What do vampires, baseball, honeybees and the tango have to do
with science? You can find the answers October 7 through 11 as the Saint Louis
Science Center presents SciFest ’09, St. Louis’ 2nd annual international science festival.
SciFest is the joint brainchild of the folks at the Science Center and the creators of the Cheltenham Science Festival in Cheltenham, England. Both festivals were developed as a way to change people’s
perceptions about science and technology by presenting it in a fun and entertaining way. Based on last year’s crowd, it seems to be working.
“Last year attendance was somewhere between 21,000 and 22,000 which was pretty good for our first year,” says Al Wiman, vice president for Public Understanding of Science. “Naturally we hope to increase that number this year. We’ve been working really hard to bring in some great speakers, and come up with some really interesting and fun topics. I think people are going to love it.”
This year’s festivities will kick-off Wednesday night, October 7 with a presentation by Dean Kamen, who’s perhaps best known for developing the Segway PT. Kamen also founded FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—an organization which develops ways to inspire students in engineering and technology fields. FIRST created the international high school robotics competition where students compete to build robots that complete assigned tasks. This year, St. Louis is one of three cities nationwide that have applied for the FIRST Robotics Competition nationals.
“They should decide by the end of September or first of October where the nationals will be held,” Wiman says. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that on the night of October 7 Dean Kamen will stand up and say, guess what!”
On Thursday night, October 8, SciFest continues as members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra participate in Science of the Symphony to be held at the Planetarium. Then on Friday evening everyone will get the chance to party down at Extravaganza, which offers a taste of good food, good drink and a bit of what is to come over the next two days.
“There will be activities spread throughout the Science Center,” Wiman adds. “There will be interactive displays and a series of short programs; a sort of teaser for the rest of the festival. For instance, we’ve got Mark Lewney, the physicist from England, coming back to do his rock guitar program, and Walter the Edutainer coming from Technopolis the Flemish Science Center in Belgium. We’ll also have Drs. Fred and Anita Chu doing a demonstration of their program, Tango to Your Health. So it should be a lot of fun.”
That fun will extend into the final two days of the festival where things will really get rolling with the The Science of NASCAR where you’ll not only learn how to build an engine that can run at 9,000 rpm for three hours without blowing up, but that driving a car in a circle is a lot harder than you think. In Drumming Up Health you’ll see how drum therapy is being used for patients with Parkinson’s, cancer, and autism. You’ll learn about ball speed and trajectory in The Science of Baseball as well as the psychology of guessing what the opposition is going to do next. Flirting, the Scientific Way will show that humans aren’t the only creatures that use this courtship signal. And then there’s A Star is Born and Dies; Honeybees in Crisis; Genetic Diagnosis: Operating on Well Folks; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; Keeping Your Brain in the Game; Internet Safari and Skype to the Ends of the Earth which will take you live to some really cool places around the world.
Doug King, president and CEO of the Science Center, says there is definitely something for everybody.
“There are serious subjects and fun subjects,” he says. But if last year is any indication, people will go to both. It’s not just one group attending serious topics and another group the fun stuff. Basically, people want to hear about things that are vital, but at the same time they want to relax and have fun. And I think we’ve got some really cool things this year.”
King says based on last year’s experience they have made some changes to this year’s festival. For instance, they have expanded their school sessions to run from Wednesday through Friday during the day. Also despite being designed primarily for adults, last year’s crowd at SciFest included quite a few kids. As a result they are including more family-oriented things during the day, while more adult sessions will occur at night. A good example is Saturday night’s The Science Behind Science Fiction where New York Times best selling fantasy and paranormal fiction author Laurell K. Hamilton will discuss the inspiration for her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series.
“It may not be science, but it’s fun,” King says. “And as our Cheltenham partners told us, make sure you have high science content, but don’t let yourselves get too proper. Remember, it’s a festival.”
King says eventually he’d like to see the festival grow beyond the Science Center. “By next year I’d like to be doing little mini festivals in all of Missouri and Illinois; half-day things that culminate in St. Louis at SciFest in October.
Then people will get the idea that there’s something going on here that’s worth visiting. That means additional revenue for hotels, restaurants and so on. You know Cheltenham is not a big town, but people come from all over England, Scotland and Wales to their festivals.”
King also sees a time when the festival will grow beyond the Science Center.
“We fully expect the Garden, the Zoo and some of the universities to eventually become involved,” he explains. “But right now we just want to fill up the place first. We have to walk before we can run.”
King says surveys from last year’s SciFest show that although visitors weren’t quite sure what to expect, they were pleasantly surprised.
“They indicated they’d be back this year and would tell others about it. We also got some great feedback from the presenters. Giovanni Fazio (senior physicist from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) said yes immediately when we asked him back this year, because he had such a good experience. And we’ve also been embraced by the scientific community here in St. Louis. That’s very gratifying. And to think that last year we were saying, gee I hope this works.”
This year, individual ticket prices for the daytime sessions are $6 per session, however you may purchase a day pass for $20. All evening sessions on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday will run you
$10 per session. But if you’d like an all-access pass to the festival plus Friday night’s Extravaganza, a Golden ticket is
available for $100.