The Powerhouse Museum’s fifth Sydney Science Festival goes digital

A graphic from the Sydney Science Festival of 2016. Photo: geekinsydney.com.

To offer fresh insight into our world amidst the pressures of Covid-19, the beloved tech institution is live streaming talks from notable global scientists from 14-22 August. Story by Corin Shearston’s Western Sydney University (WSU) news team.

As with other recent festivals, such as Splendour XR, this year’s Sydney Science Festival is an online affair. This is a first for The Powerhouse. Instead of attendees being in a physical audience, the faces of speakers are appearing on screens across the nation. From Saturday the 14th, the popular festival will run for over a week as it concurs with National Science Week as a celebration of Australian science.

For this, the Powerhouse festival team has curated a range of experts in the interlocking disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics; schools of thinking forming the memorable acronym ‘STEAM’. For the first time since its inception in 2015, the theoretical depth of the festival is being honed by a defining theme.

“[The theme of] ‘Vitality’ examines the crucial role of science in addressing big challenges while recognising STEAM’s contributions in caring for the health of our community and planet,” explained festival curator Catherine Polcz.

Above, clockwise, from top left: Jaron Lanier. Photo: Powerhouse, Karlie Noon/Photo: SBS, Dr Norman Swan/Photo: Tonic Media Network, Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson/Photo: ayanaelizabeth.com.

This year’s speakers include Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Dr Norman Swan, and Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. The ultimate aim of the festival is to expand the ideologies of science, while presenting discussions on the influential roles that science plays in past and current societies.

American computer scientist Jaron Lanier is one of the founders of virtual reality, who coined the term for this new expansion of consciousness. The Sydney Science Festival was proud to have him as their first speaker for his talk titled Gadgets, Dreams and Dilemmas, a virtual interview in which Lanier responded to ten technological objects from the Museum’s computing science collection. My news team also attended the talk.

A rare Apple 1 computer, designed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976. It was sold for over $130 000 USD at a German auction in 2017. Photo: macrumours.com.

Aside from offering perspective on relics such as the Enigma cipher machine and the Apple 1 computer, Lanier’s role as a classical composer led him to discuss a diverse collection of global musical instruments. With his insight, Lanier demonstrated that instruments are more complex than one might think. He further revealed that learning a range of global instruments has helped him to manage mental illness.

Lanier found that musical instruments are some of our world’s most expressive machines, and that they provide knowledge on the paths of technology. The wooden mouth organ known as the khaen is the national instrument of Laos, and is one of instruments to fascinate him most. Lanier’s studies proved that the instrument has certain complicated subtleties which linked to the workings of modern technology, and he discussed these for an enraptured digital crowd at the Sydney Science Festival.

A Lao khaen player from 1902, accompanied by a drummer and female dancers. Photo: hajimaji.com.

On the 20th of August, Dr Norman Swan will be moderating a very relevant talk on the past, present and future of pandemics joined by two hosts, Professor Raina MacIntyre and Dominic Dwyer. Through this discussion, viewers will be urged to think deeply about how past pandemics have shaped our future, as we deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Knowledge can then be gleamed on how future pandemics can be prevented.

Other anticipated talks included Our Deadly Science from Corey Tutt, a proud Kamilaroi man, who is also the 2021 Sydney Science Festival Ambassador and a former NSW Young Australian of the Year. On the 15th of August, Corey celebrated the breadth and depth of knowledge of our first scientists as he described the community work of his educational charity, Deadly Science. With a focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Deadly Science provides science resources, mentoring and training to remote and regional schools across Australia.

As bold modern women of science, Indigenous Gamilaraay astronomer Karlie Noon explained the wonders of our southern sky on the 18th of August, marine biologist Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson will be advocating for justice for our oceans on 21 August and physics/astronomy professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein will be closing the festival on 22 August with an immersive discussion into her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred.

“We look to science to help us find solutions”, stated Powerhouse Chief Executive Lisa Havilah. “We look forward to expanding our [Sydney Science Festival] program throughout Western Sydney and engaging with the local community with the programs we have to offer.”

In a time when society perhaps needs science more than ever, the Powerhouse Museum has utilised once-futuristic technological solutions to keep educating and inspiring our nation.

Free upcoming talks can be accessed via the festival link: https://sydneyscience.maas.museum.. Past talks are currently on demand on YouTube, and can be accessed through the same link.

This story was produced by Corin Shearston’s WSU news team, consisting of Corin Shearston, Kasozi Livingstone, Claudia Larbie, and Jehad Ayy. Corin Shearston is the youth editor of the Sydney Sentinel.