigan; Los Angeles; New Haven, Connecticut; New York City; Rochester, New York; Santa Barbara, California; Santiago, Chile; Seattle; Taipei, Taiwan; Toronto; Tucson, Arizona; and Washington, D.C.
Part of the beauty of this program is that while there are many similarities — short, fun talks about astronomy held at a bar — event organizers put their own local spin on it. “I think it’s great for everyone to adapt it to their community, to their audience,” says Rice.
While not by design, Astronomy on Tap is most-often organized by postdoctoral fellows, and such positions are usually two or three years long. That has both bad and good aspects. The bad is that the organizers are only around for a few years, and so the Astronomy on Tap programs are in flux. The good is that they often bring the program with them to their next homes.
For example, both Livermore and Silverman are moving on from organizing the Austin program. Silverman’s postdoc position at the University of Texas at Austin ended in August 2016, and he plans to start an Astronomy on Tap program wherever he goes next. Livermore will remain in Texas for another year, but she decided to pass the baton to a group of excited organizers: 10 postdocs and graduate students.
A successful combination
Astronomy on Tap seems to grow by diffusion. At the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2014, Rice presented a poster about the New York City Astronomy on Tap events. That was Silverman’s introduction to the program. He bounced the idea around with University of Texas at Austin faculty and postdocs, but it didn’t go anywhere until Livermore joined the department that August. The two began building up the Austin satellite of Astronomy on Tap and hosted their first event in November 2014. There’s been one every month since.
The program has grown organically due to enthusiastic organizers, the so-called “Host Stars” of each satellite location. At no location is that more apparent than Austin, which consistently has more than 200 people in the audience, making it the best-attended recurring Astronomy on Tap. It’s a testament to the work and dedication Silverman and Livermore have put into the program, Schwamb says. “It’s amazing to see what they’ve built.”
Rice told Livermore and Silverman to expect 50 to 60 people at the initial Austin event, but instead 140 showed up. (Some of the credit for this impressive turnout goes to Nerd Nite, a more general cool-talks-at-a-bar event, which already had a strong fan base in Austin. Plus, this Texas city has a booming technology industry.)
The Austin Astronomy on Tap logged 402 at its January 19, 2016, event. That’s not quite the most-attended Astronomy on Tap event, however. That prize goes to a New York City event held at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum to celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, which 430 people attended. The combination of beer and astronomy seems to make a winning recipe, no matter the city.
That enthusiastic turnout makes the many hours of organization and planning worth it, say the astronomers I spoke with. Organizers are responsible for finding presenters who can share astronomy in a fun way, scouting and renting a space at a bar, organizing games or trivia, procuring prizes, and advertising the event. “But the huge crowds we get at each event and the enthusiasm and excitement of our audience — dare I say, fans — both at the events and on social media between events is super rewarding,” says Silverman. His favorite part? “When a speaker mentions one of their most interesting astronomical observations (like the most distant galaxy or the smallest planet around another star) and the crowd cheers wildly as if a rock star was strumming the opening chords to their hit single!”
The success of the satellite program — events like those in Austin — also help launch new ones. At the August 2015 International Astronomical Union meeting, Silverman and Livermore presented about the Austin Astronomy on Tap program. Since then Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Tucson, Arizona, have joined the Astronomy on Tap “constellation,” as the Host Stars call it. (Tucson already had a program called Space Drafts, but they reworked it slightly to join with the global phenomenon.) “We also had interest from people in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Livermore adds, and those locations are now up and running.
And at the American Astronomical Society meeting this past January, Astronomy on Tap organizers presented another poster about the program, and it immediately inspired several other groups. They had interest from people in Boston; San Diego; Florida; Edinburgh, Scotland; London; and Leiden, Netherlands — although none of those locations has yet hosted an Astronomy on Tap event.
Also at that January meeting, Schwamb, Rice, Silverman, Livermore, and Brian Levine (of the American Museum of Natural History) drafted a master document, which they call the Launch Manifesto — “because we love space puns,” says Rice — that they can send to those interested in starting a program in their city. The document isn’t publicly available, “but we share it with vetted organizers after they reach out to us,” she adds.
Astronomy on Tap has filled a niche in science outreach, and contains the right mix of ingredients to grow. Rice sees no sign of its stopping. “Astronomy is very international, and so it’s really only a matter of time I think before we take over the world."