Quantum Dances: World Science Festival

Nothing against the ancient and beautiful Italian port city of Genoa, but physicist Brian Greene wasn’t going to stand idly by while it had a world-renowned science festival and New York did not. When Greene spoke at the 2005 Genoa festival, he recalled over a recent breakfast with me, “it was enormously impressive: science was filling the streets, science was taking over. We stood in the square and said, ‘this should be happening in the U.S.’”

“We” are Green and his wife, award-winning news- and documentary-producer Tracy Day, and together they are on the verge of pulling it off. Enlisting Nobel laureates and actors, artists, choreographers, musicians and kids, they have organized the World Science Festival, which kicks off with an invitation-only “world science summit” tomorrow and then opens the doors to all comers for four days of events from May 29 to June 1 throughout New York City.

From the science of sports and of Disney Imagineering (want to know how they engineer those roller coasters at Disney theme parks?) to the brain basis of morality and the neurobiology underlying the Bourne trilogy, the festival aims to be entertaining and fun, Day said, “communicating real science ideas with integrity. We want kids to see the pyrotechnics and the animated dinosaur [from the Disney Imagineers] and say, ‘huh, so that’s science?’, and see that with a degree in science you can go work for Disney.”

Never quite grasped the probabilistic nature of quantum physics? A dance performance at the Guggenheim Museum, inspired by Green’s best-selling book The Elegant Universe, includes a giant die: to demonstrate the random nature of the physical world, the dance progresses according to which side the die lands on. Puzzled about the parallel/multiworlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, developed by the late physicist Hugh Everett? Hear from his son Mark Everett, an indie rocker, and two physicists to explore whether there are kazillions of you's in parallel universes.

The goal, says Greene, “is to create an excitement and buzz around science that it usually doesn’t have, to change how people talk about science, to change the zeitgeist so that science becomes something people want to engage with.”

Moving science toward the center of the larger cultural landscape is a tall order, especially in a time (now) and place (the U.S.) where what political conservatives call (contemptuously) the “reality-based community” (the earliest reference I find is in this 2004 story about a 2002 conversation with a White House adviser) includes scientists.

You can wow people all you want with gee-whiz science. At the end of the day, and the end of the festival, the challenge that science poses to the world view of millions of people—among whom the Bible and not Einstein or Darwin holds the correct account of the birth of the universe and the history of life on Earth, to name just two—ain’t going away. But if science can be made warm and fuzzy or cool and edgy, maybe the visceral animosity between the two opposed world views will dissipate like the smoke form those Imagineers’ pyrotechnics, at least a little.