PT thanks marketing consultant and science enthusiast Rich Kelley for this piece.
Considering the star power of the participating scientist/authors—Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Marvin Minsky, Oliver Sacks, among many others—what was perhaps most surprising about the 2010 World Science Festival was how few opportunities attendees had to purchase books by the minds they came clamoring to hear. Now in its third year, the festival once again demonstrated the public’s near insatiable appetite for science. With its budget nearing $5 million, WSF presented more than 40 events at 17 venues around the city over five days in early June. Many of the events cost $25, but 25 of them sold out and the “unofficial” estimate is that 170,000 science enthusiasts of all ages attended.
WSF is the nonprofit brainchild of bestselling author and physicist Brian Greene and his wife, TV producer Tracy Day, and aims to explore “the unfolding of the greatest and grandest of all mystery stories as our species seeks to grasp itself, the world, and the larger universe.” While the number of new sponsors and partners increases every year, the only media companies participating this year were Scientific American, New Scientist, The Week, and ABC News. Where were the publishers and booksellers? Even Bantam Dell’s announcement of Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, missed the festival, but the book’s pub date isn’t until September.
However, some scientist-authors were not shy about promoting their work. In one spirited exchange during “The Limits of Understanding” panel, AI expert Marvin Minsky seemingly grew exasperated with philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein over why science cannot explain consciousness. “There are 26 different meanings for the word ‘consciousness.’ See chapter 4 of The Emotion Machine. We need to treat each meaning as a separate problem to solve.”
WSF makes a point of celebrating science’s long-standing, if not always reciprocal, relationship to art. As physicist Lawrence Krauss put it: “Artists are inspired by physics even when they get it wrong.”
The most difficult aspect of the WSF was choosing what to see. On Thursday, for instance, attendees had to choose between sessions on scientific innovation (“Modern MacGyvers”), science and art, the human genome, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the science of sound, black holes or brutality and the brain. The first event to sell out every year is Nobelist William Phillips’s Saturday afternoon science talk, this year called “Einstein, Time, and the Explorer’s Clock.” Phillips related clock making to the calculation of longitude to why you need four satellites for a GPS system. Discussing how we might slow down cesium in an atomic clock led to live demonstrations of what liquid nitrogen does to flowers, rubber balls, balloons, and even marble stairs. Young scientists scrambled to catch the prize frozen balloons Phillips flung into the audience.
Only slightly less popular was “Astronaut Diary,” where astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson spoke to children live from the International Space Station about life in space. Space Station astronauts Leland Melvin and Sandra Magnus were at the Kimmel Center live to answer dozens of questions, including the most asked one: how do you go to the bathroom in space? (Answer: air suction replaces gravity and astronauts use video cameras during training so they can learn perfect positioning.)
On the last day of the festival, booths ringed Washington Square Park offering science-related merchandise and activities aimed at “children of all ages.” Authors of science-related children’s books filled most of the schedule at “Author’s Alley” on the eighth floor of the Kimmel Center, where talks and book signings occurred. The NYU Bookstore’s selection of titles here was the only festival-related venue for book buying.