It must be fascinating to be as well known as physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. He’s had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on theories that unify gravity, the strong nuclear and electro-weak forces through string field theory. But he’s also well known as a science populizer, and his talk at Idea Festival begins with a clip from a Discovery documentary, “2057: The City” in which he’s the futurist narrator.
This means that when he takes questions at the end of his talk, one of his interlocutors asks, “Can you explain crop circles? And, I’ve been through a wormhole – who can I talk to?”
Dr. Kaku deals with these questions quite graciously – he acknowledges that there are phenomena not well explained by conventional scientific thought, though stresses that they are fairly rare. And many of the questions come from people who seem genuinely intrigued by questions of big physics, like whether the large hadron collider is likely to make discoveries that could lead to weapons.
But I found Dr. Kaku’s talk disappointing. He told some excellent jokes – including the Einstein and his driver joke – and hit on some of my favorite sci-fi fantasies (glasses that recognize who people are and brief you on them, so you don’t have to guess at their names). But he didn’t tell me a great deal about physics and certainly not about the branch he’s known for.
This may simply be that because string theory is such an abstract, mathematical discipline that explaining what scientists are hoping to find out of the Large Hadron Collider is beyond the scope of an amateur talk. Or it may be, as some critics argue, that supersymmetry isn’t really a predictive theory in the way that quantum theory or special relativity were, and that it may be untestable and unfalsifiable, which means that a certain amount of handwaving is always going to be a characteristic of talks about string theory. While I was frustrated, as were some folks sitting near me, most of the audience appeared to enjoy hearing a funny and smart man talk, and gave him a standing ovation.
I should note, this was literally the only talk I was disappointed by over the course of 2.5 days, which is pretty impressive for any festival.
Putting my frustration with this one talk aside, I had a blast at Idea Festival. Last year, I observed that IF’s organizer, Kris Kimel, is a man who’s not afraid to take risks and break the rules of futurism and ideas conferences. IF isn’t a big ticket event – you could buy a pass to all events for $260, less than a tenth of the cost of other conferences I attend and blog. And 70% of the events, including my talk (blogged by Evgeny Morozov, who does an incredible job of making the talk make sense) were free and open to the general public, which meant we had a far more diverse mix of people than I usually encounter at these events.
It struck me this year that one of the innovations Kris is experimenting with is giving a conference a decidedly local feel. The first night of the conference invited attendees to sample food from restaurants throughout the city, which was a great introduction to local cuisine and culture. There was a mix of local and global talent on stage, which was a great introduction to some of the work being done in local academe and helped give a sense for local priorities. I walked away this year wondering why every community of a certain size seems to run a local arts festival, and why so few run Idea Festivals.
Thanks to everyone involved for a good time at this year’s gathering, and thanks to everyone who’s enjoyed and commented on the talks I was able to cover. Sorry I wasn’t able to cover more.