2015 World Science Festival Explores the Big Ideas

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Photo courtesy of the World Science Festival
Photo courtesy of the World Science Festival

This year marks the centenary of Einstein’s discovery of the general theory of relativity, an anniversary that was celebrated at the 2015 World Science Festival. The debates, talks, and presentations that were held in New York City from May 27-May 31, which can now be viewed online, opened with a sound and light spectacular. Professor Brian Greene, who serves as chairman of the festival board, deployed special effects and orchestral music to open up the mysteries of Einstein’s insight to a sold-out audience. “Delight is a great way to learn,” actor Alan Alda, who is also on the board, told the New York Times. This year’s attendees appeared to fully agree.

The John Templeton Foundation, a founding benefactor of the World Science Festival, once again sponsored the Big Ideas Series, which included seven panel discussions. The Big Ideas Series aims to convey the wonder of science as well as communicating real knowledge of science. “Framing the big issues around key questions always interests people and drew enthusiastic audiences,” says Shelley Lewis, director of programming.

This year’s Big Ideas Series included the following lectures:

One of the fundamental concepts that was revolutionized 100 years ago with the general theory of relativity was the nature of time. Isaac Newton thought time was absolute, running to a kind of universal clock. Einstein overthrew that idea by showing that time is relative. And now, string theory is opening up further possibilities by asking whether space and time may be products of more exotic elements. If so, a new picture of reality could be emerging. A panel, including physicist Lee Smolin, discussed the latest theories in “Time Is Of The Essence… Or Is It?

When it comes to confounding the known laws of physics, another current big issue is so-called dark energy. “To Infinity and Beyond: the Accelerating Universe” unpacked the ramifications of this relatively recent discovery, including the apparent speeding up—not slowing down—of the universe’s expansion.

Cutting edge ideas met cutting edge technology in “Spark of Genius? Awakening a Better Brain,” which began with a vivid description of how scientists have applied electric shocks to muscles and nerves ever since the pioneering experiments of Benjamin Franklin. “Our audiences are eager to hear about the science that will be changing our lives, particularly when progress may offer therapeutic or cognitive edge,” Lewis says. Can technologies be developed that might enable individuals to remember more, perform better, and stay alert for longer? Will transcranial direct current stimulation become an alternative to a shot of coffee?

Such possibilities also raise ethical issues alongside big questions such as what does it mean to be human? “Planet of the Humans: The Leap to the Top” included contributions from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who recently discovered a 2-million-year-old fossil with skin in South Africa.

But if walking upright and using sophisticated language is part of what makes us human, does that distinctiveness also include free will? Or is free will itself an illusion? The amount of agency we have in the world was discussed in “Mind Over Masters: The Question of Free Will.”

The year of the centenary of general relativity marks the eighth year of the World Science Festival. Since it was established in 2008, the festival has entertained and educated more than one million visitors. “It’s a delight,” concludes Lewis. “We bring together thought leaders who explain what they’re working on, and by extension, what a science-curious audience wants to know. Airing new discoveries, discussing the pros and cons of various issues, and of course hosting the street fair, with amazing hands on activities and installations, the festival opens up the big scientific ideas for kids and adults alike.”