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Spring fling with science

The World Science Festival had its maiden launch today in New York, with a grand sendoff from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The kickoff also featured the announcement of the first Kavli Prizes for nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics - adding an extra dash of million-dollar pizazz.

For five days, the Big Apple is serving as the prime intersection of entertainment and science - not just for New Yorkers, but also for prominent out-of-town scientists such as MIT robotics whiz Cynthia Breazeal, genetics guru Francis Collins, telegenic British physicist Brian Cox and ... heck, I've just gotten to the C's. The VIP list also includes actors and singers, directors and dancers.

Scott Gries / Getty Images
Brian Greene is co-founder of the

World Science Festival, which runs

through June 1 in New York City.

The festival is the brainchild of television producer Tracy Day and Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of the best-selling book "The Elegant Universe" and one of the few guys in physics who can make string theory sexy.

Greene has had well more than his 15 minutes of fame as an adept explainer of cosmic concepts - and his hope is that the festival will become an annual celebration of science, not only in New York, but across the country and the world.

On the eve of the festival's opening, Greene took a few minutes to discuss his vision for the festival and beyond:

Q: How is the science festival coming together?

Greene: The programming has come together extremely well. Such a wide range of voices will be heard at the festival, in a broad spectrum of formats. I think it’s a real arena where people will experience science differently than they do in any other place.

Q: The whole point of this is to present science in a different way. Building on this idea of the 'arena,' do you see science as something that in this setting will be like … entertainment?

A: Well, I certainly hope that the events are at least in part entertaining, but it’s not about entertainment per se. It’s about communicating the core ideas of the wonder of science that has been developed over the last hundred years, 20 years, five years, in a way that people can take a step back and say, 'I really got that. I really understand what that’s about, and it was so exciting I want to read more about it, and learn more about it.'

Our general philosophy is that, as we head into the 21st century, there are so many challenges and opportunities, from climate change to stem cells, genomic sequencing, nanotechnology, space travel, alternative energy - it’s a long list of things that fundamentally rely upon science. To have a public that can make informed decisions, you need a public that is excited to grasp the underlying science. And that’s what this is about.

Q: Some have argued that the frontier of science has become such an arcane subject – we’re talking about extra dimensions in physics, or stem cells – subjects that are so removed from everyday reality, and this is one reason why there’s such a problem with science literacy. That’s why it’s such a hard nut to crack …

A: I find that a reverse way of looking at it. To me, the very ideas you just mentioned – the possibility of extra dimensions, the potential utility of stem cells – that is the richest material for getting people excited about science, so long as it's communicated in a way that is accessible. I believe that all of these ideas are ones that can be communicated in a way that makes sense, and feels inspiring and compelling and at the same time educational.

Q: Are there new ways of presenting this information, or is it a case of going back to basic forms, such as the storytelling approach?

A: Certainly the storytelling approach, to my mind, is the most powerful. But of course it depends on how it's executed, and that's why the festival has put together a stellar team of journalists who have spent their careers in broadcast, bringing difficult nonfiction ideas to general audiences. Very few of them have ever applied those methods to science. So it's really just making use of a wealth of experience that has been brought to bear on other subjects, and focusing it upon science.

Q: Can you cite a case study that will help people visualize this approach?

A: For instance, Oliver Sacks is doing an event with the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, called "Music and the Brain." And the point is to have a discussion of how music affects us neurologically. But rather than just having Oliver Sacks describe this in words, or perhaps in pictures, we want the audience to experience it so that they'll be engulfed in this uplifting music - and with that experience, we'll then have a discussion of what actually is going on neurologically. So it's a far more potent way of getting across the idea. You experience what it is that's being discussed, as opposed to just having it discussed in the abstract.

Q: That almost sounds like what Leonard Bernstein did with his "Young People’s Concerts."

A: Yes. I’m less familiar with that than Tracy Day, the festival’s executive director, but she has mentioned that a few times. ...

I can give you a couple of other examples: There's an event called "Illuminating Genius," with [choreographer/dancer] Bill T. Jones and [artist] Matthew Ritchie, in conversation with the neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and Nancy Andreasen and David Eagleman. Here is a group of neuroscientists who have expertise in neuroimaging, who have spent time thinking about how creativity manifests itself in the brain. They'll have the creative artists there, one of whom has had a brain scan, and they'll analyze the way in which the creative impulse these people are known for manifests itself physically in the architecture of their brains.

Another program is one that I'm doing on quantum physics. I'm trying to get across the key idea of quantum physics, that the world evolves according to rules that are fundamentally probabilistic. I'll use animation to get that idea across. But when I get to the key idea, the light on the stage will shift to a dance troupe that has choreographed a 90-second piece that is an embodiment of probability in human movement.

They have a big cube, a big die that they throw back and forth as they're dancing. Every so often it drops to the ground, and based on which face comes up, that determines how the dance proceeds from that point. So the audience can really see probability at work, after hearing about probability being injected into the fundamental laws of physics.

In summary, there are a lot of elements that aim to reach the person more than just through their head.

Q: Do you feel like you're just preaching to the converted? These are people who are energized to seek out science, but there's a larger problem having to do with people who are not keyed into the scientific endeavor at all, and don't wish to be, and base their views on unscientific ideas that they've grown up with?

A: I guess the way I would say it is that we aim to create new avenues of entry into science,  for the person who wouldn't normally go to a science event.  So the person who wouldn't go to a science event but loves the Abyssinian Choir will go to this event for the music, but they will leave with an understanding of some of the science.

So the hope certainly is that by having unusual pairings of scientists and artists, you bring in people who are coming in for the art and leaving with the science.

We're also bringing in the kids, through the youth and family program. They're following a similar philosophy. Disney is coming and doing the science of the imagination. The kids who love pyrotechnics and virtual reality and robotics, roller coasters, things of that sort, will come for that as the draw, but then the program takes them behind the scenes and reveals the science. The science of sports, that's a similar program. Kids come in to watch NBA stars throw hoops, but then you have scientists who can speak to the underlying ideas of mechanics, physics, and to the training regimen for these great athletes.

So in this way we are setting the groundwork for an event year by year that can reach further and further away from the "converted."

Q: It's been a rough few years for science, and there's been a lot of controversy over how much of a role science has played in public policy. Do you feel as if a corner has been turned? Is the festival one step along the way?

A: I definitely do feel the festival is one step along the way. With a new administration, there's a good chance that the role of science in the public sphere will shift dramatically. And therefore the time is ripe to have a celebration that perhaps starts in New York but has a ripple effect. I hope in future years that there will be allied festivals at the same time around the country.

We've already been contacted by people who want to run such festivals in alliance with the New York event. There's a real capacity to have a week focusing each year on science, that will itself infuse the public sphere with these ideas, so that people will be apt to think in these terms.

What bright ideas do you have for science outreach? Been to any good scientific cafes lately? Feel free to add your comments below.