1. Choose a Topic

Possible “Big Themes” and Related Questions for Your Café

1)  Hunting the Elements in Our Bodies 

In the documentary, host David Pogue goes on a shopping trip, or rather he “CHNOPS” for the basic building blocks of every human being—the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Your café can explore the astounding fact that our bodies are, in essence, a collection of just these six fundamental elements. 

Possible subtopics and questions include:

  • How did scientists come to understand the basic ingredients of our bodies?
  • How does the ratio of elements in our bodies compare to the ratio of elements in other living things? 
  • What do we need to include in our diets to ensure that we have the trace elements that our bodies need?

2) Things That Go “Boom”

Host David Pogue also travels to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech, where researchers study improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and we see the serious side of how chemistry creates dangerous weapons. Similar types of chemical reactions, however, are also the foundation of spectacular Fourth of July fireworks displays.

Possible subtopics and questions include:

  • How did humanity first start harnessing the power of chemical reactions to create explosives?
  • What advances in chemistry enabled new, more powerful types of explosives?
  • How can forensic scientists study a crime scene to hone in on culprits?
  • How do pyrotechnics experts orchestrate and control explosions in their fiery shows?

3) Mining the Earth

David Pogue’s excursion to the Cortez Mine in Nevada reveals how high-tech prospectors must excavate and process about a ton of rock from deep below the surface to produce a single ounce of gold. Yet the high market price of gold continues to drive this business. Your café can explore the historic and present-day quest for metallic elements—rare ones like gold and tantalum as well as abundant but difficult to purify ones like aluminum.

Possible subtopics and questions include:

  • What are the most abundant and scarcest metals in the Earth’s crust?
  • Will we exhaust the Earth’s supply of any of the elements upon which we now depend?
  • What is the environmental toll of various mining practices?
  • How does the quest for rare earth metals shape geopolitics?

4) Synthetic Elements and the Future of the Periodic Table 

When musical humorist Tom Lehrer wrote “The Elements” song in 1959, he included all 102 elements known at the time yet noted at the end, “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard / And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.” Indeed, since that time more than a dozen additional elements have been added to the periodic table. Your café can explore the wondrous world of synthetic, superheavy elements.

Possible subtopics and questions include:

  • How are superheavy elements synthesized in laboratories?
  • Why do these elements decay and disappear rapidly?
  • How do scientists test the properties of elements lasting only fractions of a second?
  • Why make them? Is the quest for additional elements more than just an esoteric scientific challenge?

5) “Name That Element!” Contest

You can draw upon our “Name That Element!” quiz to host a café contest, with individuals or teams vying to see how quickly they can name elements you describe with a series of clues. This contest could be the headline event of the café, or you can combine a shorter contest with a speaker and discussion of another topic.