December 2012

Zombies, beer and family-friendly, sun-filled afternoons

Anything is possible during a science festival

Photo of Team ACEISSO 
The line for face painting wound past neuroscientists presenting brain specimens. Image courtesy of the Bay Area Science Festival 

SAN FRANCISCO — They lined up by the hundreds, their ashen faces spattered with blood. Some were horribly disfigured. Others were undergoing inexplicable mutations. All were thirsty.

Thankfully, there were two bars at the entrance and more inside just past the dance floor and DJs, ready to serve the almost 4,000 20- and 30-somethings in full Halloween regalia at the Zombie Night Life event at the California Academy of Sciences. To the right, a short presentation by a neuroscientist was getting under way. Off to the left were more lines of participants eager to learn about brains using real specimens. Out back, the stage was being set for the horror costume and drag show.

The bustling Thursday night zombie party boded well for the 2012 Bay Area Science Festival, which still had more than 70 events to go in its 10-day schedule. Over the next several days of my visit, a familiar feeling of whiplash set in as I zipped around San Francisco Bay; each new event stood out in distinct contrast with the previous one.

On Friday evening, I was at the headquarters of Wired magazine with members of the press and local nerd-herders. (Nerd-herders? Oh, yes. These are the influentials in your community who convene science and tech gatherings for an enthusiastic public.) We learned about the impact of beer on technology and history while sampling the specially brewed science festival beer, dispensed from a mobile cocktail robot, of course.

On Saturday, I waited at a public transit station with numerous families from the Oakland area. One of many shuttles arrived to take us up from urban streets through peaceful woodlands to the Chabot Space and Science Center for a free day of exploration made possible by Chevron, one of the festival’s biggest sponsors.

Shortly after experiencing the wonder of seeing solar plumes through a telescope alongside children at Chabot, I was taking photos outside the Castro Theater. The marquis announced the headline act, “Alton Brown and the Bay Area Science Festival,” while swarms of boisterous Halloween revelers navigated a sold-out line that stretched for blocks.

Sunday started early with a long drive to the hills and volcanic domes of Clayton for a small group hike led by field scientists. Sunday evening took me north to San Rafael for a multimedia presentation by a Pixar animator enjoyed by a popcorn-munching audience in a historic movie theater.

By Monday at lunchtime, I was at the prestigious Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco with my best shoes on for a talk on synthetic biology by George Church of Harvard Medical School.

Photo of Team ACEISSO 
Joining scientists in the field for discovery. Image credit: Ben Wiehe 

Many days and scores of events later, the celebration culminated with Discovery Day, a massive, free, family-friendly day featuring interactive exhibits by more than 150 companies, schools and organizations – including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. This year Discovery Day was again held at AT&T park, home of the World Series-winning Giants, and drew close to 30,000 attendees.

I could go on, but this isn’t about just the Bay Area.

Grassroots growth across the nation
Science festivals are popping up across the country. Each is different for all of the same reasons that your own community is a unique source of pride. (It may be that a zombie drag show in the name of science won’t go over in quite the same way where you live.) Some of the festivals are large initiatives requiring annual six-figure fundraising drives. Some are more modest in scale.

The diversity of activity that the festivals represent (there are at least three dozen annual festivals active in the U.S.) makes them impossible to summarize. Still, we can make some generalizations:

  • • Science festivals engage whole communities and make science and technology a part of the cultural calendar in much the same way that art festivals and street fairs do.
  • • Most feature scores of events over several days and in many venues, reaching students, families and adults where they live, work and play. Festival programs go wherever necessary to serve hard-to-reach audiences, including both science-inattentive individuals and underserved communities.
  • • They rally communities to celebrate science as alive and local. By convening as many partners as possible, festivals unite those dedicated to science, technology and education.
  • • They bring the public into direct contact with scientists and engineers, leading people to seek out more science experiences throughout the rest of the year.
Kids with ASBMB at Discovery Days

Discovery Days

AT&T Park hosted Discovery Days on Saturday, Nov. 3, the final event of the 2012 Bay Area Science Festival. ASBMB was there. Take a look! 

Festivals working together
In 2009, a national network of science festivals – the Science Festival Alliance – formed with support from the National Science Foundation. The basic premise of the SFA is that each festival represents both the capacity to serve local communities and the chance for other festivals to learn something new. The SFA’s top priorities are to help independently organized festivals get started and to provide festival organizers with a professional network that lets them share their greatest triumphs.

The SFA also serves as a good first stop for anyone interested in getting involved with science festivals. Intrigued by the idea and interested in finding out more? Sign up to receive Science Festival Headlines (1). Think you may want to partner with a local festival to share your work with public audiences? Find a festival near you using the SFA’s map and calendar (2). Wondering why there isn’t a festival initiative under way in your town? Contact the SFA to see who else is interested in your region (3). Considering starting a new festival? Check out the SFA’s “First Look at Science Festivals” document online (4).

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Photo of Ben WieheBen Wiehe ( is the manager of the Science Festival Alliance and on staff at the MIT Museum.

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