World Science Festival: Brian Greene and Alan Alda Bring Science to the Masses

New York's World Science Festival kicked off its first full day with some of the world's greatest minds sharing their excitement with the general public over the latest advancements in science.

This evening, "The Dark Side of the Universe" asked us to consider what the invisible 96% of the universe really is, and how we know it's really there. Music from Dark Side of the Moon discreetly set the tone as the audience filed in to the Skirball Center, and panelists at the cutting edge of physics were introduced to the stage. Moderator John Hockenberry artfully translated the musings of a panel discussing dark energy and dark matter into plain English. "You physicists do have a hard time marketing your careers," he quipped.

Last week, I sat down with string theorist Brian Greene and six-time Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Alan Alda to discuss how science can be re-conceptualized from boring classroom lectures into a wondrously exciting narrative.

How did the World Science Festival get started?

Brian Greene: We began planning for the first festival back in late 2005. There was a science festival in Genoa, Italy, that I was asked to be part of -- it's run by a fellow who publishes my books in Italian so he had a certain kind of pull on me. And he came to New York, and Tracy Day and myself were hearing about this festival, and we looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing, which was there should be something like this in America, and New York would be the great place to do it.

How did you come to bring theater and science together?

Alan Alda: From the beginning Brian and Tracy [Day] wanted to combine science and the arts, and over the past few years have combined science with music, dance, storytelling, drama -- am I leaving out any arts? -- face painting!

BG: The idea of bringing science and the arts together is one that has been around for a long time, but what we've really striven to do with the festival is to take it to a new level and allow science to be experienced as a narrative, as drama, as discovery, as adventure, as opposed to what typically you find in a classroom, which is you being lectured to.

What's the most challenging part of taking really complex scientific ideas and breaking them down into public-friendly lectures?

BG: Well I'd say the most challenging part is taking really complex scientific ideas and breaking them down [laughs]. It's a great and exciting challenge, and my own process emerges directly from the way I do scientific research.

I work on string theory, unified theories and extra dimensions and quantum physics, which is very abstract, but I always try to have a mental image of what the math is trying to tell me. It's that process of translating the abstract to the visual, which for me is the vital step. Once I have a picture of what is going on, then I can try to communicate the ideas without the technical details.

There's a lot of difficulty getting the public to accept new ideas -- given that there are so many scientifically supported ideas that the public doesn't agree with. It must be harder to bring something so much more complex to the public.

BG: I'm an interesting person to ask that question because all the science that I work on is completely controversial. I find it exciting to travel in these domains that may be completely wrong, but if they're right are a major revolution in the way we think about things.

So when I write books and communicate these ideas I'm not trying to convince people that string theory is right, I'm not trying to convince them that there are other universes, I'm trying to convince them that the ideas are sufficiently worthy -- that they come out of sufficiently solid scientific investigation -- that they should be taken seriously, they should be thought about, they should be investigated, but they should not be believed until there's evidence. And that's the scientific way of thought.

How do you think bringing the festival to the public will benefit the general good and hopefully advancement of science?

BG: The view of the festival is that science needs to be thought of differently. We right now isolate science as the stuff that the scientists do, and sometimes it benefits us and we're happy about that. But we don't really focus upon the details of what the science is about. And that's tragic because the science is exciting! It's spectacularly wondrous, it changes the way you live your life when you look out at the world and see not just the surface, but see beyond the surface. Richard Feynman was famous for using the rose as an analogy. He said, look, I can smell that rose, I can experience its rich red color, its aroma, but I can look further and I can see the molecules and atoms and their interactions that give rise to all of that wonderful sensation that we all experience. He says it doesn't kill the rose for me that I understand it, it enriches it. And that's true -- when you look at the world with a scientific perspective the world is a richer place. So the goal of the festival is really to shift science from the cultural outskirts to the cultural center.

Any favorites from past years or any recommendations for this year?

AA: I'm very interested in the improvisation because one of the things I do is to help train scientists to communicate in a better way and more personal way when they're making a presentation, and I use improvisation to do that.

I'd love to see in person some of the stuff he's found about what are the connections and the networks in the brain that are activated during improvisation, because I think that's at the heart of communication -- that is not a one-way street like a lecture, but where something's going back and forth between us. How can I ever hope to communicate something to you unless I get signals back from you that I'm on the right track or that I've started at some place that you're familiar with? If I start at some foreign place for you and then try to take you from there to something deeper then you have no hope.

Will the series be available online?

BG: On WSFTV you can find past festival programs... [alien landing ringtone]

AA: Is that a special ring from another dimension? [laughs]

BG: [laughs] Full programs are there but also edited versions where you can get four minutes on extra dimensions. You don't have to sit through the full programs if you just want a little snippet here or there. We're also streaming live some of the programs this year.

Why is this called the World Science Festival?

BG: We view science as something that transcends boundaries. It's really a global language.

AA: Depending on how his next book goes we might call it the cosmic science festival.

BG: We were thinking about calling it the "universe science festival."

AA: Well it is taking place in other universes.

BG: Without a doubt.

Catch the rest of the events this weekend or watch the festival live from your computer.