Science and the City at 7 World Trade CenterJan 05, 2011
To the tune of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, multi-colored dendrites, neurons and synapses danced across a projection screen. This was how Carl Schoonover, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University, introduced his audience at the New York Academy of Sciences to his topic: “Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century.”
Schoonover’s lecture on December 15 was part of this year’s Science and the City series describing how science has evolved. There will be two more lectures in that series this year, plus some “one off” lectures on other scientific topics of interest to the layman. The lectures take place at the Academy’s headquarters on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center, where attendees are also rewarded with dramatic views of Manhattan.
The New York Academy of Sciences dates all the way back to 1817, but Science and the City is a mere five years old. The Academy, whose membership of more than 24,000 people includes 26 Nobel Laureates, was initially primarily for professional scientists and students of science. Science and the City’s mission has been to promote scientific literacy to the general public.
“Everything is really small,” said Schoonover, describing the brain. “Everything is packed very tight and everything is convoluted. So the challenge over the centuries and especially toward the end of the 19th century has been to somehow make sense of this incredibly small, incredibly tangled mess.” Starting with an image of a face showing connections between the eyes and what passes for a brain drawn in Cairo, Egypt in the 11th century, Schoonover traced the progression of knowledge to the present and the insights enabled by technology, such as the electron microscope.
The lecture series is under the stewardship of Adrienne Burke, who came to the Academy five years ago as an editor. Initially, she said, Science and the City was just a website listing science events around the city; the lectures started in October 2006 with evenings devoted to the “science of food,” such as wine, beer and cheese.
Food has cropped up as a theme several times since then.
“Food is hugely popular as a lecture topic,” said Burke.
Burke comes up with the topics for the series through “a lot of reading of current science magazines and news sections, looking through publishers’ book lists and talking with colleagues at the Academy and at scientific events.”
The current series, “From Stone Age to Internet Age: How Science Has Evolved Over Time” came about after a conversation with one of the Academy’s supporters who told her it was “a problem in our culture that people don’t understand science in the context of history.” Burke asked that supporter and several other people who were interested in the history of science to join her for a brainstorming session.
“We came up with ideas on how a series on the history of science should be structured and who we would we like to invite to speak,” said Burke.
The speakers don’t get paid, but if they come from outside New York City, the Academy pays for their travel and accommodations. Though most of the speakers have written books that are sold at a wine and cheese reception after each lecture, they don’t make any money from the engagement.
“I’ve been told they consider it an honor to be invited by the New York Academy of Sciences to give a lecture,” said Burke, “and they believe in our mission of helping to promote better public understanding of science.”
Many of the speakers are prominent names in the scientific world. They have included Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who has studied the science of love and attraction and has had her research applied to Internet dating sites, and Christoph Koch, a neuroscientist and former research partner of Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule.
In 2011, Science and the City audiences will have the opportunity to hear from Siddhartha Mukherjee, whose book about the history of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” was hailed as one of the top books of 2010 by The New York Times Book Review.
“Because Science and the City has become such a popular program, we’ve had more and more members of the general public buying Academy memberships,” Burke observed. “By being a member, they’re getting discounts to Science and the City events and they’re supporting the Academy.”