I realised World Science Festival Brisbane was a big deal at 30,000 feet above ground level — the flight attendants were discussing how to catch a few events (science-loving airhostesses equals stereotype-breaking at its best).
Co-founded eight years prior by Tracy Day and Brian Greene, in March 2016 the World Science Festival left New York City for the very first time and set up a second home in Brisbane, Australia. In that city to attend the National Conference of the Australian Science Communicators, I was fortunate enough to hang around, catch the vibe, and attend four World Science Festival events over Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March.
Known affectionately amongst Australians as ‘BrisVegas’, Queensland’s capitol was a fantastic host city. The co-location of numerous cultural buildings – The Queensland Museum, The Queensland Art Gallery, The Queensland Performing Arts Centre and The State Library of Queensland – with open grassy areas along the front of the Brisbane River made the entire experience easy. Families and passersby on the water-front were treated to ‘Smart Science’ – pop-up activities and demonstrations encouraging people to ‘explore the fun of science in a hands-on, action packed program.’ More formal activities with ticketed sales took place in the nearby buildings.
For its emotional punch, I adored Alan Alda’s Dear Albert. Presented by three actors dressed in black and perched on plain wooden chairs, the readings consisted of excerpts from letters between Albert Einstein and his loved ones. It sounds dull but it was most assuredly not so. I was captivated: laughing, gasping and occasionally in tears. Einstein may have been the world’s most remarkable physicist, but his use of language was also breathtaking. His love letters were simple and yet detailed, sweet but occasionally racy (by implication, not directly) and revealing of a passionate and loving man. When his marriage began to fail and professional pressures increased, he did equally well in conveying anger, stress and bitterness. In essence the audience was given a taste of Einstein’s many passions; the selected paragraphs traced ‘an intimate and unfamiliar line across his life and work.’ We also had a glimpse of what expectations were on women in the early-mid 20th century. A young girl pregnant and unmarried certainly had very little choice in how her life played out – the mystery of what happened to Einstein’s first, illegitimate child still remains – and similarly, a divorcee often endured a powerless existence.
Still on physics, but much drier, was Breakfast with the Brians. Science superstars Brian Greene and Brian Schmidt chatted with host Robyn Williams about string theory, dark matter, the processes of science, science communication and magic. The celebrity geek factor was very high – and the audience lapped it up. But for me, again it was the insights into personalities that were the most interesting part of this event. For example, we learned that Brian Greene grew up in a family of vaudeville entertainers—maybe this is why he’s so adept at holding an audience captive? Interestingly, I later learnt that Alan Alda grew up surrounded by his family’s vaudeville/burlesque business as well – this podcast has more on that.
Similarly, I loved Greene’s insights into how science makes you feel. “Emotion is critical,” he said. “When you’re doing science the ideas tickle the brain, but the real moments come when you feel like you’re staring at eternity, at something that on-one else has seen before.”
And on the subject of releasing a new paper or a novel theory, he admitted it can be terrifying. “There is a great deal of fear, of going out into the world and having egg on your face,” said Brian Greene. Even the big guys have imposter syndrome at times, I guess.
Panel events can be somewhat risky: either they crash and burn into an hour of tedious agreements and confirmation of stuff we already know, or they ignite fantastic conversations and inoculate the audience with lingering ideas. Which way it goes usually depends on the moderator. Luckily the two World Science Festival panel events I attended had excellent hosts – each knew the participants well, was aware of the audience and was motivated to get the conversations kicking.
Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell chaired a session Where Worlds Collide: Science Values and Ethics. Natasha involved her audience from the get-go – she ran a quick poll, challenging us to make decisions on a series of ethical dilemmas – and then asked her panel to consider the same scenarios. The best thing about the session was that Rob Sparrow, Margaret Somerville, Rob Lamberts, Wayne Hall and Dimity Dornan didn’t speak of science like something that was to be revered, respected and kept apart from the rest of society. Quite the opposite. The overriding message was that science is a living, breathing cultural construct that must sit within a broad human context. And as you might expect in a discussion about values, we witnessed some strong disagreement – check out my tweets if you want a bit more detail.
Natasha Mitchell is a very experienced radio journalist, and it showed. The same is true for John Hockenberry, who chaired the final session I attended – Science and Story: Getting it Write. John lead his panel – James Bradley, Simon Groth, Ashley Hay, George Musser and Niamh Shaw – in rare discussion that explored how writing (or more specifically, narrative) and science work together to help people understand their world. John told us that Earth in 2016 is an uncertain place, perhaps the most uncertain it’s been since World War II. This he attributed mostly to the existence of climate change and rapid technological advances. “Interest in science is a sign people see that the world is in a kind of motion,” said John. “Our understanding of the world is in transition right now.”
Panelist Ashley Hay agreed, describing writing about science as ‘a means to understand what our future might be,’ and suggesting that ‘we need to be literate about what is unknown.’ (See a few more tweets on this here).
Having worked with futurist Dr Kristin Alford, the need to formally consider and prepare ourselves for diverse future scenarios is something I’m reasonably familiar with. However crazily enough it’s not a subject that comes up often in public discussions about science. This panel was a rare exception.
Science is a funny old thing. All of us who work in science think we have a grip on what it means, how it’s important and why the general public should actually care. Sometimes we put science on a pedestal, and expect others to gather around and worship from afar. But science does not exist in isolation. It cannot function on its own. Science is a human activity that is shaped by human desires and needs, and it is interpreted in a broader cultural context. It’s rare that public science events manage to capture all of these complexities. I’d like to congratulate World Science Festival Brisbane on their achievements in putting together a broad program of events that reflected the many different layers and components of science. I hope future events can push audiences of scientists and non-scientists into new ways of thinking even further.
Photographs copyright Sarah Keenihan unless indicated otherwise.