From May 27-31, 2015, the World Science Festival took New York City by storm, delivering a dazzling, dizzying array of science to the city’s five boroughs.
“… the festival has by now carved out a place in the city’s cultural scene.”
“As the 2015 World Science Festival wrapped up today in New York City, crowds came out to practice their space surfing, launch rockets, and learn a little more about how our world works.”
“If the World Science Festival that just wrapped up in the city accomplished nothing else—and I’m confident it accomplished a whole lot more—it was responsible for the cool, new, free app my phone now boasts.”
“What a joy to see so many kids (and adults!) going bananas after getting their first looks at the Moon, Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter. What a glorious Saturday night we had.”
—Astronomy Magazine (6/1/2015)
Spanning the run of the entire festival was the NASA Orbit Pavilion, a joint project of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Studio KCA, and sonic artist Shane Myrbeck, which brought the sounds of satellites to life alongside hands-on activities and talks with NASA scientists about everything from ice to augmented reality.
The Festival’s opening night culminated with the premiere of the original work “Light Falls” featuring Festival co-founder Brian Greene and an ensemble cast. As the New York Times put it: “Since the World Science Festival began in 2008, Dr. Greene and his team of artists and educators have discovered (in part through considerable ticket sales) that people who might never attend a half-hour lecture will soak up 90 minutes of science, provided it is presented as top-notch theater.”
Earlier in the day, at the event Who Run the Lab?, high school students from across New York City got to meet scientist role models, experience a myriad of scientific work, and tour a number of women-run laboratories at Columbia University, New York University, and the City College of New York.
The girls who toured Columbia neuroscientist Nim Tottenham‘s laboratory got to see a mock MRI machine that Tottenham uses to prep her child research participants. Her work involves scanning children’s brains in response to various stimuli.
And in Columbia bioengineer Elizabeth Hillman‘s lab, students got to see Hillman’s hand-built microscopes, which are made to specific parameters such that they can manipulate light to see changes in blood flow in living organisms.
At NYU, anthropologist Shara Bailey showed students an assortment of human bones (really, casts of bones) and talked about the incredible amount of information that can be gleaned from them. Small grooves left by blood vessels can show you that a fragment of skull was located on the back right of the head; the distinctive facets on another thick fragment mark it as part of the eye socket.
At “To Infinity and Beyond: The Accelerating Universe,” a stellar panel of physicists dived into the observations and theories that shape our understanding of the geometry and expansion of the cosmos.
Nobel Prize-winning researcher Adam Riess talked about his work examining the light from distant supernovae to clock the pace of distant regions of space. Famed physicist Priyamvada Natarajan explained how dark matter-stuffed galaxy clusters create “potholes in space-time” that aid the search for dark energy, that mysterious stuff that makes up more than two-thirds of the universe. Theorist Neil Turok raised an important and chilling question: If dark energy-driven expansion creates a horizon beyond which we can never possibly see, how can we ever hope to create a grand unified theory of everything? (Read more on this program.)
At the “Cheers to Science: Something Old, Something Brewed” event Dogfish Head president and founder Sam Calagione and biomolecular archaeologist Pat McGovern began their tasting tour of interpretive beer-making and the science they harness to make it happen in ancient Turkey with the very first ancient ale the duo created, Midas Touch.
Calagione explained how alcoholic beverages were often used in religious ceremonies from early on because of the feeling of “being closer to the gods.” McGovern described how his scientific team analyzed yellowish residues found in 2,700-year-old vessels used in a funeral ceremony for a king—possibly King Midas, who actually existed, McGovern noted. The highly unusual mixture of tartaric acid (the principal organic acid in grapes), beeswax (the marker for mead), and barley beer (the marker for beer) discovered through the analysis suggests the vessels had contained a grog, and it was grog that became the inspiration for Midas Touch.
They then took the crowd back further in time to China, the birthplace of alcoholic beverages, Calagione and McGovern explained, as audience members tried a rice-based drink made of orange blossom honey, muscat grape juice, hawthorn fruit, and barley malt styled from a fermented Chinese rice-based beverage made some 9,000 years ago. Next up was their Kvasir, a Scandinavian-influenced sour beverage modeled on the chemical and botanical evidence discovered in a 3,500-year-old birch-bark drinking vessel from the tomb of a woman whose body was so well kept that part of her brain tissue was still preserved.
The duo ended the evening with an agave-based beverage crafted from findings in Mexican drinking vessels that predate the Europeans’ arrival. This recreated pulque, likely to be called “Two Rabbit” after the Aztec god Ometochtli, made its premiere at the festival. When Sam asked the audience if they should go ahead with brewing up a batch to sell as an official Dogfish ancient ale, a resounding round of cheers erupted in the room indicating a hearty yes.
At Thursday’s Trivia Night at the Museum host Faith Salie set the stage for the theme of the event with the line: “Let’s begin with the tardigrade.” For the uninitiated tardigrades are tiny, eight-legged extreme critters who are famous in nerddom for having been blasted up into space—and survived, but the WSF15 trivia night was anything but for the uninitiated. Anyone who hadn’t toured the American Museum of Natural History’s Life at the Limits exhibit on extreme creatures (which was included in the ticket price) would have faced, well, extreme challenges.
‘Robot’ – Curtain Raiser
The Big Ideas program “Planet of the Humans: The Leap to the Top” started off with an excerpt from the hit show “Robot” choreographed by choreographer/filmmaker Blanca Li, which featured a pas de deux between a limber human dancer and a tentative robot partner.
What do you get when you combine a stuntman, an astrophysicist, a turkey vulture trainer, and a marine biologist? Answer: Cool Jobs!
Special effects master Steve Wolf showed how simple science can allow him to safely perform stunts that look terrifying—like controlling fire or allowing a 13-year-old girl to lift a fully-grown man with just her pinky finger.
Ocean researcher Marah Hardt got the audience to make noises reminiscent of a chorus of coral reef fish and talked about conserving the sea for generations to come.
NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn talked about what it takes to be an astrophysicist and showed off her favorite space photo: the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field.
And wildlife educator Tanya Lowe brought two special guests: a Harris’s hawk and her special friend Barf, a turkey vulture, who flew low to the stage over a group of very brave children.
Reinventing the ice cream wheel when it’s not broken is a business as tricky as mixing metaphors, but when done tastefully, it’s just the kind of mashup people savor or perhaps even clamor for, and newfangled ice cream was just what the people gathered at “Scientific Kitchen: We All Scream for (Stretchy) Ice Cream” were waiting for.
As two mixing bowls whirred away, NYU chemist Kent Kirshenbaum and former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses began their discussion of reinterpreting ice cream to make it stretchy, the science required for the transformation, and important takeaways about the mix of chemistry, food, and health.
Before diving into the stretchy part, they gave a primer on some of the science behind ice cream, describing the different phases of matter involved in it—solids in the form of crystals and fats and ice particles, liquids in the form of the unfrozen water molecules, and air pulled into the mix through the process of beating.
For their stretchy recipe, they explained that to the common ingredients of milk, sugar, and flour, they added two key ingredients: salep (which translates as “fox testicle,” has been used in cooking for centuries, and comes from the tubers of orchids native to the Anatolian mountains) and the tree resin mastic (for some added flavoring and gumminess). After the long mixing process (to beat air into the mix) they used liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature down to freezing.
As the science lesson and ice cream making wound down, the room got to try the stretchy ice cream with a piece of pecan or raspberry pie. One woman, when asked what she thought of it, tactfully said with a smile that the consistency is interesting, and that the event had been fascinating. Definitely worth it, she said. As for the taste? “Well, it isn’t ice cream.”
In “Time Is of the Essence … or Is It?” a panel of physicists explored the meaning of time, through such questions as, is time real or just a concept? Is it emergent? Fundamental? A thing? Moderator Jim Holt framed the discussion by reviewing the evolution of the concept of time through the centuries. And then off they went.
Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, the panel’s biggest believer in the reality of time, said that he used to agree with Einstein’s point of view, but after pondering how nature came to choose the laws of physics, he concluded “there would have to be dynamics under which the laws themselves evolved and change in time.” If time were emergent, it would be emerging “from timeless laws and there would be no way they could evolve.”
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, the panel’s biggest disbeliever in the reality of time, made the distinction that time is real but not fundamental. The best conceptualization we have, he said, is to “just think of the way things change with respect to one another.”
Physicist Vijay Balasubramanian pointed out that space and time are physical entities, actual things (before that, they were stages, fiction, not a thing), and with physical things, you need to look at their dynamics, how they move and change, and then you need to look at small versus large things because quantum mechanics informs us that very small things don’t stay put—they fluctuate. If you accept these premises, Balasubramanian said, then the question becomes, can you build a theory of space and time using quantum mechanical rules? It’s an exceedingly challenging problem, and two ways physicists are trying to figure this out are through studying the very early universe and black holes. Time ends inside a black hole. “That’s strange,” Balasubramanian said, “What does that mean? I’d like to solve that. You also lose information, something that goes against physics.”
Physicist and philosopher David Albert noted that Newton’s decision to make time a parameter was the “founding and characteristic gesture of modern physics” since it enabled physics to become quantitative.
At the final event of the Festival, Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose many books include To Explain the World, launched his talk by expressing concern over science’s money problems: The golden age in science in the United States may be coming to an end thanks to a reluctance to fund projects such as the Large Hadron Supercollider, which ended up being built in Geneva. It would be “tragic,” Weinberg said, if all we did is go on verifying the Standard Model.
When asked by moderator John Hockenberry to identify the greatest “unlearning” that had to be done in physics over the last 100 years, Weinberg replied that it was to reject the notions that physics and chemistry were separate sciences and that biology had independent laws.
Then it was on to Newton whom Weinberg called “the greatest figure of all” in one breath while commenting in another that he’s “a very strange character, someone I don’t think I would like to have a beer with.” So why such praise for Newton? While his “opinions do not form the basis of modern views,” Newton changed the world by giving us “a model for what a physical theory can be and can do.” And, as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper noted, Weinberg said, “the success of Newton’s theories eventually led to the end of burning witches.”
When it comes to having a beer with a long-gone scientist, Weinberg said, he would prefer to drink with 17th-century Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens. Before Huygens, Weinberg explained, scientists wrote textbooks as if they were mathematics textbooks, starting with unquestioned postulates, but Huygens stated in an introduction to a book on light that it would be different from a book on geometry because he was starting with postulates of which he was not certain.
After a question-and-answer session with the audience, Hockenberry asked Weinberg what he would choose if he could send a concept or symbol to an alien civilization. Weinberg replied that despite his criticisms of Pythagoras, he would send a picture of a right triangle with notations describing the Pythagorean theorem.
Image: Yasmin Tayag, Roxanne Palmer
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