'It's not science fiction — it's even cooler'

/ Source: The Associated Press

From medicine cabinets to the fermented beer in the fridge, Americans are surrounded by science all the time. The St. Louis Science Center is launching a festival this week to help people better understand, and enjoy, the ways that science plays a role in everyday lives.

St. Louis was chosen from about 20 American cities to host SciFest, which is based on a popular English gathering called the Cheltenham Science Festival.

"There's this potpourri for the intellectually stimulated," said Doug King, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Science Center. Most presentations are an hour long, and scientists will tackle topics from the latest developments in stem cell science to the physics of rock guitar — using riffs from Vivaldi to Queen to illustrate points.

"You don't have this sense of, 'Here's my speech; where are my slides? I've got a plane to catch,'" King said. Presentations will be interactive, with scientists giving demonstrations, engaging audiences in the conversation and keeping their talks at a relatable level, he said.

Topics include everything from University of Texas professor and author Diandra Leslie-Pelecky on the "Physics of NASCAR" to Harvard physicist Giovanni Fazio on the birth and death of stars.

Most of the presentations are mainly geared toward adults, though there are special school programs planned. Participants pay by the session, with most costing $6. The festival itself costs about $500,000, King said, with corporate sponsors and community partners assisting.

SciFest co-director Naomi Joshi said it seems almost every aspect of people's lives, from elevators to iPods, relate to science, but "we don't talk about science at the dinner table."

She said many adults may not have had a good experience with science in school, so they don't tie what's going on in their lives to science, and as a result also don't encourage children to be enthusiastic about it.

SciFest, with separate presentations about chocolate or climate change, dating or depression, aims to sparks some new interest.

On Thursday night, members of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest medical team will present findings from Mount Everest, where they researched how the body manages oxygen. They say the information could help doctors better care for intensive care patients in situations where low oxygen levels are common.

King will take part in the presentation because he was one of hundreds of people who volunteered to go to Everest with the researchers to have his responses tested.

Filmmakers from the IMAX film "Everest" also plan to show a clip from new filming of the Everest medical team's work, said King. Frank Burnet, founding director of the Cheltenham Science Festival, will also be on hand.

On Saturday morning, Angela Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport and exercise sciences at the University of Kansas, will present, "Is It Fair? Using Science to Build the Perfect Athlete." She'll include recent examples from the Olympics, like new developments in swimming and track apparel, to take a look at what's considered fair play these days, she said.

That night, Michael Lynch from the radio talk show "Paranormal Tuesdays" will show examples of paranormal sightings and explain the science of psychic phenomenon.

King said St. Louis educational centers, businesses and researchers worked to get SciFest in the city, much as a community vies to host the Final Four.

The event's name, he said, has been misleading to some who think it's a celebration of science fiction.

"It's not science fiction," King said. "It's even cooler."