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Q&A: Mary Anne Moser on Beakerhead, the Burning Man of Science

Q&A: Mary Anne Moser on Beakerhead, the Burning Man of Science

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Robots, artists, scientists gather to perform and engage in a hands-on, city-wide event described as a "stampede for geeks" in Alberta, Canada.

Last year, the people of Calgary, Alberta celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede, in which more than a million people gather to enjoy one of the world’s largest rodeos and agricultural fairs. During the event Naheed Nenshi, their mayor, was seen riding on a 2,000-pound mechanical spider, and then declared that 100 years from now we will be celebrating a different kind of event called Beakerhead. Wait … what is Beakerhead?

Formally, Beakerhead is a celebration of art, science and engineering that launches on September 11, where 40 distinct events (including robots like the giant spider that Nenshi rode) will spill out onto the streets of Calgary.

The more informal description comes from the president and co-founder, Mary Anne Moser: “It’s Burning Man meets The World Science Festival meets Maker Faire.” And while that is quite a blockbuster smash-up, Beakerhead appears to be very much a first of its kind. On the site you find such titles as “Made In the 80s” and “Diespace: Life and Death With Art and Technology” and “Catharsis Catapults.” More than 70 collaborations between scientists, artists, inventors and general enthusiasts will culminate in this four-day program in which the events are “uncurated” and act as individual experiences that apparently make up a pretty expansive whole.

SmartPlanet caught up with Moser to understand the scope and purpose of Beakerhead and why she believes that now, more than ever, we need an immersive and very public, hands-on approach to art and engineering.

SmartPlanet: Beakerhead sounds like it will be a massive event, especially for an inaugural launch. Can you give us a sense of scope?

Mary Anne Moser: There are over 40 distinct events and 70 collaborators. It's a first so we have no experience with actual numbers. We are sitting on the edges of our seat waiting to see how will the streets fill during Beakerhead. Will we get ten thousand? Will we get twenty-five thousand?

A lot of it is happening in the central part of the city but all the universities and colleges are also involved and they form a larger ring.

We are hoping tens of thousands of people will have an experience that is fairly immediate and then through tweets and instagrams, a hundred thousand online.

I know you describe it as Burning Man meets Maker Faire and all kinds of other existing, world-class events. Yet you deliberately do not call it a “festival” or “conference.”

I guess it's part of walking the talk of innovation. Festivals and conferences are good, it's just that Beakerhead isn't one. We're hoping that the idea catches on that Beakerhead isn't something you attend, it's something you do.

You've also explained that Beakerhead is uncurated. What do you mean by that?

There are programming guidelines, but it is uncurated in a sense that everyone can take part. Different organizations staging exhibitions or performances. Their brand and their quality control is up to them. The barrier to entry is on the floor.

Since the events are spread out all over the city, are you providing shuttles or transportation?

No, we are asking people to ride their bikes.

Right. You mentioned something called “art cars” and “art bikes.”

An art car or art bike is just something that you have dandied up. A lot of art cars start with a chassis and then they turn into creatures or just sort of fantastic vehicles ideally that people can hop on/off.

Who is building the art cars and the art bikes?

There are a lot of groups making art cars –- father/son [pairs]; groups of students; wacky inventors. The art car is very much established as something you see at Burning Man, so there are lots of examples of what an art car would look like. And we have been running workshops since early spring.

Workshops where people can show up and just create?

Yes. Not everybody has a welding torch in their backyard so we wanted to provide the right environment. The Calgary Board of Education has jumped on this and they ran a summer program for students to build an art car.

Can you describe one of the more “out there” events?

We are having a catapult catharsis competition where people can fling the things they love to hate.

What kinds of things will people be flinging?

It appears a lot of people have something against Barbie. I do believe somebody is building a Barbie catapult. But maybe it is your ex’s suitcase. I am a little worried about the team called "Engineers Without Morals." We are not sure what they will be flinging. However, what fun to build something that you can use as a therapy.

The groups are building the actual catapults?

Yes. Teams can be up to 20 people, and they are building big catapults that require a lot of creative engineering. Teams will have a theme and whatever it is that you are flinging or venting your frustrations on will be part of that theme.

What other events are you looking forward to?

We are also choreographing a night called the Tremendous and Curious World of Beakerhead. It will be in Calgary's primary concert hall that holds about seventeen hundred people.

We picked people who are clearly living in both the art and science world and while the show is choreographed, it is also very hands on, the audience will be involved.

How will the audience be involved?

We are featuring a physicist who is also an opera singer. A lot of people don’t know whether they are a baritone, an alto, or soprano, so she is going to do an experiment with the audience using their voices.

Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the International Space Station, has recently returned to Earth and we thought the audience might want to help recreate something he might be missing.

What do you think he might be missing?

Maybe there are vistas that you get or perspectives that you get from space that you would not get on Earth, like the sun rising over the Earth's horizon. Maybe the audience can help show Chris that again.

What motivated you personally to start something this big and ambitious?

I co-founded and run an intensive program at the Banff Centre for the Arts that teaches scientists and science-related people how to bring science and engineering into popular culture. You can only do that for a little while before you realize you better put this into action yourself.

To be honest it started with the spark of an idea and ideas are small and easy. But then other people start saying, “Hey, that is a good idea.” All of a sudden there is no stopping. it just grew and grew.

How did the fundraising go?

Immediately after we decided this would be a fun thing to do, the stock market crashed. After 2009, I have been quite impressed by the number of companies that have been willing to step up to support an event that has never existed. We also have good government support.

Why do you think you’ve received such strong support?

I think in part many are realizing that when our rational and creative sides come together it can be very powerful from an economic perspective. Plus, it is a great way to solve some of the problems that we are facing as a culture.

Like what problems?

We have to be creative about energy. We have to be creative about sustainability. We have to be creative about our food supply. This is not just something that you can sit in the lab and solve. You need both rational and creative problem solving.

It is very difficult to learn those skills in school because that is not how our system is set up. Right now we still ask kids to choose between the science stream or the art stream. The programs are few and far between that have been asking people to draw on both of those sides. That is exactly the kind of citizens of tomorrow that we need. I think everybody realizes that, companies realize that, governments realize that, school boards realize that, universities realize that.

So one great way to have the rubber hit the road is through something like Beakerhead.

You mention that Beakerhead is open to collaborations. What kind of collaborations are you looking for? How would one enter Beakerhead?

A good example is an artist last year who wanted to do an installation that involved lots and lots and lots of light bulbs, and she needed an electrical engineer. So she approached Beakerhead. We have a big network of engineers that we can draw on, so in a way it is like a matchmaking service. We are open to collaborating with anyone, anywhere across the planet (or beyond).

What are the practical things that you want people to take away from Beakerhead?

If we could make a little dent in the perception that science and engineering is out of reach of the average person; if we help people feel more welcome in those worlds, that would be an important outcome.

Anything else?

The other is -- and this is to quote the physicist Brian Greene -- we do think that science and engineering is the greatest adventure story on earth, so we just want people to have fun.

A lot of the literature supports the importance of fun and play, but it’s true when you think about it: When did you have a good idea when you were in a bad mood?

It just does not happen. If I am feeling sour or depressed, I do not get very many creative ideas. We have our best ideas when we are delighted, or with friends. We need to create that kind of cultural climate that says, 'Hey, yes, this would be awesome,' 'Hey, yes, try that,' 'Hey, yes, that will work.' It is all a part of that ethos of: Fail early, fail often. It's all rolled up in making a world that is fueled by human ingenuity.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure