World Science Festivities

By Sean Carroll | June 16, 2009 4:14 pm

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.

Time Since Einstein Panel 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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Travel
  • Carl Zimmer

    I was told about how at one WSF a scientist froze balloons into flat disks with liquid nitrogen, then threw them across an auditorium like frisbees, whereupon they popped open as the air inside began to boil. That seems like the ticket.

  • Jackie Stone

    I attended “Time Since Einstein” panel, as well as “Navigating the Cosmos,” “What It Means To Be Human,” “Einstein, Time, and Cool Stuff” and “Infinite Worlds.”

    “Time Since Einstein” and “Navigating the Cosmos” were actually my two favorite, mostly because I found them the most informative (and they also have to do with the fields I’m interested in). However I do agree that a few less panelists on “Time Since Einstein” might have been better. Overall, though, it made me really rethink some of the preconceptions I had about the nature of time and my reductionist tendencies.

    However, I wish there was more time to ask questions because I wanted to ask you about something you said at the end of the panel. If I am remembering correctly, you said something about the fact that an a splattered egg cannot turn back into a pristine unbroken egg is the best evidence we have that we live in a multiverse. As an undergraduate physics student, I’m having a lot of difficulty discerning what you meant by that statement. Do you think you could explain further. (I’m sorry if you have already blogged about this…I tried searching the blog to see if I could find anything about it but I could not. Feel free to just link me to the article if this is the case).

  • Chad Orzel

    I was told about how at one WSF a scientist froze balloons into flat disks with liquid nitrogen, then threw them across an auditorium like frisbees, whereupon they popped open as the air inside began to boil. That seems like the ticket.

    That would almost certainly be Bill Phillips. I’ve seen him do that talk a bunch of times, and it’s always great fun. I’ve also shamelessly stolen bits of his act for my own occasional presentations on laser cooling.

  • George Musser

    My daughter (age 6) and I found the street fair disappointing. It was oddly laid out — you could never tell whether you’d missed something — and the booths were of highly variable quality. In a couple, presenters tried to deliver lectures to a large crowd without a megaphone. The best booths were too crowded to get into, unless you were willing to brusquely elbow your way in. At others, kids kept cutting in line in front of my daughter and eventually I had to intervene. The most successful events were the non-science ones, such as the music and magic shows. The bottom line is that the fair just wasn’t set up for the crowd it drew. In a way, that’s a good thing, but it does suggest the organizers could improve on it for next year.

  • Sean

    Jackie– That was obviously a provocative statement, which there was no time to justify. Basically, the irreversibility implied by our inability to unscramble an egg implies that the early universe had a very low entropy. (Plenty of other things also imply that.) That’s a mystery, especially if you believe that the underlying laws of physics are symmetric under time-reversal. I argue that, just as the existence of a low-entropy egg is ultimately explained by recourse to a larger system involving chickens and so forth, the existence of a low-entropy early universe can ultimately be explained by recourse to a larger multiverse of which we are a very small part. For more see here, or you could of course wait for the book.

  • Pamela

    I also attended “Time Since Einstein,” and agree there were too many panelists. I thought the moderator did a great job of tying everyone together, given the difficulty posed by the varying specialties, but I was left wanting to hear more from each. It was torture being in a room with Roger Penrose for that long and only hearing him speak a precious few times!

    Anyway, I am a regular reader and didn’t know that you were on the panel, Sean, until I got there. Nice to finally see you in person, even though you did not see me!

  • nick herbert

    “I argue that, just as the existence of a low-entropy egg is ultimately explained by recourse to a larger system involving chickens and so forth, the existence of a low-entropy early universe can ultimately be explained by recourse to a larger multiverse of which we are a very small part. For more see here, or you could of course wait for the book.”

    Sean, your argument that the improbably low entropy of the early universe implies that our universe is part of a larger (multi-universe) sounds suspiciously like the theological Argument from Design. Eggs is too improbable to have happened by chance; hence God exists. But since part of the science game consists of seeing how much we can explain without invoking the God hypothesis, your tack seems to be to invoke–as explanation for eggs–the existence of an entity almost humanly inconceivably gigantic and awesome. But not Divine.

  • Sean

    If you forget that God is an ill-defined supernatural construct, while the multiverse is simply a prediction of certain proposed laws of physics, then I could see how they might seem similar. But really they’re not at all. Just because something is “gigantic and awesome” doesn’t mean it has anything to do with God.

  • Phillip Helbig

    I suspect that the multiverse is a bit like the anthropic principle: most statements concerning it are correct but trivial or completely wrong, but there is a small subset which are really interesting.

    Could one explain ANYTHING, however improbable but with a finite probability, via the multiverse? That does sound a bit like the “devil created the fossils” argument. Of course, in both cases this is not a proof that they are wrong, but if one goes this route, then conventional science has little to say. I think that’s what Nick Herbert was getting at.

  • Lab Lemming

    How are “inspiring” and “informative” antithetical? Haven’t you ever been to a planetarium?

  • Peter Coles


    I have an important question. Do you think Roger Penrose dyes his hair?


  • Phillip Helbig

    I’m probably not getting Peter’s joke. Maybe there is another universe in the multiverse in which I do get it, and certainly one in which Penrose dyes his hair and one in which he doesn’t.

  • Sean

    If he does, it had been a while; he was looking fairly gray.

  • Oded

    Carl –

    It’s a great lecture, very fun! I just told someone about this lecture today as we passed a liquid nitrogen tank…

  • Pingback: Manufacturing universes in a fractal multiverse « Not Even Wrong()


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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