Awesome evening

This evening I am seated directly beneath the blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History. This is perhaps, to my inner seven year old, the most exalted of all Manhattan locations. The evening is a celebration of science, of progress, of the inexorable power of curiosity.

But then it all goes weird, and that’s good.

The first after dinner speaker is Brian Greene, the string theorist and popularizer of string theory. He is here to tear down the edifice of CP Snow’s two cultures, although, oddly, he never once mentions CP Snow by name.

I’ve met Brian a few times through the years, and he’s seemed like a nice and level-headed fellow. But not tonight. Tonight Brian is on fire. His talk is an interpretive dance, a poem acted out with both body and words. The length of his pauses after every preposition would make Christopher Walken weep with jealousy.

I have never seen anything quite like this performance. In his impassioned defense of science, he becomes a living work of art, his body thrusting this way and that, his hands passionately sculpting the empty air.

I find myself getting lost in the rhythm of his movements, the words merely adornment to this great string theoretic dance. It is the dance of the universe, and Brian Greene is its prophet.

And then something completely different.

The closing speaker is Alan Alda. Many of you know Alan from his days as Hawkeye Pierce in the television adaptation of M*A*S*H. But this is not that Alan Alda.

This isn’t even the next Alan Alda after that, the one who became the go-to spokesperson for science around 10 or 15 years ago, like a sort of Carl Sagan without the Ph.D.

No, this is Alan Alda your grandfather, the old guy with a million stories to tell, and all the time in the world to tell them. Like the one about that time, all those years ago, when your grandmother and I — this would have been before the war — were having lunch in Sammy’s Deli, back when it was really kosher (not like these kids today), and they ran out of pickles. Pickles! Would you believe it? Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

This goes on for several hours (or about 30 minutes if you’re going strictly by clock time), and it is utterly charming. Alan Alda is the granddad you never had, the old geezer with those endless stories that still have the power to make your parents roll their eyes.

I’m not really sure which of the two speakers I like the best. They are both utterly strange and delightful, mostly because they somehow manage to completely subvert the program. Not because of anything they say, but by virtue of the sheer charisma of their insane styles of presentation.

All in all, it’s an awesome evening.

Leave a Reply