Feature

Science in the City

First-ever festival explores the science in culture, arts and life

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4:22pm, May 11, 2008
Magazine issue: Vol. 173 #17, May 24, 2008
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Scientists play an important role as myth busters, yet they seem unable to shatter one common fiction: “People think scientists are crazy white guys with frizzy hair in lab coats who don’t communicate with normal people,” says planetary scientist Heidi Hammel.

Dispelling this notion — and the idea that science is the stuff only of cloistered laboratories, dank with formaldehyde — is a hoped-for outcome of the upcoming World Science Festival in New York City. The five-day festival, May 28 through June 1, will offer 40 different events at 15 venues. There, Hammel and other leaders from physics, cell biology, psychology and other fields will celebrate sciencewith pioneers from the worlds of modern dance, architecture, poetry and music. The anticipated audience is families, artists, students and anyone wanting a taste of the science around them.

The program includes a screening of The Bourne Identity at the Museum of Modern Art followed by a discussion of the neuroscience behind the main character’s mental turmoil. NBA athletes will join physiologists, physicists and nutritionists to demonstrate the science of sports. Mapping the challenges cities face will be tackled by trailblazers from the fields of engineering, public health, architecture and sustainable development.

The kick-off will be a closed-door, one-day “World Science Summit” on May 28. More than 100 scientists, policy-makers, educators, and business and cultural leaders will convene to discuss science’s role in and impact on global affairs. Also, the three inaugural winners of the Kavli prizes in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience will be announced via a simulcast from Oslo. Established by entrepreneur Fred Kavli, the prizes honor scientific achievement and creativity with a scroll, a medal and $1 million.

The festival is the brainchild of superstring theorist Brian Greene of ColumbiaUniversity and his wife, television producer Tracy Day, and will emphasize connections between science and other disciplines. It also aims to spotlight qualities shared by scientists and artists alike: creativity, curiosity, a sense of wonderthe stuff of being human.

“My experience has been that people love to learn about the hidden aspects of reality ... the fundamental questions and truths that transcend everyday life,” Greene says. “People can be wowed by the depth and insight science can provide.”

Five universities, as well as scientific and cultural institutions and government agencies, are partners in the endeavor. Swiss bank Credit Suisse is the principal sponsor.

A program titled “Illuminating Genius” will combine live performances, personal narratives and state-of-the art imaging technology to delve into questions about the creative process. Featuring performance artists Anna Deavere Smith and Bill T. Jones and scientists Vilayanur Ramachandran, David Eagleman and Nancy Andreasen, the program explores the idea of the innovative brain.

In the United States, “we do not have an adequate emphasis on the importance and excitement of science,” says Andreasen, known for her pioneering work using brain-scanning techniques to explore the neural basis of mental illness.

Andreasen will discuss her recent work scanning the brains of highly creative people. Singled out for their innovative approaches to problem-solving, her subjects have included Fields medalists, Nobel laureates and MacArthur fellows.

“My theory is the creative brain of an artist and a scientist is not differentthere’s a capacity to make novel associations,” she says. And her brain-imaging work suggests she’s onto something. The creative brains “all light up in the same way,” she says.

Greene hopes the festival will light new entryways to science. “Someone who wouldn’t go to a science fair but would go to the Guggenheim might come for the art and leave with the science,” he says.

Many of the festival events should have such appeal, such as one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offering a series of speakers who will connect the worlds of art and science. Richard Ernst, a chemistry Nobel laureate who is also an art collector and an expert in Tibetan paintings, will deliver the keynote address. Other speakers include research scientists from the Met and from New YorkUniversity who will discuss the techniques for revealing the ancient paints and gilding applied to classical Greek and Roman sculptures. HarvardUniversity’s Narayan Khandekar will delve into a technical analysis of three paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock.

“What might not be immediately evident to a visitor of a place like the MetropolitanMuseum is that there’s a relatively large scientific operation going on,” says Marco Leona, the museum’s head scientist. Trained as a chemist, Leona’s dissertation focused on properties of liquid crystals and materials for lasers. But he always had an interest in art (likely fostered by studying in Italy, where “people pay attention to the humanities,” he notes). The Met has 10 scientists on staff. “We’re doing chemistry and research just like a lot of labs; it just happens that we work on art.”

If people come away from the festival understanding not only that science lurks in museums of fine art, but also that science is everywhere, Greene will be pleased. “To have a general public that is intimidated or put off by science is hugely debilitating,” he says.

Hammel, co-director of research at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., agrees. Throughout her career, she has drawn connections between science and regular life, encouraging youngsters to see science as “something that they can do.”

Hammel will speak at a presentation at the New Victory Theater that will showcase the French circus troupe Compagnie 111.“ The shapes of things, movementit’s all about gravity,” she says. “Whether it’s on people or on planets, it’s the same basic laws.”

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