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A group of casually dressed men and women gathered at the Press Box this week to enjoy a pint of Cold Smoke and a slice of pizza - while discussing a rather unconventional topic for a sports bar: science.

Things like isotopes, total energy expenditure and mitochondria dominated the conversation.

It was the first Science Café, a public forum aimed to get people thinking about science using interesting and timely topics. The event was hosted by the University of Montana chapter of Sigma Xi, the science research honors society for faculty and students.

The idea: to boost science literacy among the general public, said George Stanley, president of the local chapter and director of the UM Paleontology Center.

"Literacy in science is at an all-time low," he said. "Little do people know the things going on (at UM) in science, but hopefully this will help educate the public."

Seven people showed up to the first gathering, held upstairs at the east-side Missoula sports bar. A relaxed environment - say, in a pub or coffee shop - aims to make the event less like a lecture and more like a place for open dialogue.

Brent Ruby, director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, gave a talk on "Hitting the wall: Are we near the limits to human athletic performance?"

The topic was especially timely considering the many people who spent the last two weeks glued to their television sets watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Ruby's slideshow presentation was short and the rest of the time was slated for answering questions. Most everyone who attended was either a Sigma Xi member or college students studying a science-related field, so the discussion remained somewhat academic.

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Science cafés are hardly a new concept. The national Sigma Xi organization has been promoting these across the country, and 30 university chapters already host science cafes.

Sometimes people feel intimidated asking questions in a classroom setting. So, hopefully this will make everyone feel more at ease about chiming in, Stanley said.

And many spoke up at Missoula's inaugural event. Many factors play a role in athletic performance, such as equipment, nutrition, training, hydration, type of event and human genes - to name a few, Ruby said.

Runners continue to break records. However, it's less likely to see sprinters continue to break records in races where a hundredth of a second matters, Ruby said.

The discussion revolved around the failures of high-altitude training, the importance of hydrating and re-fueling, and how equipment, especially in sports like cycling, can make a world of difference.

"Clothing design is going to make a difference between now and the two-hour marathon," said Ruby, referring to technology that repels sweat away from the body to help regulate body temperature.

The conversation turned to improved technology in the sport of swimming, which caused controversy last year after more than two dozen world records were broken in five days at the world championships in Italy because of the introduction of a high-tech polyurethane suit, which was later banned from competition.

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The Science Café will be held the first Monday of every month through May. The gathering begins at 6 p.m. and will be located upstairs at the Press Box.

In April, UM research professor Richards Erb will give a talk on "The global financial crisis: Are economists to blame?" In May, Frank Rosenzweig, a UM biological science professor, will discuss "Growing Old and Full of Fizz: How do studies of yeast provide insight into human aging?"

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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