Inquiring Minds Want to Know! Attending the 2012 Cambridge Science Festival

While I'm incredibly sore that I couldn't be in New York today to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise arrive aboard NASA's carrier jet, living in Boston has allowed me to enjoy some first-rate experiences, from diving deep at the New England Aquarium to celebrating Yuri's Night by blasting off at the Museum of Science planetarium. But the single luckiest event so far would have to be the Cambridge Science Festival, which has brought so many different individual events right to my doorstep, all of them packed with high-tech fun!

I found out about the Festival a day before it got underway, courtesy of my college's email newsletter, BU Today. My mom was going to be in Boston for the weekend for a school board conference, and she'd told me to keep an eye out for things we could do together, so I eagerly read the "Weekender" section of Thursday's edition. They mentioned that events would be going on all that week in Cambridge, with several occurring right on Friday night and afternoon. I called her up, and we made some plans.

On Friday afternoon, after finishing up at my job in the Gabel Museum and dropping off my schoolbooks, I caught up with my mom and we drove across the Harvard Bridge to the MIT Museum, where admission was free for the day. We had a lot of fun with the "Eight Einsteins" display, where what at first appear to be eight photographs of Albert Einstein morph into the faces of other celebrities when seen from farther away. (My favorite was the Harry Potter one!) The kiosks focusing on various current research projects at MIT were very cool as well -- who knew plant photosynthesis could be the key to better fuel cells?

The "Robots and Beyond" exhibit upstairs was one I'd seen before, but it was still worth revisiting. The designs drawn by budding young roboticists on the "Great Wall of Ideas" are always amusing -- I think my favorites this time were a mechanical closet that "picks out what you are going to wear based on your style and the clothes you have," a "Face Recognition Rescue Robot," two bright robots playing catch, a robot to clean up oil spills and, amusingly, an entry that read "My robot posts to Twitter!" It's very cool to see famous robots like Cog and Kismet "in the gears" after reading about them in books and seeing them on TV, although there's something slightly sad about seeing them deactivated and still after watching video of them moving around and interacting with people. Maybe I'm just overly sensitive...

Even though we got to the museum only 45 minutes before it closed, we still had a lot of fun looking around.

After dinner near Harvard Square, we headed to the next event, a presentation at the Harvard Museum of Natural History called "What If...? Alternative Histories of Science." The museum happened to be just down the street from the Harvard Science Center where I'd gone for the university's Yuri's Night party. At the event scientists and comedians were discussing how the world would be different if the history of science had gone differently.

First, medical history expert David Jones explained how in the 19th century, many people had subscribed to phrenology -- the false belief that the bumps in someone's skull revealed the composition of their mind and character. If phrenology had turned out to be true, job interviews would probably involve having your boss touch your head -- and "You'd wonder what anybody who wore a hat had to hide."

Next, evolutionary biologist Andrew Berry discussed what he thought would have happened if Charles Darwin hadn't sailed on the Beagle. The credit for uncovering evolution by natural selection would probably have gone to Alfred Wallace, who had independently come to many of the same conclusions as Darwin. Professor Berry said he would have preferred that reality because he found Wallace, an explorer who spent years studying rare species in the jungles of Indonesia and South America, far more interesting than Darwin -- "a rich kid who got seasick a lot!"

The final scenario was presented by physicist Roberto Lalli -- what if it had turned out that space really was filled with luminiferous ether, the mythical fifth element that 19th century physicists believed explained the behavior of light?

"So you're saying that ether holds the Universe together and has great power?" Comedian Kevin Harrington asked.

"Yes, that's what they believed." Professor Lalli said.

"Does it have a dark side and a light side?" asked comedian Raj Sivaraman, earning a laugh from the audience.

"And you said Einstein proved the ether didn't exist?" Harrington asked.


"Could have been one of the users of the Dark Side? You know, like a Sith?"

After these individual presentations, all of the presenters took a break and then reconvened to discuss what a world where ALL of these scenarios were true would be like.

"Well, Wallace would say being attuned to the ether would be a useful trait that conveyed an evolutionary advantage, and there might be areas on the skull indicating a person's sensitivity to the ether -- "

"Have we just discovered why Darth Vader wears a helmet?"

The presentation ended on the high note of a debate over who would win in a fight between Alfred Wallace and Nikola Tesla -- and the hypothetical armies of lightning-shooting robots and biological mutants lead by each one.

"You should have that at next year's festival! Wallace vs. Tesla!" Harrington offered.

Still laughing, my mom and I headed over to check out the free stargazing at Cambridge City Hall. I wandered around looking through telescopes and chatting with the local amateur astronomers staffing them. I looked at Mars and Saturn, and, by a complete coincidence, ran into the man who'd been handling the telescope at the Museum of Science observatory a week before when I'd visited with my friends. I also got to help out with explaining to people what they were looking at, something I missed a lot after a month and counting of cloudy Wednesdays. (The night the BU Astronomical Society holds Public Observing Night.) It was really great to hang out with some fellow astronomy enthusiasts and talk about the night sky.

Tired, but satisfied, we headed back to my mom's hotel to catch some winks and recharge our well-exercised brains.