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See Inside June 2008

Q&A with Brian Greene, Co-Founder of the World's Biggest Science Party

A celebration that seeks to reunite the Two Cultures

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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 (worldsciencefestival.com)—running from May 28 to June 1 in New York City—breaks through the abstruseness barrier. Some three dozen events—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. (Scientific American is a media partner.) We asked Greene to describe what motivated him and what he hopes to achieve (a fuller version appears here)

What drove you to start the World Science 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 get through it, it’s something you leave behind. And I’ve had 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.

But people are hindered by that sense of intimidation?
It’s the intimidation and the cultural willingness to stay away from 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.

How do you distinguish that cultural, supportive environment from hoopla?
You have programs that are entertaining, exciting and accessible but that also have really high scientific integrity. The bulk of programming doesn’t just have things blowing up or loud noises—maybe you have some of that, but you always follow it with the real underlying science.

What was the inspiration for the festival?
I was asked to speak at the Genoa Science Festival—this was in 2005. Tracy and I both went, and the amount of excitement in the streets of Genoa around the festival was so palpable, we just sat there and said there’s a real opportunity in New York to do this on a grand scale. Moreover, because Tracy comes from the world of broadcast journalism, she immediately thought there’s a way to institute a different model, where the events are highly produced. That way, science events can be elevated to be on par with evening events at the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.

And with such cultural events, what audience are you aiming for?
People who would be put off by the word “science” but who would, say, go to a dance performance. At the Guggenheim Museum, for instance, Karole Armitage is doing a dance piece based on unified theories and quantum gravity, with an onstage discussion that pulls out the science between her and a physicist. This offers ways of connecting with people where you’re not having them sit in a lecture where their heads hurt trying to understand the science.

So your ambitions are on multiple levels here: you’re trying to bring science to the public by having the event, and you’re also doing it in this innovative way.
That is the goal. We’ve also started this nonprofit foundation whose goal is bigger than the festival itself. For instance, we’re building a partnership with the New York City Department of Education with the goal being that what we do is not limited to a festival each May but rather extends to activities throughout the year that will help get kids more excited about science and prepare them for the annual festival.

You hadn’t organized such a gigantic event before, had you?
You know, thank God we hadn’t organized anything like this before, because we would have known how foolish it was! But I can’t tell you the number of times people said, “I can’t believe this doesn’t already exist.” We’re in this century of science and technology, and for America not to have a celebratory festival that highlights the power of science ... how could this not already exist? And they especially feel that way when they learn that Italy has one, England has two or three, and other countries do, too.

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