Saturday, March 1, 2014

A peer review of the first Dubai Science Festival

First heard of as an idea whispered about during a Cafe Sci Dubai session last year, Dubai's first grassroots public science festival snowballed into a months-long endeavor that culminated this weekend in a pan-cultural four-day celebration of science for all. The festival, organized by the people behind Cafe Sci Dubai, included not just presentations and screenings, but dance, music, and poetry too, proving that science is not just a subject, but a culture as well.

(clockwise from top left) Rohan Roberts; Steven Pinker; Raya Bidshahri; Lara Matossian

The opening event, themed "Critical Wonder" was held at the Meydan Theatre, a main sponsor of the event with GEMS Education, and the venue for the remainder of the festival. It consisted of a sequence of short fact-, paradox-, trivia-, prediction-, and motivation-filled talks introducing various scientific/futurist topics, such as the exponential growth of knowledge and technology, astronomy and cosmology, disruptive technologies, and the human brain.

The speakers included festival director Rohan Roberts, lead coordinator Lara Matossian, youth coordinator Raya Bidshahri, and numerous student presenters (if even 10% of the gender ratio survived into professional life, we may not have a STEM gender imbalance in the next generation). My personal favorite talks were those of Bahar Ferdousi on brain malfunctions, and Sasha Nanda on the Hubble space telescope, commendable for their specificity and substance. Recorded shout-outs to the festival from the likes of Steven Pinker and David Deutsch were also played.

(clockwise from top left) Chris Hadfield; Stacy Locquiao; Monu Singh; Upslide

A night of music followed, made possible by the participation of numerous local acts like When Night Comes, Stacy Locquiao, Monu Singh, Candy Flippers and Upslide, performing songs referencing rocketry, comets, and other sci/tech concepts in a variety of musical genres. Intervals had us entertained with viral science music videos, such as Chris Hadfield's famous orbital rendition of "Space Oddity", Tim Minchin's statistically-correct love song "If I Didn't Have You", A Capella Science's "Bohemian Gravity", and Symphony of Science's auto-tuned opus "The Quantum World".

I had not been to a planetarium since over a decade ago. The inflatable mobile planetarium is not as awe-inspiring as the real deal, but it's a fun experience nonetheless. Besides, the show was about the historical development of astronomy, so it aligned quite nicely with my interests.

Out in the lobbies, relevant companies were promoting their services, students were demonstrating science projects, and a huge gallery was set up to exhibit local and international science-related paintings, graphics and photography. I even spotted a neighborhood attraction: the Moving Image Museum.

I also attended a local science enthusiasts' panel discussion, hosted by 103.8 FM presenter Suzanne Radford, during which science media pioneer Dr Majid al Qassimi, tech entrepreneur Mahmoud Abu Wardeh and science enthusiast Adam Griffin discussed local and global issues in scientific advancement and awareness, together with Rohan and Raya.

One of the surprise highlights of the event was the screening of Hubble 3D. I was only able to attend because of a change in the programme, but was happy to discover that Hubble 3D is a mind-blowing show, especially when viewed in the gigantic IMAX theatre.

The festival then took a cultural turn, starting with models in presumably futuristic makeup strutting a catwalk, professionally choreographed and wearing Imaginary Foundation clothing.

A series of dances from different cultures around the world followed, interspersed with (much to my delight) Dance Your PhD clips.

(clockwise from top left) Ana Rancic; Toby Masson; Taher Kathwala; Jason Silva

"Science is the poetry of reality" is a quote by one "Clinton R D", who joined Aldous Huxley, Tim Minchin, and other authors honored with in-character, prop-aided recitations (performances, rather). Jason Silva's science-passionate odes popped up from time to time too. Toby Masson's character performance of Minchin's viral skeptic classic "Storm" and Jamal Iqbal's performance of his original "When Hadrons Collide" were especially outstanding, in my opinion, as was Taher Kathawala's amazing slam performance of Steve Sanders' "Sky".

The programme ended with the staging of Lauren Gunderson's Leap, in which Ben Franklin shone as a young Isaac Newton meeting his muses for the first time.

In the closing ceremony, the people who saw the festival through to that moment were honored, including the commendable army of volunteers. I already can't wait for the next one; this festival was executed very well for a first-time experiment, and application of the scientific method will surely result in an even better one next year.

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