First annual Seattle Science Festival kicks off with Science Expo Day on June 2, 2012.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/18/2012
  • Essay 10283
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On June 2, 2012, the first annual Seattle Science festival starts with Science Expo Day on the grounds of Seattle Center. The month-long festival will feature displays and programs on science, technology, and innovation and is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Seattle World’s Fair and the Pacific Science Center. Opening day draws more than 20,000 children and parents to the center, and science-related events will continue into July. The festival, considered by many to be long overdue in a city famous for its computer, aerospace, and other high-tech industries, is sponsored by many of the Northwest's leading research institutions, museums, schools and universities, businesses, and non-profits. More than 150 exhibits, displays, demonstrations, and other attractions will be available during the event.


The idea for the first annual Seattle Science Festival originated at a suitable place, the Pacific Science Center on the southern edge of the Seattle Center grounds. The science center was built during the 1962 Century 21 Exposition as the United States Science Pavilion. Since then it has been maintained  as a resource for science education, geared primarily to young people, and is home to two IMAX theaters, one sponsored by The Boeing Company, the other by PACCAR. The Pacific Northwest has long been known for its aerospace expertise, and few places in the world aside from California's Silicon Valley have so deeply influenced the development of computer science, software, and web-based commerce. It seemed odd to many that a city as science-centric as Seattle didn't formally celebrate the very sciences that sustained its economy and made its name known throughout the world.

The 50th anniversary celebration of Century 21 seemed a perfect time to showcase the region's scientific accomplishments, and a science festival was seen as a great way to do it. Festival organizers outlined their intentions:

"Science, technology and innovation have long been integral to Seattle's vibrant culture and economy. Seattle and the entire Puget Sound region is recognized as one of the top ten 'tech towns' in the U.S., home to many academic, research and commercial institutions that are on the cutting edge of science, technology, engineering and math. Yet many of these gems are unknown to those who are not professionally involved in these fields. The Seattle Science Festival will reveal the hidden science treasures, engage and educate the general public, and spark curious minds to explore the amazing discoveries taking place in our own backyard" ("About Seattle Science Festival").

The Straight Poop

Although Science Expo Day on June 2 marked the official opening of the festival, it really began the evening before at Seattle Repertory Theatre with a program called "Reinventing the Toilet," the first of five presentations in the festival's "Luminaries Series." Jack Sim (b. 1957), founder of Singapore's World Toilet College (who knew?) and British author Rose George, an expert on -- well, you know -- spoke about the problem of human-waste disposal in the world's underdeveloped countries, the inadequacy of which is considered the leading cause of disease worldwide. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had funded the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge," a competition in which innovators vied to invent affordable toilets that would also convert human waste into usable material, such as fuel, fertilizer, and even potable water.

The speakers brought the audience up to date on the challenges and progress in providing for the estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack adequate toilet facilities. Some diversion from the slightly indelicate topic was provided with performances by the Urvasi Dance Company and Native American flutist Peter Ali. But then things got back to the subject at hand with a screening of the 2009 Golden Poo Award recipients, prize-winning films from the London Short Film Festival that addressed issues of waste disposal and hygiene. It can be surmised that the evening's presentations led to an outbreak of frenzied but healthy hand-washing in the Rep's restrooms and perhaps lower than normal sales at the concession stand.

After this auspicious start anything seemed possible, and much was. When the festival proper got underway with Science Expo Day on June 2, attendees could wander through more than 150 interactive exhibits and demonstrations. Among the opening attractions were Robothon, a national robotics competition; iFEST, a gathering for independent game designers; the Seattle Mini Maker Faire, where more than 50 local inventors and tinkerers demonstrated their ideas; and the third annual Emerald City Reptile Expo (which was just what its name warned it would be), cosponsored by the Bean Farm and the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society.

The Luminaries Series

Among the main offerings of the festival was the "Luminaries Series," a schedule of five talks and presentations staged at weekly intervals during the month of June. The official program described it:

"Headlined by some of the greatest scientific minds of our time, art and science will take center stage as Seattle Science Festival presents five engaging, entertaining and inspiration evenings that celebrate science, arts and culture" ("Official Program").

The next presentation after the toilet business was entitled "Hackers," hosted by Town Hall Seattle on June 9, 2012. As would all five of the series, it featured a mix of science and art. Included were cyber-security experts Yoshi Kohno and Deborah Gracio; futurist and "notorious hacker" Pablos Holman (b. 1988); and composer Amy Denio (b. 1961), who debuted her new operetta, The Inadvertent Hacker, described as illuminating "the musicality of ... unexpected noise and information" and composed using recordings of mistaken calls and other sounds Denio received through her telephone, accompanied by accordion and voice. Also featured was Chris Vik, a performance artist who used Microsoft's Xbox Kinect to control electronic musical instruments ("Official Program" and "Amy Denio in Seattle").

Next up, on June 16 at the Paramount Theatre, came evolution, again a mixture of science and art, and spiced with a late-added speaker of world renown. The two scientists originally scheduled were famed paleontologist Jack Horner (b. 1946) and Dr. Leroy Hood (b. 1938), an equally famous biologist and president of the University of Washington's Institute for Systems Biology. The artistic side was represented by a "rap guide" to evolution, by Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman (b. 1978), and Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater performing Euclidean Space, choreographed by the company's artist director, Donald Byrd (b. 1949). But the most intriguing guest was the late addition Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), perhaps the world's longest-living survivor of a form of the motor-neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease), and considered by many to have been the leading theoretical physicist of the last half of the twentieth century. Hawking turned 70 years old in January 2012, having lived with ALS since being diagnosed at the age of 21, when he was told that he could expect to live at the most only five additional years. He participated in the discussion of evolution through his now-familiar computer "voice," which he operates with just his eyes and a single muscle in his right hand, one of the only ones over which he can still exercise conscious control.

The third presentation, Space, was appropriately staged at the Museum of Flight, on June 22. Washington native and veteran astronaut Bonnie Dunbar (b. 1949) was featured, together with fellow astronaut and University of Washington graduate Dr. George "Pinky" Nelson (b. 1950). The primary topic of the presentation was the future of space flight after the retirement of the space shuttle. Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, described the company's reusable "Dream Chaser," designed to launch vertically, reach space, then land on conventional runways. Providing the artistic element were a performance by the Seattle Opera of The Little Prince and a Seattle Aerial Arts production, Weightless.

The last of the Luminaries Series concentrated on computer and video games, which combine traditional artistic endeavors (art, music, writing) with cutting-edge technical expertise (computer science, engineering, mathematics). Speakers were Kim Swift (b.1983), a highly successful woman in game-development who was instrumental in developing the popular game Portal, put out by Bellevue's Valve Software; Marty O'Donnell (b. 1955), whose specialty is sound design for games and who, among other projects, worked on Microsoft's Xbox blockbuster, Halo; and Chris Taylor, described as "one of the game industry's most imaginative and dynamic visionaries." The program also presented a large-screen showing of the hit movie The Matrix and a performance by the Seattle Symphony of the film's music ("Official Program").

And So Much More ...

The Luminaries Series may have featured the most well-known speakers and leading contemporary scientific issues, but it was only one part of many in the Seattle Science Festival's lineup. Immediately following June 2nd's Science Expo Day, a full week of other events were on tap -- more than 90 programs and events. Together they formed a virtual smorgasbord of science, touching on just about every field of study. To accommodate them all, the Seattle Center grounds were organized into five zones, each with multiple attractions. Other events were held at locations around Seattle and Puget Sound.

Zone 1 at the main festival included programs presented by a range of groups, including Bastyr Center of Natural Health, Aerojet (a company that has worked in rocket propulsion since 1942), and the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division.

Zone 2 had programs from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Seattle Aquarium, several science departments from the University of Washington, Seattle University College of Engineering, KOMO TV with a booth dedicated to weather, and several other institutions, companies, and associations. Zone 3 featured booths from several corporation, including The Boeing Company, Advanced Medical Isotope, and Paccar. The Northwest African American Museum and the Digipen Institute of Technology were there, as were the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the Infectious Disease Research Institute.

Zone 4 was no less interesting or eclectic, with presenters ranging from the Museum of Flight to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, which offered kids the chance to build and launch paper rockets. The National Girls Collaborative Project invited visitors to operate LEGO robots and learn of the role of robotics in exploring the world's oceans. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Seattle Children's Museum were also in Zone 4, as was Washington State 4-H and a booth that promised to teach anyone how to solve the famous Rubik's Cube.

Zone 5 had the narrowest focus of the zones and was dedicated primarily to engineering. Four separate engineering professional societies, including the Society of Women Engineers' Pacific Northwest Section took part, as did The Boeing Company and the Washington State Science & Engineering Fair.

Science Festival Week

Although the entire festival was centered on science, organizers were a little weak on the math side of things. What was billed as "Science Festival Week" actually ran from June 1 through June 13. But it was chock-full of interesting and educational events, many held at sites other than the center grounds. Most of the featured events were offered on multiple days, and some on each and every day. A sampling, taking just one from each day's lineup:

June 1 -- The 4th Annual Salish Sea Student Science Symposium, focused on the ecology of Puget Sound.

June 2 -- The 14th Annual Bastyr Herb and Food Fair, with nutritionists and naturopathic physicians discussing healthy eating and healthful herbs. Free acupuncture included.

June 3 -- Science That Soars! Celebrating Achievement in Aerospace, Astronomy and Aviation. This program reviewed milestones and anniversaries since the dawn of the space age, and celebrated the anniversary of the 1965 "space walk" by astronaut Ed White (1930-1967), later to die with two fellow astronauts when their Apollo capsule, destined to take the first men to the moon, burst into flames during testing at Cape Kennedy.

June 4 -- Better Science Through Chocolate. This one ran every day of the festival, and featured tours of the Theo Chocolate factory, complete with taste tests and explanations of just why chocolate tastes so darn good.

June 5 -- Behind-the-Scenes At the Burke Museum. These hour-long tours took visitors where they are rarely allowed, led by curators and collection managers. June 5 was such a crowded day that it deserves at least one additional mention: From 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Seattle Astronomical Society set up telescopes at several locations on the University of Washington to allow visitors the possibility of viewing something quite rare -- Venus passing across the face of the Sun, which will not be witnessed from Earth again until the year 2117. Nor was it witnessed in Seattle on this occasion, a victim of the Northwest's normal flaky June weather. Anyone who also missed it on TV can have another shot at it in 105 years.

June 6 -- Architectural Grooves: A Guided Tour of Frank Gehry's (b. 1929) EMP Museum. Love it or hate it, Paul Allen's (1953-2018) EMP Museum on the east edge of Seattle Center is a marvel of architecture and engineering innovation, and the guided tour explained to visitors just how it was built.

June 7 -- Intro to Liquid Nitrogen. Festival goers were invited to "learn about the physics of liquid nitrogen and make some ice cream" ("Official Program"). Some very cold ice cream, no doubt.

June 8 -- South Lake Union Science Trek. South Lake Union was once an area of light industry, decrepit piers, and the beloved St. Vincent DePaul's junk emporium. Today it is dominated by some of the world's leading research institutions, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children's Research Institute, and the PATH Institute for Systems Biology. Also on the tour was the Center for Wooden Boats, a place where a much older technology is kept alive. (The Museum of History & Industry was in the process of relocating to South Lake Union and was not yet open to visitors.)

June 9 -- Tiger Mountain Nature Walk. Educators guiding groups on a walk in the forest, with activities geared to all ages.

June 10 --Mac's Pond Macros, the single event of this day. An examination of the biological diversity of a Bainbridge Island wetland, tips on how to tell if a wetland is healthy, and lessons on what to do if it is not.

June 13 -- After a two-day break, the final presentation of the elongated Science Festival Week was a presentation at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus in which three experts moderated a program entitled Conversations About Our Changing Planet: Observations, Models and Implications.

In fact, even with that, the festival was not quite ended. One final treat remained -- a month later, on July 12 and July 14, the Seattle Symphony performed The Planets, a symphonic work by British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), accompanied by stunning, high-definition images from NASA's explorations of the solar system.

More to Come

The Seattle Science Festival was patterned after similar events in Europe, where the first one was held in Britain about a decade ago. The idea then spread to other European Union countries. The first similar festival hit the United States about six years ago, and its success led to a grant from the National Science Foundation to help additional cities host similar events. Why the idea took so long to penetrate the tech-savvy and research-heavy Northwest is a mystery, but the 50th anniversary celebration of both the Century 21 Exposition and the venerable Pacific Science Center provided a perfect excuse for a science party.

And now that the first festival has been brought off successfully, it appears to be a great idea that is here to stay. Planning for the 2013 Seattle Science Festival is well underway, and it is scheduled to run from June 6 through June 16. It will pretty much follow the successful format of the 2012 event, kicking off with a free Science Expo day, followed by a series of "Signature" programs at venues around the Puget Sound area.

The director of the 2012 festival was Ellen Lettvin, the Pacific Science Center's vice president for science and education. Before the events began, she explained why it was so important for people in the Northwest to honor science:

"I came to feel there was a responsibility of the researchers to share our work with the public, because, who pays for our research? The taxpayers. And also because it is such cool stuff ... . Seattle is a tech town. Seattle is always in the top five in the nation" ("A Tech Town Celebrates Science").

When one stops to think just how many things that touch our lives on a daily basis -- computers, airplanes, the Internet, medicine, telecommunications -- have been made possible by inventors, researchers, and entrepreneurs from the Northwest, Seattle seems like the most natural place in the world for a science festival. And when one ponders how blessed the city is by the public generosity of so many who have become extremely wealthy in the process of developing these technologies, it seems certain that the Seattle Science Festival has the potential to become one of the largest and most successful of its kind in the world.


"About Seattle Science Festival," Seattle Science Festival website accessed December 16, 2012 (; "The Golden Poo Awards," Golden Poo Awards website accessed December 15, 2012 (; "Amy Denio in Seattle," website accessed December 16, 2012 (; Katherine Harmon, "How Has Stephen Hawking Lived to 70 with ALS?" Scientific American website accessed December 16, 2012 (; Jerry Large, "A Tech Town Celebrates Science," The Seattle Times, June 21, 2012, p. B-1.

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