ASU Origins event focuses on the Storytelling of Science
If one didn’t know any better, Saturday’s sold-out, enthusiastic and sometimes downright raucous crowd at Gammage Auditorium may have easily been mistaken for one at an all-star rock festival – rather than the esteemed panel of scientists and science communicators assembled on one stage.
But the packed-house and “science rock star” panel proved that science could not only hold center stage, but also be captivating, funny and inspirational – light years away from the stereotypical view of science as boring.
Titled “The Science of Storytelling and the Storytelling of Science,” the March 30 event was part of Arizona State University’s weekend-long Origins festival. The group of world-class science communicators, recognized throughout the world for their unique talents as scientists and science storytellers, included executive director of the World Science Festival Tracy Day; physicist Brian Greene; National Public Radio Science Friday host Ira Flatow; physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; ASU physicist and Origins director Lawrence Krauss; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; Bill Nye “The Science Guy;” and science fiction writer Neal Stephenson.
Krauss served as emcee and kicked off the event with a tale of how he was inspired to become a scientist. It turns out a pivotal book, “The Character of Physical Law,” written by physicist Richard Feynman, marked a turning point for then-high-school age Krauss.
“I took the book home, and read a chapter, and didn’t understand any of it,” said Krauss. “But the thing that was important for me, when I looked at the book, I realized not all of the problems are solved, and I thought, for the first time, that maybe a career in physics might be worthwhile.”
Day talked about her journey from broadcast journalist to science journalist – a point in time where her viewpoint changed from covering wars and politics and thinking scientists were boring to finding them among her most fascinating interviews – to becoming co-founder of the World Science Festival in 2005, an annual multimedia science outreach extravaganza that has been attended by nearly 1 million people.
“We try to move science out of its silo, smack into the middle of popular culture, where it belongs,” Day said.
Greene recounted a tale of the thrill of discovery and the importance of instilling those lessons on children as he and colleagues proved for the first time that string theory was mathematically possible.
“We were looking at something that no one else had seen before,” Greene said. “It’s a thrilling moment, and that’s what really science is about, peeling away a layer no one else had seen before. If kids could have a glimpse of that moment, from confusion to clarity, and if more kids could have that experience, I think it could change the world.”
Flatow discussed his ongoing amazement of being truly surprised by his scientist guests after more than 22 years of radio broadcasts of the show, while deGrasse Tyson gave a captivating account of the intersection of astronomy, science and art in the genesis of Vincent van Gogh’s masterwork, "Starry Night."
“It’s the first painting that I know of, [in which] the background is the subject of the painting," de Grasse Tyson said. "The background is the night sky, and it [has] elevated the cosmos to become the subject of art. Science ... does not become mainstream until the artist embraces the fruits of those discoveries.”
The panelists bantered back and forth regarding a range of topics, including the role of math in science; how to encourage more women in science; the evolution of science fiction from the optimism of Star Trek to a more recent emphasis on darker, more countercultural slant; and science as entertainment with popular television shows such as "The Big Bang Theory."
At one point, a heated panel exchange on the privatization of space resulted in verbal barbs brandied about between deGrasse Tyson, Greene and Krauss, threatening to devolve into a WWE-style, no-holds-barred, tag-team brawl. It was left to Nye to come to the rescue, as he literally held back deGrasse Tyson, who was threatening to “charge” at Greene.
Perhaps the question-and-answer session best epitomized the spirit of the evening, when the panel offered one-word tips on the essentials of science storytelling: passion, ambition, empathy, poetry, and from Nye, algebra.
A web archive of the event can be found at: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/asu-live.
To learn more about ASU Origins, go to: www.origins.asu.edu.