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Science hits Genoa.
An artistic interpretation of the biosphere at the headquarters of the Genoa Festival of Science.

Luca Giberti

Celebrating Food, Feces, and 3 Billion Years of Evolution

GENOA, ITALY--A giant single-celled organism floats in an atrium of the Palazzo Ducale, the 14th century palace at the heart of this city. Actually, the sculpture represents the biosphere as envisioned by Argentinean artist Tomas Saraceno. This eye-catching sight marks the headquarters of the Genoa Festival of Science, which has been going on since 25 October and wrapped up on 6 November. Over the past few days, I have seen dozens of science-art collisions such as this one and even witnessed the 3-billion-year story of evolution recounted in a world-premiere concert.

It hasn't been all play. On Monday, I co-hosted a miniconference at the festival about a story I covered as a correspondent for Science: a hospital outbreak of HIV in Libya and the foreign medics who were narrowly rescued from a firing squad with the help of scientists (ScienceNOW, 24 July). The panel marked the first time these scientists had met face to face, despite having collaborated for years to prove the innocence of the medics (one of whom was also present). While I was here, I decided to check out the rest of the festival.

Science and the city

When I arrived on 1 November, my first challenge was to find the festival's attractions. Unlike every other public science event I've attended, the Genoa festival does not happen under one roof. (The typical science festival roof belongs to one of those soul-draining, airport-sized conference facilities.) Instead, the more than 500 exhibits, workshops, and lectures are distributed throughout this Mediterranean city. It reminded me of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival. "Indeed, Edinburgh was our model when we started 5 years ago," says Genoa festival president Manuela Arata, a former scientific funding administrator. As I made my way through Genoa's labyrinthine medieval streets, I couldn't help becoming intimate with the city, from Via Garibaldi--the grand and colorful mansions of the city's Middle Age rulers--down to the harbor front that made them wealthy during Genoa's golden age.

Who made this?
Part of an exhibit on the natural history of feces.

Credit: J. Bohannon

Although the festival was distinctly European, with an audience of 60,000 drawn mainly from Italy, it drew science rock stars from around the world. Jane Goodall, Lawrence Krauss, Marc Hauser, and Freeman Dyson spoke to packed halls about subjects that included animal ethics, scientific skepticism, and the future of the universe. But what I found refreshing were the many scientists largely unknown to the international science festival circuit speaking in their native tongues with simultaneous translation via headphones. It shows that English may be the lingua franca of science, but as they say here, it's not the lingua única.

Take for example Sylvie Joussaume, a climate modeler at France's national research agency in Paris. "In France, we are struggling with our own climate skeptics who enjoy the attention they get for a contrarian position," she says. Some scientists react by avoiding talk of the complexity and uncertainties in climate prediction, says Joussaume, but she does the opposite. "It is nearly certain that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases," she says, and "the best way to convince people of this is to also explain what we do not yet know and why it is so difficult to get those answers."

The lectures were aimed at adults, but the children seemed to be having the most fun, so I tagged along with them. Events for the younger set included a tour of "the fourth dimension"--a room full of hypercubes and other higher dimensional objects that gave me a touch of vertigo; a chamber of robots that you could teach to play football; a demonstration of forensic science involving (real) guns and a (fake) cadaver in a staged crime scene; a live cooking show in which physicists, chemists, and anthropologists explained the science and origins of food; and a walking tour through the natural history of excrement featuring--you guessed it--a dizzying array of animal feces.

Listening to evolution

But the part of the festival that really blew me away was the concert. Of course, calling it a concert sells it short. In a program titled "Life," the Turin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Carlo Boccadoro, performed a piece of music by minimalist composer Philip Glass, while projected overhead were stunning images created by nature photographer Frans Lanting. This was no ordinary slide show. Design artist Alexander Nichols animated the photographs with a complex sequence of zooms, pans, and transitions in time with the music, literally bringing "Life" to life.

The goal was to tell the story of 3 billion years of evolution in about an hour, and it came off spectacularly. My favorite moment was when the percussion section first kicked in, corresponding to the outrageous innovation of body shapes about half a billion years ago known as the Cambrian explosion. Lanting may be best known for his shots of animals in action, but for my money, his photographs of cells, rocks, mud, and fossils were the real show-stealers. Then again, judging by the oh's and ah's of the audience, the evolutionary transition from sea to land--full of expressive amphibian faces peering uncertainly from the muck--may have been a bigger hit.

The performance was "science poetry," says Marco Cattaneo, the editor of Le Scienze, the Italian version of Scientific American, based in Rome. "But it also made me sad to think of how fragile it all is. Will Lanting be able to find all those ecosystems and animals in 20 years?"

Cattaneo's somber comment illustrates one of the deeper purposes of an event like the Genoa Science Festival. The wonders of the natural world will be lost if people do not know what they're missing. Scientific exploration deserves a celebration--and in Genoa, they're doing so with great style.

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