Cue the Music and Bad Jokes: The World Science Festival Opening Gala

By Andrew Grant | June 11, 2009 2:10 pm

EO WilsonLast night at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York City, the second annual World Science Festival kicked off with a gala that attracted scientists, actors, and musicians alike.

The goal of the celebration, and the whole five-day festival, is to show how science can be fun and mainstream without being mutually exclusive with art, literature, and music. (This rift between science and the humanities took center stage at the Two Cultures Conference sponsored by DISCOVER last month.) Actor and event co-chair Alan Alda set the tone by calling science and art long-lost lovers. “Both light up your neurons like a pinball machine,” he said.

The performances began with Broadway actor Jonathan Hadary singing a musical tribute to every element on the periodic table. String theorist Brian Greene shared the stage with violinist Joshua Bell in a joint production that featured stirring selections from a Eugène Ysaÿe violin sonata interspersed with mind-boggling descriptions of the extra dimensions of space.

The night’s guest of honor was legendary evolutionary biologist and ant enthusiast Edward O. Wilson, who happened to be celebrating his 80th birthday. At the reception following the show, he emphasized the importance of protecting biodiversity. While thankful for the increased awareness of climate change, he warned that “if we save the physical environment only, we will lose everything.”

Nobel laureate James Watson won the most memorable speech award in a landslide. True to the style that has gotten him in trouble in the past, he produced an off-the-cuff tribute to Wilson that generated one part laughter and four parts awkward silence. After saying that he’d initially ignored Wilson because “biologists were the dumb part of science,” Watson congratulated his good friend and proclaimed, “We should be happy he hasn’t died prematurely.”

To close the show, a choir sang “What a Wonderful World” as balloons floated into the crowd. A bit over the top—we were waiting to hold up lighters and sing “Kumbaya”—but we’ll give the WSF organizers a pass on what otherwise was a tremendous start to the festival.

Related:
Discoblog’s Full Coverage of the 2009 World Science Festival

Image: Stephanie Berger, Courtesy World Science Festival

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