The Mysteries of Science and the Great Burr Oak

by Jonathan Wright

Atop a nest of twigs and scraps of paper bundled in a crook of Peoria’s oldest tree, you will find monthly gatherings of inquisitives...

Sometimes it feels like we’re all getting dumber, as if the dystopian future of the 2006 cult film Idiocracy had already befallen us. “Americans Reportedly 12 Times More Interested in Miley Cyrus Than Syria,” ran one recent headline. “Celebrities” famous for being famous, politicians who prize party over problem-solving… it’s often difficult to see past the frivolous nature of much of modern culture.

Yet people still thirst for knowledge. And whether we realize it or not, science is the foundation that underpins every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to the “smart” gadgets we both adore and revile.

Once upon a time, our kids wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. But in 2011, according to The Marist Poll, “astronaut” dropped off the “Dream Job Top Ten” list for the first time in 40 years. While NASA no longer holds the same cultural cache, scientific breakthroughs continue to occur at a rate and scale never before seen.

Meanwhile, a growing “citizen science” movement is allowing ordinary people to not only learn about science, but become active participants. “Science cafés are events that take place in casual settings such as pubs and coffeehouses, are open to everyone, and feature an engaging conversation with a scientist about a particular topic,” reads the homepage at sciencecafes.org, a community resource for such groups.

Here in central Illinois, a new group has leapt into this territory. With monthly meetings featuring a variety of science-related topics in a relaxed environment, the Great Burr Oak Science Club is dedicated to making science fun and available to all.

A Late-Night Proposal
“There’s such a focus today on STEM [science/technology/engineering/math] learning and education,” says Bill McKay, a chemical engineer and active club member. “[Most] people don’t want to go to the library and read a science journal, but they do want some kind of exposure, and maybe some understanding… [We want] to bring that to people and allow them an access point to these topics.”

The concept arose from a series of late-night discussions amongst like-minded friends. “Steven [Shepherd] and I were talking one night and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to get together and discuss all things science?’” recalls Kela Galletti, whose passions were kindled by a “fantastic” high school teacher. Though a number of science-based organizations existed locally, none combined all the sciences or focused on bringing it to the layperson. “We wanted to cultivate that.”

“The idea was that [the club] would encompass whatever was interesting at the moment in the sciences,” adds Michael Galletti, Kela’s husband and fellow science buff. “And it’s not in competition with the other groups, it encompasses them.”

When it came time to select a name for the club, there was plenty of discussion. Ultimately, one of Peoria’s oldest landmarks—the giant oak tree on High Street—provided an answer. “I thought of that tree,” Michael remembers, “and the words ‘burr oak’ felt right because of ‘baroque.’ It has a musical quality…”

“It’s got a lot better ring to it than the ‘Peoria Science Club’ or ‘Central Illinois Science Club’… the obvious options we kicked around,” Kela agrees. “We wanted something that was distinctly ‘Peoria,’ and not boring. And it’s a natural wonder, so it seemed appropriate.”

“I think the tree is sentimental,” adds Shannon Moore Shepherd, another club member. “Everybody’s hung out there and connected with it. And it’s a natural wonder that we have right here in town. It’s about discovering and enjoying and sharing what’s here… what’s local.”

Warming Up the Room
The idea germinated for several months as the group tried to determine how to approach it. “We didn’t want any type of formality; we didn’t want it to be stiff,” Michael explains. “Ambiance was an important goal of ours—a relaxed atmosphere.” Eventually, mutual connections led them to Pekin’s Speakeasy Art Center, where the Great Burr Oak Science Club held its first meeting in March, featuring a presentation on “Mushrooms of the World” by local musician and amateur mycologist, Peter Adriel.

“I was hoping we’d get 10 people,” Kela says. “We posted flyers and put Facebook invites out… and there were over 30 people there—a really positive response, too.”

At these monthly get-togethers, lit candles and background music convey a calming tone, while beer, wine and coffee are available for all manners of taste. A secondhand maroon couch reinforces the casual vibe, while chairs are arranged in a semi-circle around the speaker so everyone faces each other. Careful attention is paid to every detail to avoid the sterility of the traditional “classroom” environment.

“Science can be very intimidating to people,” Kela notes. “When we book a presenter, they understand this is not a professional organization. They’re going to come and present in an accessible, informal manner. We avoid using microphones, and we don’t raise our hands to ask questions.”

It was this informal nature that attracted McKay to the club. “In a more formal setting, people look to the person standing at the front of the room… and you might feel uncomfortable [asking questions] because it’s a bit more rigid. But in our group… everybody’s facing each other. It’s a setting that’s conducive to looking at the people in the group, as well as the presenter. So you have a participant atmosphere, rather than a lecture hall.”

Each meeting begins with a discussion of current events, with the floor open for anyone to bring up the latest issues in the sciences. “We really encourage everyone to participate,” Kela says. From news on the Mars Rover to updates on citizen science projects and more, the stage is then set for the guest speaker. “It gets very conversational. I think that warms up the room.”

Buffet of Science
Since that first meeting, the club has hosted an eclectic mix of speakers. In April, Dr. Robert Shepherd of Cornell University delivered a remote presentation on “soft robotics,” an emerging field that takes inspiration from nature—particularly marine creatures like squid and starfish—to design robots out of soft, deformable materials, eliminating the need for complex mechanical components.

“We followed that with a review of the different groups that make up the Peoria Academy of Sciences,” McKay adds. Each group—the Peoria Astronomical Society, Peoria Audubon Society, Peoria Botanical Society, Entomology Section, Geology Section and Central Illinois Herpetological Society, as well as the Central Illinois Robotics Club—had 10 minutes to introduce itself to the audience in what Kela Galletti dubbed “a buffet of science.”

Subsequent presentations have delved into functional food research at the USDA, explained the origins of the Mayan calendar, and addressed the question, “Why shouldn’t you lend a geologist money?” At July’s meeting, held at Forest Park Nature Center, local entomologist Frank Hitchell discussed the identification, collection and mounting of insects. By the end of the night, the topic of entomophagy—the consumption of insects—was introduced in a most hands-on manner.

“We all partook,” Kela laughs. “We had chocolate-covered grubs, chocolate-covered grasshoppers, and sort of a ‘Chex mix’ of sour-cream-and-onion crickets,” which, according to McKay, “taste just like sour-cream-and-onion Pringles!”

Tales of Mystery and Wonder
In an age of style over substance, it’s inspiring to see science given the respect it deserves—and the excitement it naturally sparks in anyone with a sense of curiosity about the world. “I’ve always been into mysteries and things we don’t know,” Shannon notes, “and I’ve been gently led into experiencing the same sort of feeling with science. It’s fantastic, and it’s real... There’s a lot of mystery out there!”

“It’s that sense of wonderment,” adds club co-founder Steven Shepherd, “when you find out something about reality… but it’s so bizarre you think it shouldn’t be real, but it is!” That’s what the Great Burr Oak Science Club brings to the table—the child-like wonder that lies latent in all of us.

“When you’re a kid, you learn about all the people who sailed the ocean, found new cultures, found new fruits and vegetables, and brought them back to the old world,” says McKay. “It just seems so remote, so far back in history. But that thrill of discovery… I think each of us can share in that.”

And to connect with the world around you can be a grounding experience. “For me, learning about the universe and examining my place in it, my own little microcosm… it’s a beautiful story,” Kela says. “It makes me feel at peace—that I understand where I came from and where I belong.”

In the future, she adds, the club plans to invite even more dynamic presenters to its meetings. “Just in case he ever reads this, I really want Scott Altman, the Pekin astronaut, to come speak.” She’s also “determined to get Brian Greene by Skype.” Greene, a theoretical physicist and professor at Columbia University, is renowned for his ability to explain mind-bending concepts like superstring theory in ways the layperson can grasp.

“But according to Brian Greene’s physics,” Michael notes, “everything has already happened. Which means, I hope, that Brian Greene has already presented at Burr Oak. And maybe went out with us for a beer after.

“He was a nice guy.” a&s

The next meeting of the Great Burr Oak Science Club takes place on November 16th at the Speakeasy Art Center, 353 Court Street in Pekin, when Dr. John Goodell of Illinois State University will present “Hitchhikers Guide to Drug Discovery and the Exploration of Uncharted Chemical Space.” Visit thegreatburroakscienceclub.com or find them on Facebook for more information.

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