2014 World Science Festival Explores the Big Questions

"Alien Life: Will We Know It When We See It?," part of the Big Ideas Series. Photo credit: Greg Kessler/World Science Festival

Science and technology progress at a thrilling pace, and often in novel directions. How can the average citizen keep up with developments, not only out of interest, but also out of the need to be informed when advances pose difficult ethical questions? One answer is the World Science Festival, an annual event providing lively and informed discussions of the Big Questions.

The debates, talks, and presentations from this year’s festival, held in New York City from May 28 to June 1, are available online. “We strive to report on the latest and newest science and technology,” explains Shelley Lewis, director of programming. “We bring together distinguished experts across a huge range of subjects.”

2011 Templeton Prize laureate Martin Rees speaks with high school students during "Pioneers in Science." Photo credit: World Science Festival

2011 Templeton Prize laureate Martin Rees speaks with high school students during “Pioneers in Science.” Photo credit: Greg Kessler/World Science Festival

The John Templeton Foundation is one of three founding festival benefactors and sponsors. The Big Ideas Series aims to convey the wonder of science as well as communicating real knowledge of science.

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


The discussions are genuinely open and sometimes controversial, but at the frontier of new ideas. “We hope to equip people with knowledge to make educated responses to the challenges,” says Terri Randall, one of the producers of events in the Big Ideas Series that examined how we are becoming more able to mend and even improve our bodies through genetic interventions and implanted electronic devices. “In the Better, Strong, Faster discussion, we heard from scientists who tackle paralysis and spinal injuries, and who work with individuals with locked-in syndrome,” Randall continues. “A highlight was hearing from a woman who can now stand and walk, with support, and the huge social ramifications that has for her.”

But these developments provoke concerns about what we are doing to the human body, and so considering the ethics of these advances is also a crucial aspect of the debate. “Even the experts different here,” Randall says. “In part, the fear is that we are tampering with things we don’t understand. But there is a history to these worries as well that we must understand, plus new aspects. For example, as technology goes wireless, we need to think about the possibility of ‘biohacking’ into a person.” Or consider the possibility, highlighted in the Designer Genes event, that genetic modifications in one generation may have unforeseen effects several generations down the line.

Our growing understanding of how the brain works prompts another range of fascinating possibilities. Cells to Silicon investigated an interesting angle on brain research, stressing that we are still at the dawn of neuroscience and that what we will be able to do with our brains by 2050 may be radically surprising.

Touchscreen boards helped festival-goers learn more about the Big Ideas Series.

Touchscreen boards helped festival-goers learn more about the Big Ideas Series.

A further set of ethical questions, no less pressing, emerged in Go Figure, which highlighted the power of math to understand the world. Algorithms are the unsung heroes of the computer age, though as James Fowler, professor of political science and medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, suggests, it is often the indirect effects of messages spreading across networks that have the biggest impact, and that is doubly intriguing to investigate.

And yet, sometimes the solutions to some of the apparently most difficult problems in science turn out to be relatively simple. This is the case in the discussion of Alien Life, a subject that illuminates life on Earth, as much as anywhere else. “We are learning about the emergence of life on our planet,” says Jack Szostak, 2009 Nobel Prize laureate and professor at Harvard University. “Perhaps the most surprising thing shouldn’t have been a surprise at all: it’s how simple the solutions to some of the most vexing puzzles have turned out to be.” Sometimes, asking the Big Questions produces unexpectedly elegant and modest answers.