The Sciences

World Science Festivities

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJun 16, 2009 8:14 PM


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I'm back from the World Science Festival, which was a rousing success, leaving thousands of smiling attendees chattering excitedly about the mysteries of the universe as they dispersed through the streets of Manhattan. So naturally I want to talk about how it could be improved. Writing about one's travels can be one of the least compelling arrows in the blogger's quiver, but it would be great if the science-festival idea caught on more widely, so perhaps there is something to be learned from the experience. A science festival, one presumes, aims to bring science to a wide audience through a series of events concentrated in space and time. But there are a lot of different approaches we could imagine taking to achieve that goal. Kirsten Sanford insightfully compares the WSF to the San Diego Science Festival -- two similar-sounding events that end up having a very different look and feel. The WSF appeals to the cultural and cool, while the SDSF aspires to be a noisy bring-the-family affair. Neither is right or wrong, and in these cases each is appropriate to the venue; but the choices of how to proceed should be made consciously. Public events for science can be placed in a two-dimensional parameter space, where one axis ranges from "observational" to "participatory," and the other ranges from "inspiring" to "informative." Again, none of these reflects a normative judgment; inspiring and informing are both laudable goals, and sometimes the best way to achieve those goals is to have the audience observe a performance, while other times it's better to have them participate more directly. The point is not to say what's better or worse, it's to figure out what is appropriate for the circumstances. The parts of the WSF I experienced directly -- the opening gala, the two events in which I participated, and two events where I sat in the audience -- were roughly speaking more observational than participatory, and more inspiring than informative. For the three events I watched, I think that was exactly right, but for the two events I participated in, I think they could have been even better had the balance been shifted. (Which obviously raises the possibility of some sort of bias on my part, left for you to decide.) In other words, I think a slightly more diversified portfolio of approaches could be beneficial to future science festivals. The opening gala, a science-and-art extravaganza that both set the stage for the festival and celebrated E.O. Wilson's 80th birthday, was a great example of an event for which the inspiring/observational paradigm worked perfectly. It was a big production, at Lincoln Center, with a rapid-fire series of performances bridging the gap between art and science; it would have been crazy to try to invite audience participation. And inspiration is just what you need to kick off a big festival. Brian Greene, who along with Tracy Day ("the first couple of New York science") founded the WSF, did a tag-team presentation with violinist Joshua Bell. Brian would talk a bit about string theory or various wonders of the cosmos, while videos from The Elegant Universe played in the background, and then Bell would play some music appropriate to the mood. Very little educational was going on -- nobody came out of the performance considerably more knowledgeable about the secrets of string theory than they went in. But it was an artistic success, putting people in the frame of mind to excitedly tackle meatier fare over the next few days. My first event was the WSF Spotlight, a "cabaret-style" happening that was meant to be more informal than most of the presentations. Cocktails were served at a jazz-club-like space in Tribeca. The organizers were looking for a Cafe Scientifique kind of vibe, where people hear about science in a non-intimidating pub atmosphere. But at a traditional Cafe Scientifique, a big part of the charm is that a scientist talks for no more than 15 minutes to lay out some common ideas as a basis for discussion, and the rest of the event is structured purely as an interaction with the audience. The WSF Spotlight was the opposite of that: five individual presentations by scientists, on a stage in a dark room, with no time for questions at all. The presentations themselves were great; the scientific highlight was Kristin Baldwin explaining how she could reverse time by turning adult neurons into stem cells, while the performative highlight was Frank Wilczek, accompanied by a keyboardist, singing a slightly-altered Gilbert and Sullivan tune with some real feeling. This was one event that was at least as informative as it was inspiring; each of the scientists managed to say something novel and understandable. But I thought it would have been a great opportunity to be more participatory than observational. I would have preferred to see each of the speakers in separate rooms, talking to smaller audiences, but really taking the time to interact with them. That would have been a lot more work, admittedly. The next event I went to was Matter: Stories of Atoms and Eves, presented in conjunction with The Moth storytelling organization. It was an unalloyed success, the highlight of the festival for me. Resolutely in the observational/inspiring quadrant of our parameter space: very little attempt was made to inform, and none at all to participate. But that was exactly appropriate for this event, which featured six different storytellers (five of them scientists) telling true stories about their own lives. I'm not sure how they managed to pick the storytelling scientists, but they were by turns affecting, hilarious, and touching. Three of the six stories were about parents -- Paul Nurse waited until after he had won the Nobel Prize, been knighted, and become President of Rockefeller University to learn that the person he had always thought was his seventeen-year-older sister was actually his real mother. Very little science was discussed directly, but the program did a fantastic job in reminding us about the human side of science.

The next day I appeared at another event, the Time Since Einstein panel. The moderator was John Hockenberry, and the other panelists included David Albert, Fotini Markopoulou, Michael Heller, Roger Penrose, and George Ellis. Too many panelists! There was a bit of participation, in the form of some end-of-panel questions from the audience, but with such a large crowd there wasn't much chance, which was fine. The larger problem -- and overall the panel was great, I really shouldn't be complaining, but I like complaining -- was that it wasn't as informative as it could have been. Seven voices onstage, bringing slightly different perspectives to subtle questions concerning time in relativity, the existence of time as a fundamental concept, the arrow of time, and the role of cosmology, without enough common background knowledge between the audience and the panel. As George Musser said afterward, sometimes I just want to hear a lecture. A straightforward talk from David or Sir Roger or any of the other panelists would, I suspect, been able to get a lot deeper into some challenging ideas. In contrast, the panel I attended immediately thereafter -- Time the Familiar Stranger -- was just about right. The topic was the psychology of time rather than the physics of it, and while it also came down in favor of observation rather than participation, this panel better achieved its goal of conveying information. (Unless, again, my perspective from onstage skews my view of my own events.) Just three panelists -- Oliver Sacks, Daniel Gilbert, and Warren Meck -- whose remarks were sped along by moderator Sir Harold Evans. For one thing, with fewer panelists the people on stage can actually interact with each other, rather than just responding to questions from the moderator. For another, we all have personal experience of the psychology of time, so there was more common ground that could be assumed. Nevertheless, they really could have used a physicist up there on stage (as Meck himself remarked), because they needed someone to point out that time is measured by clocks. A truism, but crucial to understanding the ways in which our psychological perception of time is affected by biological processes. I should end on a high note, because overall the WSF is a fantastic event that I hope gets copied by every major metropolitan area in the country. (And the world; in fact the WSF itself was inspired by Genoa's Festival della Scienza.) It was fun to follow the Twittering both by and about the festival. Lest I give the wrong impression, there were certainly events that aimed directly at participation rather than observation -- the festival closed with a massively popular Street Fair, and there were a number of events for children. (I just think that some of the stuffy events for adults could be more participatory as well.) And, very importantly, if you wandered randomly into one of these events, you would never have guessed from looking at the crowd that science was the common factor. The audiences resembled a typical New York cultural event much more than a typical departmental physics colloquium -- a distribution of ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds. Science is for everyone; we all live in the same universe, and it's our responsibility as professional scientists to share what we've learned with as many people as possible. I'm looking forward to many WSFs in the future.

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