Marc Merlin Makes Magic at the Atlanta Science Tavern

Marc Merlin Makes Magic at the Atlanta Science Tavern

By Andrea Kjaer

Marc Merlin describes himself as a curator, but doesn’t run a museum or library—he hosts a gathering at a local pub. The organization, called the Atlanta Science Tavern (AST), serves up presentations and learning opportunities in a unique, open environment.

Over beer and burgers, AST attracts speakers from local universities ranging from charismatic, Indiana Jones-esque paleontologist Dr. Anthony Martin to astronomer Dr. Amy Lovell to PhD-turned-comedian Tim Lee. It’s easy to see why AST events often become RSVP or standing room only.

Merlin’s Magic Touch

The Atlanta Science Tavern is part of a global initiative called the Science Café Movement, which works to bring scientists together with non-professionals who are simply interested in the field in a comfortable social setting to talk face-to-face about the issues that matter most.

However, there was a nearly universal problem with this movement: Interest proved so high that small gatherings at a single table would quickly turn into parties of 60 or 70, and Atlanta was no exception.

Marc Merlin (Photo by Andrea Kjaer)

Marc Merlin (Photo by Andrea Kjaer)

Marc Merlin joined AST in 2008, about six months after it was founded, and he quickly volunteered to take on more responsibilities. As a retiree with a background in physics and software development, he had the necessary time, experience and connections to bring AST to a level that could meet Atlanta’s hunger for science.

“Science is part of the cultural menu of the city,” Merlin says. “That’s what I want to bring to the community.”

Currently, he serves as Executive Director of the 501(c)3 organization. He recruits presenters, hosts events and cultivates partnerships with like-minded institutions. All of his work is unpaid, and he operates the AST on a shoestring budget. Under his direction, AST has grown to become one of the largest meet-ups in the area, if not the nation.

Keeping the Mission in Mind

While Merlin enjoys collaborating with other organizations to produce larger events, he is also the protector of AST’s first objective—keeping people connected to the science.

“It’s easy to find auditoriums or venues that would host us at $20 a person, but that changes the whole dynamic. Once there is a separation from the speaker and the audience, a distance happens in the kind of connection we hope to create,” he explained.

“We hold most of our events at Manuel’s Tavern in Decatur, and that is the reason we have been so successful with this model.”

Atlanta Science Tavern's favorite room in Manuel's Tavern (Photo by Andrea Kjaer)

Atlanta Science Tavern’s favorite room in Manuel’s Tavern (Photo by Andrea Kjaer)

Merlin describes the AST crowds at Manuel’s Tavern and as a gathering of friends that always has a mix of new people.

“I think of them as ‘lay-science enthusiasts,’” Merlin said. “A lot of them have only a cursory academic exposure, but they like a daily dose of science in their diet. Part of it has to do with the promise of progress and improved life, but a lot of it is the simple sense of wonder.”

“People sometimes ask what caused this enormous increase in demand [for science], and I tell them it has always been there, but internet and social technologies have connected islands of interested communities into like minded-tribes.”

Luju Ojha, one of the authors on the paper announcing the discovery of flowing water on Mars, gives a presentation to the Atlanta Science Tavern (Photo courtesy of Marc Merlin)

Luju Ojha, one of the authors on the paper announcing the discovery of flowing water on Mars, gives a presentation to the Atlanta Science Tavern (Photo courtesy of Marc Merlin)

Beyond the Tavern

Merlin’s impact on Atlanta’s science community grew significantly in 2011 when he had an idea that changed the Decatur Book Festival and reached thousands more people.

The book festival was already a well-respected literary event when Merlin noticed that it was missing an important genre—science. He initiated the creation of the Science Track, now one of the festival’s most popular branches, and he continues to give it his personal attention by selecting the best authors from the local scene and beyond.

“A curator is essential for creating any good science program,” Merlin said. “That’s the role I play for both the book festival and the AST. I ensure the selections are part of the scientific consensus and evidence-based. Even though I wasn’t an expert at book festivals, I could look over a book and see if it had good science and good science writing. I also had a good sense of what would be popular with audiences.”

AST guests watch footage of the 2012 Mars Curiosity rover landing (Photo courtesy of Marc Merlin)

AST guests watch footage of the 2012 Mars Curiosity rover landing (Photo courtesy of Marc Merlin)

Merlin Looks Ahead

With such vast exposure to fascinating topics, it’s unsurprising that Merlin has developed a unique vision for the future of science. “I appreciate the efforts I see in K12 to broaden appreciation for science generally, but I think there is a more innovative, effective way,” he said.

“[AST] takes who people who are already science-oriented and gives them the best possible information to spread to their family, friends and coworkers. It’s an avant-garde approach that leverages the natural appreciation of science and spreads it an organic way.”

Merlin will never forget the celebration he hosted with AST for the Mars Curiosity Rover landing. A father came up to him afterward and said, “I was able to take my 13-year-old kid to a science party, and we had the time of our lives. I would do this anytime.”

“The idea that I can help inform the community about important science issues is one of the big reasons why I do this,” Merlin said. “As a society, we have arts appreciation organizations, and I think science needs that too.”

Lead photo courtesy of Marc Merlin.