Revolution#133, June 22, 2008
World Science Festival: Tapping into a Hunger for Science
The World Science Festival ran for five days in New York City, through 46 fascinating (and at times contentious) events (all of them sold out, many of them in large venues), and with an all-day Science Fair in Washington Square Park (which had an estimated attendance of 100,000 people). The World Science Festival brought science to the public in this country in an unprecedented way. The Festival ranged from events popularizing science for children to events where Nobel prize-winners and other prominent scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists discussed, bounced off of, and generally celebrated science and scientific method, and opened up cutting-edge scientific questions to a broad audience.
Events ranged from a discussion of the “wonderful weirdness” of quantum mechanics to how we might be able to recognize life on other planets; from cultural events like “Dear Albert,” a play written by Alan Alda, drawn from the letters of Albert Einstein, to a new dance by director/choreographer Karole Armitage inspired by string theory presented in physicist Brian Greene’s bestselling book, The Elegant Universe; from The Sixth Extinction, an exploration with Richard Leakey of the rate at which animals and plants are becoming extinct, to a discussion involving philosophers, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists on the “Science of Morality.”
And the Festival tapped into a real hunger for science and a broad desire to grapple with what scientists are doing and learning among a broad section of the population. It gave people a chance to be in on discussions among scientists about key questions of the day—in a venue and setting which aimed to bring people into not just the results of scientific investigation (fascinating as that often is), but into the thinking of the scientists, what it is like to do science, what kinds of questions are debated out as scientists go about forging a deeper understanding of the world we live in—in all its complexity and wonder. And even the scientific method itself, including whether science just produces “models” of the world or whether we can and should try to understand what is really there, was “in play.”
From the perspective of emancipating all of humanity, consciously knowing and changing the world, these questions are immensely important. As Ardea Skybreak put it eloquently in The Science of Evolution and The Myth of Creationism—Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters:
“Everyone needs to understand the basic facts of evolution as well as the essentials of the scientific method….When people are deprived of a scientific approach to reality as a whole, they are robbed of both a full appreciation of the beauty and richness of the natural world and the means to understand the dynamics of change not only in nature but in human society as well.”
The felt need to get into all of this was shown at the festival by the long lines of people trying to get into sold-out events on a broad range of questions. It came out in the electricity in the air after some of the events, when people went off into the night debating neuroscience, global warming, morality, religion. For example, in the aftermath of a panel I attended on “What It Means to Be Human,” people engaged in eager discussion about what religion has to do with being human (and with many critiquing the notion that religion has anything at all to do with what human beings can and should be), how to understand the complex interaction of genes and the world that people grow up in and how all that shapes what people become, and what does rational thought have to do with being human anyway? Revolution Books in New York organized teams of volunteers to engage in the ferment, popularizing the bookstore, as well as Bob Avakian’s new book Away With All Gods! and Ardea Skybreak’s Science of Evolution.
Physicist Brian Greene, who, with his wife Tracy Day, conceived of the Festival and played a key role in initiating and organizing it, when interviewed about the Festival in Scientific American said, “There’s this hunger to understand the universe in a way that doesn’t 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.”
This kind of spirit very much infused the Festival. It was clear that the organizers of the Festival were aiming to fulfill what they see as a real and pressing need—to open up science and make it accessible to broad audiences, including in this case many intellectuals who are not generally involved in science.
There is, again, a great deal at stake in this. It is true that in any capitalist society, science and scientific thinking and method are shackled by the fact that the drive for profit and the political and military compulsions of the ruling class shape scientific inquiry and limit what is—and is not—pursued by scientists, and the dominant outlook and ways of thinking that characterize capitalist society influence scientists, even as some strain in different ways to break free of it. “Opening up” science can have a big impact on how people think—introducing critical thinking and investigation broadly among the people. This includes undermining religious mysticism and organized ignorance, which are widely promoted, and pointing to the possibility of breaking down the division of labor in which scientific understanding is kept the province of a few experts.
In talking to people at the Festival about the Defend Science Statement (available online at defendscience.org), what is going on in this country, and in bringing out what kind of society could be possible with revolutionary transformations, one thing that came out in many discussions was a passionate concern and even anguish about how much scientific thinking has to do with critical thinking generally—and the dangerous course that we are on, when science itself is under attack from the government as well as forces like Christian fundamentalism, and where scientific thinking among the people is under intense assault, as, for one key example, in the continuing attempts to prevent teaching evolution in public schools. Evolution is such a concentration of both scientific method—it is foundational to many of the questions that the Festival took up—and at the same time it is a focal point of attack by the forces opposed to science and a scientific outlook today.
You can see from the way that the whole festival was set up that a lot of thought was given to how to stretch the limits of making science accessible, to capture people’s imagination and to stimulate grappling with the scientific method and approach, to develop creative and exciting ways to accomplish this.
To give just a little sense of this, while I didn’t go to most of the events aimed at children and teenagers, when I did, you could see the kinds of connections made—and the questioning and hunger for science—on the part of the children and young teenagers. At one event, “Cool Jobs,” five scientists talked about, you guessed it, their cool jobs, including among others working on the Mars lander that is there now gathering and analyzing the Martian environment for possible signs that there was once life on Mars; a marine biologist who lives for weeks at a time totally under ocean water to study the astonishing variety and diversity—and beauty—of life in coral reefs. While there was some emphasis in the program on scientific careers, after the presentations the event was opened up for questions from the young people in the audience, and none of them asked about careers, but instead about the science—including questions you would not get from adults, like “how do you go to the bathroom while under the sea for weeks?” (The answer is that the scientists are encouraged to just go in the ocean—as human waste is eagerly sought-after food for the marine life—and you have to be careful that in their rush to get at the source of this “food,” the marine animals don’t bite the tender human parts that are the sources of the food.)
To a great degree, the Festival succeeded in reaching and I think inspiring and challenging a very broad audience. And it was very good news indeed that at the end of the Festival, Brian Greene announced that because of the success this year, the decision had been made to have another Festival next year.
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