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A Science Fête Project: A Q&A with Brian Greene

The World Science Festival—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—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.

How do you distinguish that cultural, supportive environment from hoopla?
The way you distinguish it is to have programs that, yes, 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.

People who would be put off by the word "science" but would, say, go to a dance performance can go to, for example, what we're putting on at the Guggenheim Museum: 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.

It sounds like the art component of the festival is in the service of science. Does it go the other way as well, where science is supporting the art?
Karole's a very good example, where she's really inspired by the cutting-edge ideas that are happening in the search for a unified theory and is not trying to create a dance from the material of science, but the material of science is inspiring her to create this dance. It's not forced. It's not as though, "Ooooh, god, how would I put some dance to that?" It's reading this material and saying, wow, here's where that's taking me. The number of e-mails and letters that I get from choreographers, from sculptors, from composers who are being inspired by science is huge. So there really is a great deal of flow the other direction.

You're reaching, as you describe, groups of people who would go easily to a dance performance but not to a lecture on quantum nonlocality. Can you reach even a little bit further, to people who wouldn't even come to [such a performance]?
A lot of the youth-and-family component is really aiming at a very broad audience: Scholastic is coming with "Magic School Bus"; Disney has stuff; the [New York] Botanical Gardens is going to have a big dirt exhibit. It's not as though these are the kinds of events where you would need some sort of background or some sort of awareness. You just show up and throw yourself in the dirt.

And also one other, called "Pioneers in Science." This is an event frankly partly inspired by an experience of mine. I was asked to visit a school in the Midwest, and what they decided to do was to have three kids really prepare themselves well in the work that I do. They did the interview—not an NPR person, not a well-known personality, but three high school kids. And it was an eye-opening experience because when kids interview you, their sense of boundaries are a little different and their sense of when they're going to move on to another question is different. I found it to be a more penetrating experience than is often the case with a more seasoned person. I found the audience listened in a different way, because they weren't watching two people have a conversation; they were really coming along fully with the kids. And the energy in the room was exciting and different.

So what we're doing here is we're replicating that, where a bunch of kids from New York City public schools are being primed in the science of a couple of well-known scientists. One is Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate, who went through the New York City school system. The other is Cynthia Breazeal, who does robotics at M.I.T. The kids are going to do these onstage interviews in front of their peers. So here's a way in which kids can see their contemporaries having a conversation with a scientific luminary—to try to level out this sense that scientists are just so distant and so far away up in that tower, and they're not somebody we would talk to.

How do kids interview differently?
Oftentimes, if you're talking to a seasoned interviewer who asks you a question, they may do a follow-up if they didn't quite get it. It's rare that they'll do a third or fourth or fifth or sixth follow-up, because there's an implicit, agreed-upon decorum that they move on. Kids don't necessarily move on if they don't get it. And since a lot of the audience may not be getting it, too, it's wonderful for the audience to see this happen, to make them recognize they're not the only ones. It is an opportunity for the scientist to try to describe things in five or six different ways. Because you may need five or six different explanations. People come from very different points of view, and what works for this person doesn't work for that one. In the end I think you communicate a lot more information, and everybody is happier because the fraction of people who feel they're being left out is very small.

That's been a theme of your whole career: multiple explanations!
[laughs] That's right, that's absolutely true. One of the things perhaps I do too much, in book form, is try to give many different ways. Illuminating a difficult subject from a variety of different angles, for me personally and I think for many other people as well, allows you to corner it in a way where you can fully embrace it. I think that's a powerful part of making science intuitive: that you don't just see a link, but you fully embrace the idea—surrounding it, giving it a bear hug.

What are some of your other inspirations and models 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, since 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.

Tracy and many producers who've had a similar career have spent a great deal of effort in figuring out how you take difficult nonfiction ideas and bring them to general audiences, through Nightline [and] This Week With David Brinkley—things that she cut her teeth on. The key things that they've realized is that you have to have voices that work together in an organic way, and you need to find the story and prime it so that it comes out in a wonderful, dramatic arc. And that's the kind of thing that they're seeking to replicate in these live events: Real, in-depth discussion with the potential participants; putting them in together in ways that tell a vibrant story; pulling out that story so that it's really fresh in people's minds; what arc would be most compelling to general audiences; and working with scientists so that they can describe these ideas in a way that people will really get, together with inserting multimedia elements in some, various interesting interstitials in others.

Typically—I've experienced this so many times—people have a sense that science is so rich and there's so much deep content that all you do is put the scientists on the stage and let them talk. Sometimes that will work, and sometimes it won't work. The goal here is to say, yes, science has rich content, but let's help mold the presentation a little bit more in order that the events have a greater chance of reaching the broadest audience.

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 definitely bigger than the festival itself. Ultimately it'd be great to have multiple ways to reach general audiences, which is why we view ourselves as not just an entity that appears once a year, but has year-round programming. For instance, we're building a nice strong partnership with the New York City Department of Education with the goal being that what we do is not limited to the festival each May, but rather are activities throughout the year that will help get kids more excited about science and prepare them for the upcoming festival.

After you were inspired in Genoa, how'd you take it from there? 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! We went from Genoa to immediately enlist a board of scientific advisors that would help give us a sense of heft, that there's a buy-in from the science community that this is important. Then we went university by university. We just went right to the presidents because we recognized that if they were to buy in, then that would do it for those universities. And then, across the board, [we] gathered the cultural organizations and, of course, the science ones as well. We also went to Washington and met with Jack Marburger, the president's science advisor. And of course the fundraising was happening simultaneously; you can't do this without backers. In fact, that was really where the bulk of the time went. It helped that, for instance, I'd had a relationship with Sloan Foundation.

I've found with these kinds of organizational efforts that the dry tinder is already there, and you're the one who lights the spark. Clearly the reception you got from all these institutions indicates that people were receptive to the idea—that there was a hunger for it.
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 to not have a celebratory festival which really highlights the power of science—how could this not already exist? And they especially feel that way when they learn that Italy has one, that England has two or three, and a bunch of other countries, too.

There's this hunger to understand the universe in a way that doesn't you make you feel inadequate or unable to catch the ideas. The absolute worst thing that you ever can do, in my opinion, in bringing science to the general public, is be condescending or judgmental. It is so opposite to the way science needs to be brought forth.

There's a huge pressure to be condescending; I'm sure you've felt it. Because that's the perception that you do have to be whiz-bang. "Here, children, we have…"
Exactly, and I've already dealt with it. When I was writing The Elegant Universe, a number of publishers had the attitude of: "We need a very broad-brush description of these ideas. People are just not going to be willing to go with you and really try to grasp at the level of detail that you're talking about. Just give us, sort of, the biggest picture." And I thought about it, because I wanted people to read it, I wanted it to have an impact in bringing people into a science that wasn't really out there at that time. But I said no. I want it to be a book where there's really some scientific journey that if someone's willing to go on, they can go. It can't be written in a way where people are just, "Oh, this is beyond me." But I wanted it to be rich. So I decided not to go with their advice, and I'm glad that I didn't. The first agent that I sent the book to sent it back, saying it would never be published.

Again, it's what the festival is about, trying to change that broader perception. I should say I do consider The Elegant Universe a difficult book. I don't consider it a simple book. But it is a book that if you're willing to put the effort in, you can get through. My mom has never read The Elegant Universe, and that's fine, but it was really meant to try to reach that segment of the population that felt that a world was closed off to them because they didn't know math. The festival has a much broader goal than I had in that book, but it's the same basic idea: to have the real science there, but at a level that's even more widely accessible, without it becoming some very, very broad brush and lacking in any content.

Tracy has had this experience, too. She tells stories of how when she was at these shows like Nightline and so on, she would say that, back then, in the '80s and early '90s, nobody would go near a science story.

Even Nightline?
That's how she describes it—who knows, every generalization is probably too general. I've done stuff on Nightline since then, in the '90s with Robert Krulwich. I've been on [Late Show with David] Letterman. Letterman's an interesting story.

"The universe is exploding." Was that it?
That's right. With Letterman they told me, in the pre-interview, he'll ask you one or two science questions but then he'll be off on what's it like to be a scientist. I said, fine, whatever you think would work. We spent the whole time on science, and he was looking at me so intensely when he was asking these questions about black holes and the accelerated cosmic expansion that he was not putting it on. He really wanted to know the answers to these things. It was great—completely different from what I thought it was going to be.

But Tracy says how, again, there was a resistance to science stories, so she never did any. But when she finally did connect with science and learn about how these ideas are really so compelling, she realized science can be great, and now she's trying to take that even more broadly.

How did you meet your wife?
I met her because she was the producer on a program called The Century with Peter Jennings. She had the last segment, which was called "The Thinkers," which was meant to be a series of brief interviews with a variety of thinkers from different fields, and so I was one of those. In fact, the way I got there was sort of funny, too. There was a book called The Monk and the Philosopher. Matthieu Ricard was a biology PhD who left biology to become a monk, and his father was a French philosopher who could not understand why his son left science to become a Buddhist monk. Twenty, thirty years later, they got together to write this book, which is the exchange between them: why did he leave, their different world views, and so on. This book came out in America in 1999, just after The Elegant Universe, so the publisher of his book asked me if I would do an event helping to promote his book.

So it was Philip Glass, the artist; Ricard's father, the philosopher; Ricard, the monk; and me, the scientist. So the artist, the scientist, the monk and the philosopher…

…walked into a bar…
Yeah, right! So were having this conversation for a widely attended—a sold-out crowd—and Tracy went to it because she was looking for people to be on the Jennings program—because she was looking for the monk and the philosopher. And that's how we met: She saw me at this thing and liked what I was saying, and so asked me to be in The Century.

Apparently, they were running out of room, because always you've got to cut more than you hope—so Peter Jennings was in the edit suite and apparently my part came on and he said, "Look, why don't we cut the boy scientist." It was 10 years ago, and I sort of looked young.

Did you make the final cut, though?
When he left the room, the executive producer turned to Tracy and said, "Somehow, I feel like you're not going to cut the boy scientist." So I actually closed The Century; I was the last voice in that program. So we stayed in touch and ultimately got together. I think we always felt that there was a natural place to put together her interests and mine. And I guess when we went to Genoa, it became clear that that was the natural forum.

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