Rock Star Physicist Brian Greene Brings World Science Festival to New York

This week Treehugger (TH) had the opportunity to speak with rock star physicist Brian Greene, who is well known for his best selling books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, his NOVA special, his appearances on the Colbert report, Late Night with David Letterman, and his TED lectures. We spoke about the World Science Festival (WSF), which Greene will be bringing to New Yorkers May 28th through June 1st and about his general mission of bringing science to the people.
TH: We here at Treehugger, (well at least those of us based in New York City) are excited about the festival, so instead of trying to explain string theory, let's speak about the festival, and your mission of bringing science to the people. What made you interested in bringing science to the people?

Dr. Brian Greene (BG): Well, there are number of reasons. First, many of the challenges we face including climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, as well as many opportunities we have, including stem cells, genomic sequencing, nanoscience and many others, rely on science at their core. It's critical to have a general public that's willing to engage with the science if we're to make informed decisions in these areas. Second, I've long since recognized that science is a largely untapped reservoir of inspiration—the ideas and insights of science are so spectacular, but many miss out because they got turned off from science in school. If science is presented well—if the drama of scientific discovery is brought out, people begin to see science in a completely different light. The World Science Festival aims to take live science programming to a new level.

TH: There are a lot of other ways to get exposed to science, e.g in the New York metro area, the Museum of Natural History and Liberty Science Center, what makes the festival different from a museum or a science lecture at a university?

BG: Well, we are striving to make our programs anything but a typical science lecture. Through a sharp attention to production values and the inclusion in many programs of multimedia elements, the Festival's programs seek to show a different side of science. The eye-opening, provocative, thrilling side of science.

With a program of over 40 events, the Festival covers a wide range of science from cosmology to quantum physics, to neuroscience, to sustainability and much more. The Youth and Family events will feature Science of the Imagination presented by Disney, The Science of Sports (with the NBA), as well as many other programs that reveal how science abounds in familiar places. There will also be a Science Street Fair for kids, but with science, not sausages as the focus. Finally, there are a variety of Science and Culture programs that seek to provide new avenues of entry into science—through music, theatre, and dance. Oliver Sacks is doing a program on Music and the Brain with the Abysnnian Baptist Choir, Alan Alda's written a new play based on the letters of Albert Einstein.

This range of programming can garner the critical mass of public and media attention to create a kind of tipping point where those involved begin to see science differently.

TH: Well then, playing devil's advocate, with all this culture and talk of integrating fun, how do you avoid being accused of "dumbing" down science?

BG: This is an important question, because the integrity of the science is what is paramount to us. Even amidst all the multimedia elements, and the emphasis on accessibility, the producers are paying unflagging attention to the integrity of the core science at the heart of each event. Where there is entertainment, we look at it as entertainment in the service of science.

TH: There has been much talk in the lectures I've attended recently, such as talks by E.O. Wilson and Al Gore, about how America is falling behind in the sciences and risks not being able to compete with China and India. Is this a valid concern? And is the WSF addressing this concern?

BG: Yes, it is a valid concern and it is worrisome. The WSF is hopefully one of many events for people, and kids in particular, that will start revitalizing interest in science. I believe that if the general culture marginalizes science, the consequences are dire. We want people to walk away from an event at the Festival and say, "Wow, that's great. I got that". And then, have that person realize that science is something they can bring into their lives.

TH: Why did you choose NYC as a location? And what do you recommend for many of our readers who won't be able to attend in person?

BH: The wealth of scientific and cultural institutions in New York is unsurpassed. We decided to leverage those enormous resources to create an event in which science takes center stage in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. For those who can't attend the Festival, some of the events will be available online in the coming months. Overall, we realized that NYC is a noisy place, but if you're able to rise above the noise you can have great impact.

TH: Many of our readers will be most interested in the events that deal with sustainability, the environment, and the green movement. Can you highlight those events?

BG: Two events, "Future Cities" and "Powering the Planet," will discuss the role that cutting edge, innovative science plays as it relates to these crucial environmental topics. Also, on the day before the public programming begins, May 28th there will also be an invitation only event where political and scientific leaders will come together—and part of that full day of discussion will focus on green/sustainability issues.

TH: What can a festival really accomplish in three days? How will you continue the movement and get it to live on?

BG: The WSF will have a year-long presence, providing programming at a less intense pace and culminating each year in the public festival. The programming will provide a means for the public to connect with science on a regular basis. I am realistic about the goals of what a first-year festival can accomplish, but believe that movements often start with small beginnings that later result in large impact.

TH: How do you perform the magic trick of focusing your time on scientific research and on bringing science to the public?

BG: My mission isn't one every scientist pursues, but it has become a passion for me. Even when I was solely doing research for 14 hours a day, I always felt a pull to bring it to the people beyond the smaller group colleagues who would peruse the articles. But yes, such activities do involve a delicate balance as, unfortunately, one's time is not unlimited.

TH: In the last 8 years there have been cutbacks in funding for the sciences and the media have commented that at times the current administration seems particularly hostile to science. What can the government do, especially a new administration, whether it is Republican or Democratic, in 2008, to bring science into its proper place?

BG: Science has definitely been pushed to the side in the current administration. A new administration will be able to do a lot to address this problem. Funding is one of the main ways. There is a lot of exciting research that isn't being done because there is inadequate financial support. An administration that engages science in its decision-making is absolutely critical.

TH: You mentioned Alan Alda's theater piece for the festival, how did you come to work with him? And how did WSF come to exist?

BG: I met Alan while he was doing the play QED. He was playing Richard Feynman onstage, and he called me because he had lines in the play dealing with quantum mechanics, and he really wanted to understand what they meant beyond what was needed to play the role. Alan was interested in the underlying science. As for the genesis of the WSF, the Festival's co-founder Tracy Day, who is an Emmy-award winning journalist that produced programs for ABC news for a decade, and I realized that a science festival would be a natural marriage of our respective areas of expertise—science and production. We both realized that this was an opportunity to combine our interests to really make a difference.

TH: What about what you have done so far has encouraged or discouraged you about bringing science to the public?

BG: I am encouraged by the 15,000 or so emails and 5,000 letters I've received from people who've gotten so excited about science. These letters have been from different groups of people: retired seniors, middle aged investors, even five year olds. [TH: their parents emailed BG their kids' questions]. When I see such a broad spectrum of interest it really encourages me to put on an event like this, because I know there is an audience who hungers for this kind of programming.. The response from university presidents, noble laureates', and the city of New York has all been: "Great! We want to be a part of this!" and that, of course, is gratifying and encouraging. It is not often you can work on something that has high content, broad audience appeal, and the capacity to bring people into a new world.

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