Ride the Science Train—aka the New York Subway

New York City's science train offers a chance encounter with the universe

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From left: David Marsh and Renee Hlozek ride the subway in New York City.
Michael Lemonick / TIME

From left: David Marsh and Renee Hlozek ride the subway in New York City.

“Want to talk about science?” Renee Hlozek asks brightly. “I’m a scientist! I’m not selling anything! You can ask me about the stars or the planets or the universe!” It must be true: the words “I’m a scientist” are emblazoned on her black t-shirt, and she wears a tag with “Astronomer” written on it. But the two young men she just approached shake their heads. Not today, thanks.

Undaunted, Hlozek moves on to another man, maybe 30 years old, and hits him with the same opening line. He looks a little uncomfortable at first, but then ventures a question—hesitantly—about the expanding universe. Although it doesn’t seem possible, Hlozek smiles even more broadly than she was before, and launches into an explanation, complete with enthusiastic gestures that actually do help the science make more sense.

It’s no surprise that people are wary: Hlozek is getting in their faces (her own description) on a New York subway car—the uptown C local, to be precise—a place where being confronted by strangers, even if they’re bubbly, cheerful and apparently quite sane, isn’t the most comfortable prospect. But Hlozek and her significant other, David Marsh, are there to talk about the cosmos, and they aren’t about to let a little thing like social niceties get in their way.

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Hlozek and Marsh—she works at Princeton, he at the Perimeter Institute, a think tank and education center for theoretical physics, in Canada—are part of a project called Science Train. It’s the brainchild of Lucianne Walkowicz, also at Princeton. She’s riding in the next car of the same C train, along with Jeff Oishi, of the American Museum of Natural History. Walkowicz also took part in the Intergalactic Travel Bureau last July, a science outreach and performance art event that lured the curious into a vacant Manhattan storefront where they could learn about astronomy and space travel.

“I really wanted to put science in a place where people would just encounter it,” Walkowicz said an hour or so before the Science Train pulled out, as the scientists were assembling at the jump-off point: the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Stand in Penn Station. “Museums and science shows on TV are great, but mostly for people who already know they’re interested.” You can encounter art or music or poetry entirely at random, she said, walking through a city or even riding the subways, but not science.

Walkowicz decided to change that—as well as the image people have of scientists themselves as old men who look like Einstein or younger people who have spent their careers talking only to other scientists and have lost the ability to communicate in anything other than technical gobbledygook. When Walkowicz and her crew board the train there’s nothing remotely stodgy or arid about any of them. Walkowicz, for example, has purple hair, and when she arrived at Princeton a couple of years ago, she declined to settle in the quiet college town where the actual Einstein lived, but chose to commute from Brooklyn instead.

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Hlozek is hardly retiring either. While Walkowicz prowls the car looking for people to chat up, she sits with Oishi underneath a makeshift sign hanging from the overhead bar that says “Ask An Astronomer!” Plenty do: a tourist from Utah wants to know Walkowicz’s favorite fun astronomy fact. “There’s water in the soil of Mars!” she says, and goes on to explain the latest report from NASA’s Curiosity rover.  The tourist turnst to Oishi. “What’s your favorite planet, and why?” she asks. It would be disloyal, he says, to say anything other than Earth—but he does have a special fondness for Jupiter, and goes on to talk about its colorful bands of clouds. The woman’s companion wants to know about black holes, but before the astronomers can say much, the travelers have to get off.

There are less charming encounters as well—this is after all, a New York subway. A few people seem annoyed at the whole enterprise. Some want to talk about astrology, which most scientists prefer not to do. And then there’s the wiseguy who asks “Why is there Charmin on Uranus?” and then jumps off the train. “Sounds like a personal problem,” Oishi says after the comedian departs. Almost overwhelmingly, though, the scientists are pleased with how it’s going. This was the Science Train’s second ride, after a successful run last summer, and the reception today suggests there will surely be more to come.

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When the train gets to 168th Street, in upper Manhattan, the astronomers have to get off as well. It’s the end of the line, so they board a downtown C, which they’ll ride to the line’s southern terminus at Euclid Avenue, in Brooklyn, before doubling back to debrief and unwind at a German bar in Fort Greene that Walkowicz and her romantic partner, Michael Rau, favor. (He’s a theater and opera director, and he came along to document the show on video.)

For Hlozek, however, the debrief can be condensed into one simple phrase. “This is the best idea ever!” she says.

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