Cool science for kids: World Science Festival 2014 is a wrap

Hey, wanna play ball? She was a little nervous at first, but the slow and gentle touch of the robot won her over.
Picture: Alan Duggan
Date:2 June 2014 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , , , ,

Robots that throw balls and want to be your friend, how it feels to stand inside a hurricane, real live astronauts, tornadoes in bottles, machines that play soccer, walking in low gravity, a Space Shuttle simulator – all this and much, much more drew thousands of kids and parents to New York’s Washington Square Park on the final day of the 2014 World Science Festival. We’re talking seriously cool science here, and I was quite happy to be a kid again.

Billed as the “Ultimate Science Street Fair”, it was a madhouse of the finest kind. I watched kids build stuff with huge enthusiasm, conduct science experiments with surprising results, explore all manner of fascinating machines, listen raptly as an astronaut explained why he needed to exercise in space, and howl with laughter as a volunteer demonstrated the basics of jet propulsion. And when I saw a little girl reach out trustingly to a cable-controlled humanoid robot, standing firm as its metal fingers curled around a little red ball in her hand, I knew they’d cracked it.

But, as other posts on this site have indicated, the Festival is by no means aimed exclusively at kids. Now in its 7th year, this annual celebration of all things scientific features a deliciously diverse programme that spans everything from space travel to the complexities of quantum physics, from breakthroughs in social robotics to the aerodynamic attributes of paper aeroplanes.

All this makes science both cool and accessible to adults and children alike, and for that, we have to thank its co-founders: bestselling author and physicist Brian Greene, and Emmy Award-winning journalist and TV producer Tracy Day, who serves as CEO of the Festival and oversees its creative and programmatic offerings (she also happens to be Professor Greene’s wife).

Taking time out from the street festival, I attended an event titled “What is Colour”, hosted by actor  and author Alan Alda, a long-time supporter of the World Science Festival. What I didn’t know was that he hosted the award-winning TV series Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years, and that he’s a visiting professor at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science (and, I am happy to confirm, an official Good Guy).

Aside from the interesting science behind our perception of colour  (neuroscientist and author David Eagleman was especially compelling), we learned about synesthetes – people who can invent colours to go along with words, numbers or even music, as demonstrated by neuroscientist and synesthete Kaitlyn Hova, who plays a mean electric violin.

A day earlier, I attended an entertaining event called “Science and Story Cafe”, at which we were introduced to eminent scientists and authors from my personal pantheon: Martin Rees, Max Tegmark, Steven Pinker and Seth Lloyd. Oh, and a biological anthropologist named Helen Fisher, who has written a book titled Why Him? Why Her? Among many interesting facts about men, women and emotions, she revealed that the intensity of romantic love is just as strong in men as in women, and that men fall in love just as often. I knew that, of course.

I’ve said this before, but it needs repeating: South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, would benefit hugely from a science festival similar to the one that galvanises New York year after year. We can draw on a rich resource of scientists, educators and other smart people, and we owe it to the next generation.

– A full report on the World Science Festival will appear in PM’s August issue.