In The Field

World Science Festival: Gala of Science

There was something for everyone’s taste in the “cool cup of science” — as actor Alan Alda introduced it — that made up the opening gala for this year’s World Science Festival in New York. The evening included an impressive roster of artists, from Yo-Yo Ma to John Lithgow to Kelli O’Hara; and an equally impressive line-up of scientists, including Stephen Hawking, the physicist to whom the evening’s performances paid tribute.WSF logo.bmp

The Festival is now in its third year and seems to be gaining momentum and profile in the city — you can see the listing of events here, (some of which are being streamed on the web) and blog coverage here . Nature will also be blogging from a few select events.


The evening was a mash-up of science and art and the energy and enthusiasm shone through. I’d imagine that most of the performances at the Lincoln Center’s remarkable Alice Tully Hall don’t include four performers from South Pacific blasting out calculus with a rousing chorus of dy over dx. And I doubt many on stage there have put up a slide titled “What Came Before the Big Bang” and attempted a brief explanation of space time.

The main feature of the evening was the premier of “Icarus at the Edge of Time”, an adaptation of a children’s book written by festival co-founder and Columbia University physicist Brian Greene, put to music by Philip Glass and accompanied by a computer generated film by Al + Al. The story is about a teenage boy trapped on a multi-generational voyage from Earth to find life elsewhere. A whiz with numbers, he goes against his father’s command and pilots a small ship on a course to the very edge of a black hole. But “you didn’t take account of time” his father calls hopelessly after him — that time passes slower in the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole — and when the boy returns, his father’s ship is gone, thousands of years have passed and he has become the Icarus of legend for flying too close to a black hole. Although at first the music, narration and film felt too much like sensory overload, I have to say I was caught up in the drama. (My companion, however, felt that time stretched out interminably.)

Alda, an enthusiastic proponent of science, introduced the gala by saying that the “black hole of irrational thinking has a powerful force” and expressed hope that the festival will help people avoid being sucked in, or help them escape if they veer too close to it. It’s a worthy aim, and few people in the science-friendly audience needed convincing.

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