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Science fest goes wider on the Web

World Science Festival

Kids and kindred spirits have fun with geometric toys during the 2010 World Science Festival Youth and Family Street Fair in New York City.

The World Science Festival hits the streets of New York City on Wednesday, and this time, you don't even have to be in New York to get in on the celebration.

For example, you'll be able to watch a phalanx of physicists delve into the 96 percent of the universe we can't see, during a Thursday panel discussion on "The Dark Side of the Universe." You can listen in on a Friday night conversation about the neuroscience of sleep. You can even get a virtual sampling of Sunday's science street fair at Washington Square Park ... all from the comfort of your own desktop.

And that's just the beginning: Video clips from World Science Festival presentations are being added to the WSFtv website, from past years as well as from this year.

World Science Festival

Theoretical physicist Brian Greene is one of the organizers of the World Science Festival.

The festival was created in 2008 as a way to blend art, science and fun on the streets of New York. But this year, the event's organizers — including Brian Greene, a string theorist from Columbia University — have bigger aspirations. They want to share the experience on the Web, not just in June, but throughout the year.

Greene provided a preview for this year's festival today during a quick Q&A. Here's an edited transcript:

Cosmic Log: In past years, the festival has featured mind-blowing concepts such as the holographic nature of the universe. What sorts of mind-blowers are on tap this year? What's going to really knock our socks off?

Brian Greene: Well, we have this program called "From Dust to ...: The Radical New Science of Longevity." One of the participants, Aubrey de Grey, has some pretty far-out ideas. He believes that the first person who'll live to be 1,000 years old has already been born. That certainly rankles many other scientists who work in the field, so it should be a very lively conversation about where we stand in understanding the aging process. Can we slow it? Can we stop it? What does that mean?

I'm in a program called "The Dark Side of the Universe," where we'll talk about the 96 percent of the universe that we have not seen. We're going to run the gamut. There'll be experts on dark matter who will be suggesting that in the near future, we're likely to identify what the dark matter is. We're going to have another team, of which I am a member, who'll be talking about dark energy. We'll be discussing how this dark energy was discovered, and I'll be pushing to the limit on how some of us suspect that dark energy may be giving us a clue that there are other universes out there.

There's a wonderful program that's called "The Secret Behind the Secret of Life," which is actually a play. As you know, we like to mix art and science together in this festival. This is a play about the history behind the discovery of DNA. After the play, there'll be a discussion involving some of the scientists who were involved in the discovery. Maybe some interesting insights that have not yet been given the light of day will come out of that conversation. What really happened when DNA's structure was discovered?

Q: A lot of people have talked about the role of Rosalind Franklin, who appears to have missed out on the credit that she was due for the discovery.

A: Rosalind Franklin is the focal point of this play. The play itself is not meant to be completely historically accurate, but that will be the launching point for a conversation that will be focused on the history, among the only people alive today who know what really happened.

Physicist Steven Weinberg is coming to the festival. He's doing something special that we've never done before — which is to actually give somebody a platform to speak their mind on their view of the future of a given subject. He'll be speaking about the future of "big science," which is really what physics has largely turned into. What does it mean for the future of science that funding for these big projects is going to be harder and harder to come by? Steven Weinberg is not just a scientist. He's not just a Nobel Prize winner. He's a statesman of science.

Q: So what's his solution to the issue of more expensive "big science" projects, and the reluctance of governments to give over the billions of dollars that are required for such projects?

A: That's a great question. I'm looking forward to hearing the answer.

Q: And then there's the reading of Alan Alda's play about Marie Curie, "Radiance," with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the starring role ...

A: Yes, that's going to be a spectacular program. I was just at the dress rehearsal a few minutes ago. Alan Alda is known as an actor, but he's also a spectacular writer. This is a play that will really knock people's socks off. Bringing art and science together is a huge challenge, because you want there to be real science, but you don't want to step out of the drama to explain the science. So the real challenge is, how do you integrate the abstract ideas of science in a fictional format that will allow the audience to stay in the drama even as they're learning the science?

I think Alan's written to that challenge and taken the art form to a new level, because you're completely drawn in by the drama of Marie Curie's life. You become immersed in her science, in her thoughts, the way she looks at the universe, and you never realize that you're being brought into these wondrous ideas, because the drama just carries you off. Maggie Gyllenhaal's fantastic as Marie Curie. It's an amazing cast, and it's going to be a great show.

Q: That touches on the reason why you and others established the festival in the first place. I don't think you meant it to be a dry colloquium about scientific topics. You really wanted to engage the public.

A: That's exactly the point. We really wanted to make new avenues of entry into science, where somebody who would go to Lincoln Center but wouldn't go to a scientific event would come to our opening night and be brought into science that way. That idea permeates just about everything we do at the festival. We have this program called "Beautiful Minds: The Enigma of Genius," which will really try to get into asking whether genius is hard-wired from the get-go. Is it something that can be nurtured? What do we even mean when we use the word "genius"? It takes so many different forms, in music and art, in math and science. That program will begin with a wonderful montage  — actors playing out three great geniuses in history, Ramanujan from mathematics, Marie Curie from science, and Beethoven from music. The program will then have a conversation among mathematicians, neuroscientists, composer Philip Glass and other artists. It's emblematic of the way the festival treats these ideas.

Let me give you one more example. Pat Metheny, this legendary jazz guitarist, will be doing a program called "Music and the Spark of Spontaneity," in which he will be improvising onstage, doing what he does best, and then there will be a team of neuroscientists and psychologists who will try to explain what is actually going on inside his brain during those creative moments. Again, you have performance brought together with science in order to advance the understanding of each.

Q: It looks as if the festival is getting a little more like the TED conferences, where you're trying to have some elements recorded on video so that they endure after the conference is over.

A: Our goal is to be here 365 days a year. The way we're doing that is, we do have this WSFtv part of our website now. We have full programs from previous years, but we also have wonderful vignettes of programs. For three minutes you can click in and hear about the big bang or black holes, or click and hear about the newest understanding of aspects of neuroscience. Across the board, there's this great science programming that is drawn from each festival's offerings, but is available all year round — and it comes in bite-size chunks or in larger chunks, depending on what your taste at a given moment might be.

Q: Will some of the presentations from this year's festival be put online?

A: Yes, definitely, either in full or in excerpts. The goal is to have as much of the festival as possible available. We typically sell out all the programs, but there are only so many people you can fit in a live event. Online, you can reach 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times as many people. And that's the goal.

The World Science Festival presents events at a variety of New York City venues through Sunday. Check the WSF website for details about events and ticket availability, and check the WSFtv website for video offerings.

You can connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. Also, give a look to "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.