World Science Festival 2012 Experience

This year was my first time attending World Science Festival in New York City and I was quite impressed with the variety of events for all ages. I didn’t get to participate in all the events or attend many talks but those I was able to make were diverse and interesting.

My introduction to WSF started with a screening of Icarus at the Edge of Time narrated live by LeVar Burton. I had won 2 tickets the night before and with such short notice, I didn’t have much of a chance to find someone to go. As luck would have it, my boss was a big enough fan of LeVar that he was an easy sell! We both quite enjoyed the experience, held at the amazing United Palace Theater, though it was quite evident the show was meant for a much younger crowd. On the way to the theater from the subway we managed to collide with a family awkwardly looking around for the right way to go. As we all made our way I got lost in a small conversation with mother. The entire family had come for the event because her young son loves physics and science and asked to go! She said there was no way she could turn him down. If I knew how to nominate her for mother of the year, I would have on the spot!

Innovation Square – NYU/Poly at MetroTech, Brooklyn, NY

On Saturday I hopped on the subway and headed to Brooklyn where the NYU/Poly MetroTech campus was playing host to Innovation Square – another family friendly event with booths for people of different ages and interests. Though there were a limited number of exhibits this just made it easier to visit each a few times during the day. I liked to see how people interacted with exhibits and hear the kinds of questions that were asked. At least, that’s the surface explanation. Some exhibits were just so interesting I couldn’t help but revisit them to get a better look as the crowds shifted.

One booth I visited repeatedly was from Festo. They had a few examples of their work on robotic emulation of natural motion. In a cylindrical tank of water in the center of their booth was what appeared to be a robotic jellyfish. It was programmed to take a pressure measurement when it was activated then again after it sank to the bottom of the tank. Until it was reset it would swim up, sink and swim up again with a fluid of motion and grace I’ve never seen. The only flaw in the system was its tendency to get stuck on the surface of the water due to extra buoyancy from air bubbles in the water.

Beyond the exhibits were short presentations on various topics. The two I attended were on Vertical Farming and Mentoring Makers. I will do a separate entry on the latter presentation to address some issues I had with the presenter’s premise. Stay tuned.

The vertical farming session, presented by Dickson Despommier, was quite encouraging. I remember seeing shows years ago on television which showed various versions of vertical farming in the past and I’ve always found the topic interesting if a bit impractical as shown. From memory vertical farming was touted as a way to use the towering infrastructure of large cities as real estate for growing plants while helping to reduce cooling costs by blocking some of the sun’s rays. This approach always struck me as impractical. How would the plants be harvested? What about the diesel fumes from trucks and the high density of cars?

I was pleasantly surprised to see not only was the methodology shown more akin to greenhouse or hydroponic growing – though stacked many levels high – there are working designs already in place around the globe. Today there are government backed vertical farms in Korea, commercial farms in Japan, ground is broken in Sweden for a new 17 story vertical farm and in Holland they’ve gone upside down and are building a three story farm underground in an environment where they can control the light wavelengths to which the plants are exposed in an effort to maximize their growth.

The format of the talk was too short for me. As it was the presenter was given about 15 minutes to present the information and another 15 for questions. I wish it could have gone on a bit longer as the audience, and I, had many questions left to ask! One of the goals of vertical farming is closed loop agriculture. One farm raises fish in addition to the plants as a way of consuming the oxygen and providing nutrients for the plants. While it seems no farm has achieved a closed system, there are still many lessons learned from hydroponics that could be applied. While I had assumed the lower waste cycle would be a primary goal, the Asian farms were much more concerned with efficient use of land for growing. I’m sure as more farms are built, various improvements will be introduced. I for one can’t wait for some local produce grown right here in New York City to be available at local shops.

I can’t express how energized I was walking away from NYU/Poly that evening. The ideas and demonstrations on display that day were truly inspiring. I was very much excited for the second event I’d attend the next day in Washington Square Park.

Ultimate Science Street Fair – Washington Square Park, Manhattan, NY

On Sunday I woke up a bit late but I was determined to get down to Washington Square Park and check out the events of the day. As I turned the corner from the subway I was able to see the World Science Festival flags waving proudly in the distance, just beyond the shooting waters of the fountain. As I approached I heard the ominous grumble of the approaching thunderstorm but I’d just arrived and there was no way I was going to leave! The event was much larger than the day before with many more booths. I barely made it halfway through an introductory round when the skies opened up and dumped a heavy rain on everyone! People took shelters in buildings, cafes and under the tents of various exhibits. It was a bit funny to me as I strolled along the street alone. Eventually I was invited into a booth to keep from getting even more drenched. It was a nice diversion and didn’t last long. Within 10 minutes the rain had stopped, the sun was out again and the park was steaming as the water evaporated.

While the booths were setting up after their hasty breakdown during the deluge, I took the opportunity to finish my loop around the park to get familiar with the location of the stages and presentation areas.

Though bigger, I didn’t spend as much time at this event. I watched a few of the stage shows and some science demonstrations, perused the booths and picked up some materials for open houses at local observatories, museums and other educational events. It really opened my eyes to the staggering opportunities for supplemented science education available to parents and their kids. I hope these programs are getting the attention they deserve and continue to provide these valuable services.

The stage presentations were quite entertaining. The shows were obviously geared to a younger crowd but had me enthralled and eager to see the demonstrations just as much as the kids around me. Who isn’t interested in rapid exothermic reactions? Despite the target audience, I didn’t feel as though the material pandered or was unnecessarily simplified and yet the kids in the crowd were engaged, inquisitive and responsive to questions! I was very happy to see them so interested in the basic sciences and I hope there are other programs available at higher education levels available as they grow.

I really enjoyed my the events I was able to visit and hopefully next year I’ll get a chance to attend some of the weekday conferences as well. I can’t imagine a more worthwhile use of my vacation time!

-Erik

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