Lisa Taggart

Since my college days as a failed physics major, I've been fascinated with and intimidated by the scientific world. So Palo Alto's new Café Scientifique immediately struck me as a superb idea.

The concept originated six years ago in England and France: Create a forum for world-renowned scientists and the public to discuss issues in health, technology, and anything else. Keep it nonacademic but sophisticated, and mix in some coffee and snacks. Dozens of these groups exist in Europe, but this is California's first. Palo Alto, with its preponderance of people my husband calls "schmartypants," seems like a perfect spot.

"We had a Nobel laureate our first night," says Roger Whiting, who launched the group with associates from his 30-year career in pharmacology. "He'd done talks at Caltech and MIT. But he said after ours, 'These are the best questions I've ever had.'"

At a recent talk about earthquakes, I was too timid to ask my not-so-schmartypants question: As a new homeowner, I wonder why earthquake insurance is so expensive. Then a silver-haired fellow in front of me asked that very thing. The crowd murmured.

"I'm glad you asked," began the geologist. Café Scientifique meets the second Tue of each month at Harmony Bakery Café (299 California Ave., Palo Alto). Visit