Geeks Unite for World Science Fest

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NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich regales the Bryant Park Project multitudes with highlights from the World Science Festival held this week in New York.


Were you good at science in school?


It was my worst subject, actually.

MARTIN: Was it? That surprises me. I kind of think of you as a science guy.

PESCA: I liked math.

MARTIN: You liked math.

PESCA: Which is the actual application of the abstract into the real world.

MARTIN: Well, I was one of those people in college, I - you know, I was OK in science, but I didn't love it, and so when I saw on the curriculum that I could sign up for something called Science in Context - that was actually a requirement in my college, the specific course was Physics for Poets - I said yes, that is the class for me, and it was a great class. To this day, putting science in context really makes a difference. We read this book, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," and - so you have this narrative of making the bomb, but it comes - you learn history, and art, and music, and it really makes the thing stick in your brain.

PESCA: I read that book, it was - it won the Pulitzer for best work of history for Richard Rhodes.

MARTIN: It's a great book, Richard Rhodes.

PESCA: I didn't know that counted as science. So, yeah, I'm good at science.

MARTIN: Totally, you're totally good at science.

PESCA: Oh, man, I'm good at reading books.

MARTIN: The whole world I - in my - Rachel Martin's world is divided into people who take real science classes, and people who take physics for poets. Now, if you fall into that second camp like me, and you happen to be in New York over the next few days, we have got your weekend plans. We've got them all laid out. Why? Because the first ever World Science Festival is happening here in New York, and this is an entire five-day event devoted to doing just that, putting science in context using art, music, dance, literature, dialogue and debate.

And here's a sampling of some of the offerings, a "mathemagician" - didn't even know there was such a thing - entertains with feats of mathematical gymnastics, while explaining how he does it. Nobel Laureates will be on hand fielding questions from high-school students on the nuts and bolts on the universe. If that doesn't grab you, how about sonic juggling or an exploration of the wonderful weirdness of the quantum world? My curiosity is sufficiently piqued.

PESCA: Piqued.

MARTIN: Now is the time when we bring in - we are so lucky to have him - NPR's own Robert Krulwich, esteemed science correspondence. He is also the co-host of WNYC's Radio Lab. He himself is a participant in this week's World Science Festival. He joins me on the line now. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Hi there, Rachel, Mike.


MARTIN: Thanks for doing this. So, in a moment I want to talk specifically about what you are going to be presenting at the festival, but first, let's talk about the festival itself. These goals, as we said in the intro, are to try to make science more accessible. How are they trying to do that?

KRULWICH: Well, they went way back in history, so it was - maybe you read about in one of those books in your science class, they went back to 1820-something, when, in London, the great scientists of the day would leave their labs and walk down to probably the big stage downtown, just south of Hyde Park, and they would do theatrical presentations of their work in front of anybody who wanted to come, and everybody wanted to come, the great poets of the day, the lords, the ladies, the shopkeepers.

Everybody seemed to show up at these things, and there was a fellow named Sir Humphrey Davies who would do dramatic science experiments using electricity. Things would go off, there would be explosions, stink bombs, and the whole town was completely fascinated, because electricity had been discovered in the previous century by Ben Franklin, but no one quite knew what to do with it, and no one quite understood how it worked, and so that and chemistry were the big hits. People would pour things into other things, and the whole town would go, whoa, you know, and so it was a big deal and it reached everyone.

And then about 150 years later, the city of Genoa in Italy decided to do a modern-day version of this. They invite scientists from all over the world to come to Genoa for two weeks. If you are - it's a big industrial city in northern Italy, and if you live there, and you are walking to work, or you're walking home, or you're taking Sunday in the park in that town, you bump into scientists who are sitting doing things, talking, showing films. There are dance recitals and so forth, and it's all over town.

And you could have gotten three C-minuses in a row in your grade school, high school and college chemistry and you never want to think about it. But in Genoa for those two weeks, you keep bumping into scientists, and science enthusiasts, and science homage-ists (ph), artists dancing, and stuff. And it is all around you, and that was the idea that Brian Green and Tracy Day wanted to bring to New York City.

MARTIN: Those are the founders and it really is about - that you referenced the bumping into. I mean a lot of times people think about science, and scientists, and researchers in labs coats in sterile environments, in ivy towers, and don't realize that science is everywhere. It's everywhere in your life on a daily basis.

KRULWICH: Right. And the New York festival is - this is the first year that there's trying to see if it can be in a whole lot of places, so that when you go to the park, or when you, particularly if you happen to be in Greenwich Village, which is in the middle of Lower Manhattan, you will see an awful lot of things going on, and that's the notion.

MARTIN: I want to get right to what you are going to be presenting. You and Oliver Sacks, who is a renowned neurologist and author, you two are hosting a presentation on the intersection of vision and perception. It's - the title of the presentation is called "The Mind's Eye." Can you give us a little sneak peak, Robert, about what you're going to share with the audience?

KRULWICH: Yeah, sure. That's a very fancy-dancy way of saying it, but it's - Oliver's going to talk about his - the cancer that he has in his right eye. A few years ago he was at the movies, he's - actually it was "Brokeback Mountain," (unintelligible). He just slipped in, sat in the back row and got ready for the movie, and before the movie began, during one of the previews, there was some sudden explosion of light in his right eye, the corner of his right eye. And he couldn't figure out what it was. It was very, very distracting and it was just a like - it was a little bit like fireworks in the upper right corner, and it got worse, and worse, and he thought to himself, what is going on?


KRULWICH: And then, he was - I think two hours after the movie ended, he was at the doctor's, and he was diagnosed with a retinal cancer. And he, because he is a doctor and very much a clinician, he began drawing what he was seeing through his eye in about now 27 notebooks. So, I went through the notebooks, and I found some of the more mysterious drawings. What we are going to do, is we're going to listen to Oliver Sacks talk about the progress of his disease.

He has always been one of those people who, when he meets people who are sick, or who are strangely sick, or who are chronically ill, and who are stuck in a very different place than the rest of us, he has always been the guy who describes them so beautifully and so emphatically, that you begin to think about them as just people, instead of other kind of, oh, oh, I don't want to get too near that guy.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

PESCA: Or his patients...

KRULWICH: Or his patients.

PESCA: Or some victims, or something like that.

KRULWICH: So, now it's happened to him, he can't correct the problem. It's not going to kill him apparently, because a small attempt was made to try to make the cancer die, but it's still there, but it is very stable, and retinal cancers don't tend to break up and go into your blood system or your lymph nodes and metastasize. So, he has beat it, but he's lost, at this point, the sight in his right eye, so...

MARTIN: What does it mean, Robert, in the write-up for your presentation, it says that people who are blind can be hyper-visual. Can you explain that?

KRULWICH: When people who have seen go blind, their brain, the part of the brain that was devoted to processing visual information, has nothing to do. You've got all these neurons up there that used to be receiving information, and turning it into pictures in your head. Now they are pretty much unemployed and the brain cells are very active, and when those cells in your head have nothing to do, they just make stuff up.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

KRULWICH: So, blind people often hallucinate, oftentimes with patterns, sometimes with people, you know very vivid, techno - sorry, very, very clear movie-style people in their heads. And they think, of course, they are going completely bats. But they are not. All that's happening is their brain is making it up, and creating sort of brain fantasies in their head. Oliver has that in a modest sort of way.


KRULWICH: He's been trying to learn how to play the piano, and he has now been looking with his good eye at notes, musical notes, and his hallucinatory part for some reason takes hundreds of notes off of musical sheets, always flat, for some reason, so you can see the staff, they're flat - it's flat notes and they rain. He has raining flat musical notations in his head.

MARTIN: Weird.

PESCA: Is this hyper-visual phenomenon - do they know if it's anything like the phantom-limb phenomenon?

KRULWICH: It's exactly like the phantom-limb phenomenon. Yes, you - when your brain loses something, loses an input, so if someone chops off your arm, then the part of your brain that receives arm information has nothing to do, and might create a pretend arm. And when you lose hearing, your part of your brain that deals with hearing makes up sounds that you aren't hearing, but it pretends that you are, and the same with sight. Brains don't like to be put out of work.

PESCA: Does Oliver like his hyper-visualism? Because sometimes people with phantom limbs experience phantom limb pain.

KRULWICH: Yeah, that, of course - you know that's what I'm going to ask, he...

MARTIN: Have to go to the presentation, Mike.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Are you saying, I thought of the same question, Robert?

KRULWICH: I don't know, that's the question I want to ask.

MARTIN: You can use that.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And finally, Robert, I want to ask you, so much of the work that you do is devoted to this very topic, making science interesting, making science accessible, and you use the word "wonder" a lot, getting people to realize the wonder involved in science. How do you do that? What's the key to helping people rediscover the wonder?

KRULWICH: Well, I just think if you have it in yourself, you know, if you - both my sister and I, I don't quite know how this happened in our family, but we both can walk down the street and what happens between us is like, look at that (unintelligible), oh, my God. There's a lot of that all the time, and so you just turn it into a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And why - I guess, lastly, why do people get freaked out about science, do you think?

KRULWICH: Oh, because it scares them and they don't think they will ever understand it, and it seems kind as like, you know, language, either fancy words or mathematics that they don't get. So, everybody, everybody, when they are little, loves to think about animals, and alternate worlds, and where you come from, and where we are we going.

But when the vocabulary gets too tough, they think, well, I guess that's not for me. But I think it's the job of people who can understand this best to talk to people in terms that they can understand and then everybody's back in. In theory, very, very easy to get excited about this, if you can understand what people are talking about.

MARTIN: Yes, and you are a very good translator between those two worlds. NPR's science correspondent, Robert Krulwich. The World Science Festival is happening in New York. Robert's going to be panelist. Hey, Mr. Krulwich, thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

KRULWICH: You're very welcome.

PESCA: Thanks, Robert.

KRULWICH: Thanks, Mike.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: And Modern Drunkard, Cat Fancy, Guns and Ammo, all magazines and this guy read them all. Peter Carlson is retiring as the author of the magazine Reader Column in the Washington Post. He will tell us all about his glossy career. And the good thing is, when we do the interview, those little insert cards won't fall into your lap. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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