A long and unlikely friendship developed between a Brooklyn author and a radio host through Tasmanian wildlife and taxidermy.
Margaret Mittelbach had just published a book about her search for the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger when one of her co-authors suggested holding a New York taxidermy competition to promote their new book.
Mittelbach, now 59, approached radio host and science enthusiast Dorian Devins about serving as a judge. Devins agreed, and “weirdly, a lot of people also showed up with all kinds of crazy stuff,” the author recalled.
The outpouring sparked an idea: The Secret Science Club, which will celebrate its 17th anniversary in the new year, co-founded by Mittelbach and Devins.
The club’s first location was a restaurant basement, which provided “a little air of secrecy, a clubby feeling,” according to Devins, who is now also a jazz singer. “And we just wanted to think of something, something catchy.”
The idea took off as the two formed a bond while attracting science enthusiasts from all over the city to monthly Brooklyn gatherings where cocktails and music accompany news of scientific breakthroughs in various fields.
The two agreed on a main theme for the group: science should be discussed in a nightclub, not among “the old and grey guys in a boring lecture hall,” as Devins recalled. The goal was to attract artists from various fields in order to spark creativity and collaborations.
“Science in a nightclub is strange, but also thought provoking and exciting,” Mittelbach said. “There have been people who met and married at Secret Science Club.”
While professional bartenders prepare the cocktails for meetings at the Bell House, “we make up the names (for the drinks) based on whatever the talk is about,” Mittelbach explained. “Sometimes they’re clever, sometimes they’re not.”
Even during the pandemic, the duo continued to host the series via Zoom, while also providing recipes for participants to make their own drinks at home.
The club is an excellent place to meet other science enthusiasts — even those with two left feet — for first-time visitors like Matt Wisniewski, 32, a Brooklyn-based IT professional.
“I like it here because, first and foremost, I am not a great dancer and, second, I like to learn new things,” he explained. “So it’s more enjoyable for me.”
Others, such as Caesar Mendez, 64, a retired curator at the American Museum of Natural History, continue to attend the talk shows. However, he must travel an hour and a half each way from the Bronx.
“I just wish they could hold these events in more than one location so that the sessions are more accessible,” he explained.
More venues, however, would necessitate more funds, and the club relies on yearly fundraisers and some financial assistance from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to stay afloat.
For many New Yorkers, the fun of a nightclub doesn’t begin until they’ve had a few cocktails. As a result, each talk session comes with its own special drink. A recent ant discussion included a cocktail called Myrmeration, which is a play on the word myrmecology, or the study of ants.
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Devins said they have nothing fancy planned as life slowly returns to pre-pandemic normalcy. However, the pair continues to work together to make the event unique, sometimes pairing the talks with live music events and other times creating unique musical playlists.
“I definitely want more hybrid things, like combining poetry or music with a science film or a science drama,” Mittelbach said.