1 February 2016

My science valentine

Featuring Star Trek, Winnie the Pooh and the MagLab's Science Café, this is geek love at its finest.

Kenneth Edel and Sharon Murray at a date at the annual MagLab Open House.

Kenneth Edel and Sharon Murray

By KRISTEN COYNE

Lipids playing cupid?

True story. And just in time for Valentine's Day.

This is a romance for nerds — complete with practical advice for those out there looking for a love in all the illogical places — brought to you by the National MagLab and the power of science.

And this is how it goes.

A woman walks into a bar

One evening three years ago, a woman walks into a bar. But not just any bar. Because she had already done that, many times, and didn't have much to show for it. An attractive woman nearing 40, Sharon Murray had weathered a divorce and too many failed relationships born in music clubs and bars. Now, busy working as a program associate at Florida State University's Dedman School of Hospitality and pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration, she was aiming for something better.

So this particular evening in March 2013, a few weeks after spending February 14 at home watching Winnie the Pooh: Un-valentine's Day, she headed not for just any watering hole, but for the one hosting Science Café. Organized by the National MagLab, the café events are a cross between a science lecture and a party. Murray hypothesized that the evening would hit the right balance of entertaining and educational — "a safe space where you can find interesting folks." She slipped into some heels, grabbed a notebook and headed over.

If you meet someone at Science Café, Murray figured, "You already know somebody is going to be relatively intelligent.

"Or if they just want to be intelligent," she added with her trademark sass, "I'll work with that, too."

Science and the mid-life crisis

Kenneth Edel was looking for something, too. An administrative specialist for The National Guard in Tallahassee, he had recently taken stock of his friends and associates. By and large, he didn't like what he saw.

"I've got to get quality people in my life," he told himself. "How do you get quality people in your life?"

He found the answer while flipping through the newspaper. A science buff whose bookshelves hold titles like Einstein for Dummies, Edel spied an announcement for a Science Café on the Marianna Caverns. Already a pretty animated guy, Edel gets passionate when he talks about science. The cave talk would feed his nerd fix, he figured, regardless of whom he met. He arrived a little late to a packed house, but snagged a spot on a couch near the entrance.

When a poised, attractive woman in high heels strutted in a short while later, he offered her his seat. She silently demurred, but perched herself beside him on the arm of the couch.

As MagLab scientist Darrel Tremaine talked about his spelunking adventures, Sharon Murray couldn't help but notice that she and this man nodded at the same things, laughed at the same things. When Tremaine started talking about "lipids," the man nodded knowingly at the term, which she vaguely recognized as biology but couldn't pinpoint. (Lipids, along with carbohydrates and proteins, are the main constituents of plant and animal cells.) When Murray questioned his grasp of the subject, Edel replied, "Oh, I read."

The repartee was just the right combination of saucy and flirty; it got Murray's attention. From then until they closed the place down, the pair had ears only for each other as talk of stalagmites and stalactites faded to background music.

The MagLab has organized more than 30 Science Cafés over the past five years. Part of the lab's education and outreach mission, the free events attract everyone from graduate students and retirees eager for a brainy alternative to a movie or concert. "The idea," explained MagLab Public Affairs Director and event organizer Kristin Roberts, "is to translate the pointy-headed science that happens at the MagLab and elsewhere in Tallahassee in a way that makes sense to a layperson — all while sparking conversation and connections."

Science Café speakers come from a variety of disciplines, and often address science topics in the news. Past topics have included the BP oil spill, 3D printing, the Higgs-Boson, Mars and brain tumors. Currently hosted quarterly at Backwoods Bistro, every event draws both first-timers and regulars like Andy and Martha Roberts.

As retired assistant deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Martha Roberts understands both how important and how difficult good science communication is. Having recently attended a conference full of obtuse presentations — "It was so hard to get the information they were really trying to communicate. You had to struggle to pull it out," she recalled — she was happy to join her husband over wine and dinner at the January 2015 Science Café on superconductivity. As the crowd waited for the presentation to start, the room buzzed with conversation and laughter. "It's so important to translate science into everyday life," said Roberts, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology.

Science, serendipity and Pooh

After bonding over beer and lipids, Murray and Edel began dating, including more Science Café soirees about Mars and sharks and a geeky day at the MagLab's annual Open House. They connected not just romantically but emotionally and mentally. It's hard to imagine a better illustration of this than the couple's outing to an ALTCon event — a kind of festival for self-proclaimed nerds — decked out as Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk.

They can both pinpoint when they fell in love with each other: same day, different moments. For her, it was watching him help a shy stranger overcome two left feet to participate in a folk dance at a cultural festival. Murray was deeply touched by his generosity, his kindness, the joy he coaxed from this woman. For him, the magical moment came later that day, as they strolled over a bridge in a park. Without warning Murray suddenly squealed, "Pooh sticks!" She then grabbed a couple of twigs, tossed them from the bridge to the stream below, and rushed across the road to watch them emerge from the other side. (Those readers wrinkling their foreheads should make a date with A.A. Milne).

Edel, who was known as "Pooh" as a child, then and there fell for a woman with a lust for life, someone, he said for whom there was nothing too small or too big to laugh at.

Like all relationships, theirs has had its ups and downs, including months-long separations during Edel's deployment and training. Also, since a promotion moved Edel to St. Augustine, the two have had to manage the challenges of a long-distance relationship.

Still, as must be obvious by now, nothing was going to get in the way of this geeky romance. Engaged in December 2014, they are set to be married this spring. Of course, even the date is nerdy: 4/16/16.

"I love square roots," mooned Murray. "Always have."

Over Mexican food recently, they nibbled off each other's plates and talked seamlessly over one another about their Hundred Acre Wood-themed wedding: It was like listening to one song bouncing between speakers. Murray's placid face was a foil to her fiance's, which was quick to screw up into skepticism, joy or whatever other expression best augmented the tale he was weaving at that moment. With a twinkle in his eye, Edel was quick to amend Murray's comments with sentences that began, "For the record …"

When they share their "how we met" story, friends sometimes say, "I'm going to go to the Science Café to find me a husband!"

The couple is quick to point out the flawed thinking.

"I tell them, 'Go do something you like,'" said Edel. "'Go make friends.'"

After all, that is what he set out to do. And that is how, smiled upon by both serendipity and science, he found the very best of all possible friends.

"All," quipped Edel, "because of lipids."