The third day of the World Science Festival invited attendees to consider our human origins, our future in space, and our potential for extreme behavior, and pit smarts against each other in a battle of science knowledge.
Explorer and paleoanthropologist Lee Berger was on deck for the second installment of Pioneers in Science, chatting with high school students from across the globe. The conversation centered around what we can tell about early humans and their relatives from their bones, as well as the exciting and scarier parts of exploration—such as getting stuck in a nine-inch-wide gap in a cave wall 200 feet below the surface.
One student wondered how scientists like Berger could tell male and female hominins apart without a complete skeleton. While we can say that males tend to be more robust and larger than females, what’s really important is to discover a wide sample of individuals from the same species, Berger explained. He alluded to a blockbuster discovery that he’s planning on publishing in the future, found at the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, that might help in this regard.
Students also got a sense of just how meticulous paleoanthropology can be. Depending on the way that a fossil is preserved, it can be an extremely laborious process to extract it from the rock—one skull in particular took 15,000 person-hours to clean completely. Thankfully, Berger, said, modern technologies like CT scans are making it easier than ever for people in his line of work to peer inside layers of ancient stone.
Studying all types of creatures, especially extinct ones, on the human family tree, is just as important as finding those direct ancestors of our lineage. “We need to understand processes that eliminate species as well as ones that allow them to flourish,” Berger told the students.
Overall, he exhorted the students to pursue their curiosities—even in places where conventional wisdom says there’s nothing more to find.
“We need your generation to get out from behind computers and start exploring,” Berger said.
Up at the Space Exploration: Reaching New Heights exhibit on Pier 86, kids got to try oodles of fun activities with the help of NASA educators. There was a NASA 3D viewing app that allowed visitors to experience 3D images of rockets and spacecraft, and even be virtually transported to Kennedy Space Center.
One booth showed off a model of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD, shown above), a very high-tech take on inner tubes that may one day help spacecraft come to a safe landing on Mars. HIAD, which in its final, fully inflated form is expected to span more than the length of a football field, is made from Kevlar (possibly to be replaced by the Kevlar successor Xylon), silicone, and a material made from specially designed ceramic fiber that protects the inflatable part of the device from the intense heat of deceleration.
Another section of the exhibit focused on infrared light and how the James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, will use it to see even more deeply into the cosmos. Kids got to see rovers in action, learn about the next generation of manned space vehicles, and interact with a scale model of the International Space Station and “Spacey Casey,” an intrepid wanderer in a replica spacesuit.
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.
The event was a team effort, and one source of amusement was the clever, geeky team names that cropped up throughout the program, such as All the Good Chemistry Names Argon, A Tardigrade Stole My TARDIS, Elephant Seal Team 6, Humungous Fungus, and FIFA Officials on Bail. When the team with the winning name—Schrodinger and Pavlov’s Animal Shelter—took to the stage to soak in the glory of their creativity, Salie asked the duo, “Are we sure you’re here?”
The man responded, “You have to open us up and see.” Then his partner quipped, “I’m here. He’s just your imagination.” Nerd humor ruled the night.
The play consisted of five rounds of eight timed questions, with answer sheets handed in at the end of each round. A physical challenge mixed things up during all but the lighting round and offered the winning team a lifeline—the ability to call on a group of scientists for help when stumped.
The physical challenges had contestants trying to perform tasks such as identifying smells blindfolded, mimicking the high-pitched sound of the leaf-nosed bat to estimate the room’s height, and finding their inner bird to strut their stuff on stage to try to top the red-capped manakin’s incredible mating dance. (See ~:40 into the video below.)
Two teams tied for the dance challenge, though Salie seemed taken with Team Lojbanistan when she confessed: “Speaking for myself, I felt like laying an egg.” Mark Siddall, curator for the AMNH’s Life at the Limits exhibit, was called upon to settle the tie.
Siddall explained his winning choice like so: “I feel that Lojbanistan says, Here I am, while the Colors That End in Urple says, Here I am, and I’m available.”
More than 50 teams took part in the festival’s first-ever trivia challenge, and judging by audience feedback, it was a success.
“We had the most fun here [at trivia],” said Kristen Goble, who is studying to be a dentist, and who has been coming to the festival from the Pittsburgh area with her family since 2013. Her mother and brother agreed. “We did have fun even though we were horrible,” said WSF veteran Kathy Goble, Kristen’s mom, quickly correcting herself with, “not terrible, but we weren’t close.” Kristen gave the 2015 WSF trivia event her firm seal of approval: “I think this was my favorite this year.”
Friday’s Big Ideas program, Planet of the Humans: The Leap to the Top, was a wide-ranging discussion of what makes humans human, featuring Berger, anthropologist Dean Falk, linguist Steven Pinker, and molecular biologist Paul Bingham. Each panelist had a different perspective on the significant events that have shaped humans into such unusual animals.
Falk highlighted all the unique selection pressures that human evolution placed on babies. As we became bipedal, our feet lost the ability to grasp, so unlike other primates, we couldn’t spend all of our time clinging to our mothers. We still crave that contact, though; as a result, Falk says, a “vocal channel” opened between babies and mothers that seeded the foundation of language.
Pinker highlighted the ways that humans have coevolved with tools and other artifacts. And, thanks to language and cooperation, humans do not have to keep reinventing the wheel, literally. Unlike other animals that have to improve over generations, “we can profit from all strokes of genius” in real-time, Pinker said.
Bingham talked about his social coercion theory that posits the unique way humans use the threat of violence to enforce good behavior and explain much about what separates us from other animals. Meanwhile, Berger emphasized that the fossil record is still far from complete.
“All of us are speaking glibly about the obviousness of human uniqueness, but there’s still no real biological definition of what it is to be a human,” Berger said.
How much does an environment change a person’s behavior? This is the question at the heart of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a cinematic retelling of the controversial psychological study conducted in 1971 by Stanford University’s Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and the question that framed the discussion following the screening of the movie at the 2015 World Science Festival featuring director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, anthropologist Scott Atran, science writer Dean Haycock, and psychologist Christina Maslach—the woman key to putting a stop to the real-life experiment.
The infamous prison experiment placed 24 college-age men into a simulated prison environment, randomly designating 12 as prisoners and 12 guards. As the subjects began to rapidly embody their designated roles, the fine line between role-playing and real-life conflict quickly disintegrated.
With legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin moderating the post-film discussion, the panelists took on matters ranging from the potential for corruption in everyday humans to how issues revealed in the experiment relate to modern day problems such as ISIS recruitment.
Director Kyle Patick Alvarez underscored how the “experiment was a defining moment for us as a culture.”
Maslach, who, as Zimbardo’s girlfriend back in 1971, stepped in and convinced Zimbardo to terminate the experiment early, summed the experiment up like this: “I think that experiment showed us a lot. We learned about each other and ourselves, including myself. Questions such as: How would you react in a situation that you weren’t prepared for? How might you act? What might you be capable of?”
This event was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of its Public Understanding of Science and Technology Initiative.
All photos by Greg Kessler