Sunday, May 31, 2015

World Science Festival | Sunday, May 31 "What Is Sleep?" and "To Explain the World"

Today was the last day of the "World Science Festival" and I attended two events which show the multifaceted aspects of the science showcased in these five-day marathon of the WSF.

The first event "What Is Sleep" took place at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, where Alan Alda introduced the five panelists, sleep expertsL Mary Carskadon, Paul Shaw, Robert Stickgold, Matthew Wilson. Each panelist is a researcher in different areas of sleep, and mainly with totally different subjects ranging from rats to fruit flies and...humans. While the experiments were understandibly very different, given the diversity of the subjects, the conclusions were similar: sleeping is crucial to the brain functioning and can help to restore memories and maximize our learning potential. The recommendations presented by the panelist, were quite inline with common sense: follow the circadian rhythms and slow-down before going to sleep.The aim was the detect recommendations presented by the panelist, were quite inline with common sense: follow the circadian rhythms and slow-down before going to sleep.
   The centerpiece of the event was the live video observation of human subject, sleeping off-stage whose brainwaves were tracked by EEG. wired-up person sleeping offstage. EEG is a common tool to detect sleep activity as shown by studies ongoing for several years this experiments was not really adding to the educational and informational intent.
     My other critique to this event, otherwise enjoyable and educational, was the lack of attention to sleeping disorders and problems, which are experienced by a large percentage of the world population; a summary of statistics and studies can be found in a webpage from the Center of Disease Control. Even if the event duration was only one hour, some time could been allocated to outline the main sleep problems and disorders as well as the treatment options and other related resources. Every healthy person is aware of the importance of adequate sleep, but how to achieve it often outside our control -or our free will, just to mention another popular theme of the WSF, To overcome the lack of information from the WSF event, below are a few useful sites:

Screenshot of a polysomnographic record (30 seconds) representing Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. EEG highlighted by red box. Eye movements highlighted by red line. Retrieved on June 1 2015 from

The other event concluding the five-day WSF marathon was "To Explain the World: a Conversation with Steven Weinberg", moderated by Peabody Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry and hosted by the New-York Historical Society. The conversation was based on the latest book “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science" written by the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, who also holds the Regental Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin.
    Weinberg stated at the beginning of the conversation that "the standard model is not the end of the story" and introduced some of the differences between the classical Greek science and the Hellenistic practitioners, with mentions of Democritus, pre-Socratics, Plato's Academy, Aristotle. Some emphasis was to given to the work of Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BC), credited with the first heliocentric model. 
   The conversation was inspiring: Weinberg emphasized the importance of the unity of science and shared more personal details on his research activities. Weinberg, a New York City native and graduate of Bronx High School of Science, discovered the power of mathematics while understanding the equations behind the catenary of a bridge.  He became involved in research at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, which shaped his later studies in particle physics and quantum gravity. He was aware a Nobel prize in 1979 in  physics jointly to Sheldon Lee Glashow, Abdus Salam  "for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current".
   I wanted to ask Professor Weinberg several questions which, due to the long line-up, were not answered:

  • Are built construction of early observational astronomy (archeoastronomy) of relevance in the history of astronomy
  • How he situates art in scientific discoveries? What is the role of beauty in science either in a theory formulation of in the geometric cosmological interpretation or configurations itself (e.g. galaxies form). 
Both questions were derived from perhaps a vision of a cross-disciplinary approach to science, where art and science are integrated methodologies in the advancement of knowledge. A vision which perhaps was missing from many of the WFS programs, where art was a mere presentation/communication tool instead of a component of a scientific approach.
From the book cover of "To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science"