A video of a fantastic moment from the Notes and Neurons talk a couple of weeks ago has started making the rounds. Bobby McFerrin demonstrates shared musical expectations.


science + art

June 15, 2009

The World Science Festival now in year two, is a sort of mass collision of genres. Tracy Day, an Emmy-winning documentary producer and Brian Greene, the physicist and her husband, founded the festival (video highlights are online).

It raises the usual complicated questions about efforts to make science more exciting or accessible with big names, multimedia, what have you. These are old questions, the same ones that showed up in the preparations for the 1939 World’s Fair.  Big ones. Einstein was on the Committee.

via flickr/zetson

At the WSF, Day introduced WNYC’s John Schaefer, but then Bobby McFerrin walked onstage instead. I suppose he needs no introduction. McFerrin appeared on the panel, Notes and Neurons: the Search for the Common Chorus with three scientists studying music and neurobiology.  On one level he’s a completely appropriate guest.  He’s lively.  He adds spice and a dash of reality to the theory. McFerrin with an audience has everything to do with exploring the boundaries of musical communication and universality. However, it’s an open question whether, onstage with a trio of understated performing scientists, he may upstage the science. McFerrin makes things look easy.  He may be drawing those scientists out, undeniably.  But it also clearly disconcerted the panelists to speak to someone not knowing what voice he’ll respond in next.

On Saturday, Alan Alda moderated another panel on invention and innovation.  The two speakers, Hugh Herr and Dean Kamen, work  in robotic prostheses and medical technology. What was interesting about their talk was that the sheer wow factor of their science–the spontaneous applause that broke out after they finished explaining a wheelchair that could climb stairs, or a prosthetic foot, or a mobile water purifier the size of a mini-fridge that can purify a thousand litres of water a day. The talk was more earnest, more predictable and less entertaining, but the science clearly could speak for itself too, when given the chance.

Question for the ages, clearly.

img via flickr/zetson

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