Was Jason Bourne's amnesia neuroscientifically accurate? What does science have to say about morality or about basketball rebounds? If nothing else, the upcoming World Science Festival—running from May 28 through June 1 in New York City—breaks through the abstruseness barrier. Some three dozen panel discussions, science-inspired music and dance performances, and a street festival geared toward kids aim to reintegrate science into the broader culture. Organized by a group headed by the husband-and-wife team of Columbia University physicist and author Brian Greene and former ABC News television producer Tracy Day, the festival may become an annual event with yearlong activities around New York City. (Scientific American is a media partner.) We asked Greene to describe his motivations and what he hopes to achieve.
[Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of the Q&A that will appear in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American.]
What drove you to start the festival in the first place?
I'd say the biggest motivation is the recognition that the world is so increasingly reliant on science, and yet a large portion of the general public is intimidated by science. They somehow think it's something that you try to get through in school but once you got through it, it's something you leave behind. And I have so many experiences that have shown me that when people are presented science in a way that is accessible and compelling and inspirational, they not only love it, but they also find it opens up a whole new universe of thought, a whole connection to the world around them that they find enormously enriching. So the goal of the festival is to basically increase the number of people that have that experience.
I've gotten letters from soldiers in Iraq that life is so difficult there—in the dusty and lonely environment around Baghdad, where you can lose your life at any moment—and yet when they can retreat into popular science books, mine and others, and learn about cosmology and the particles and quantum physics, and learn that there's this deep reality that transcends their day-to-day existence, it just gives them a very new perspective and helps to keep them emotionally intact. That's science speaking to a life, not to just interesting thoughts in the head. And when you see that, the life-altering capability of embracing science, the motivation to have as many people experience that as possible is really strong.
But people are hindered by that sense of intimidation?
It's the intimidation and the cultural willingness to stay away from science. There was a great op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof about two years ago in The New York Times and he called it "the hubris of the humanities." He was really observing the fact that in educated circles if you say, "I've never heard of that guy Shakespeare" or "Beethoven who?" people would be, like, that's odd. But in those very same circles, if you say, "What's a quark?" and "Quasars, what are those?" and "Square root, what's that about?"—in those circles, that's okay. In fact, for some people, that's a badge to be proud of, that you stayed away from the science. I think if you have a celebratory environment around science—one that gains a critical mass of great scientists, the general public, and media attention—you can begin to influence that cultural perspective.