The coolest science festival in Belgium (and possibly in the universe) you’ve never heard of: Sound of Science
An interview with cancer researcher, molecular biologist, doctor in health science and Sound of Science co-organizer Hetty Helsmoortel Before I start this interview, do yourself a favour and check soundofscience.be...
A place where nerds and geeks feel at home
Together with science and travel journalist Toon Verlinden, University of Ghent cancer researcher, molecular biologist and doctor Hetty Helsmoortel is the heart and brain behind Sound of Science (I will keep adding the link until you click on it. It’s for your own good!): Belgium’s first open-air science festival that not only offers deliciously informative science acts, but great food and wonderful music too.
“Inspired by the Cheltenham Science Festival”, Hetty explains, “we wanted to organise the first non-academic and laid-back festival for science-aficionados, nerds and geeks like myself: the people that usually stand on the other side of the stage or booths of science events. We Belgians are so amazing at organizing music and art festivals and we have some of the top scientists in the world, so we thought it was almost weird that we never merged both sooner.”
The organisers of Sound of Science used the highly-scientific Belgian “Moet-je-nu-eens-wat-weten” (loosely translated as “You-really-need-to-hear-about-this-stuff”) method to determine who they would put on the program. Listening to Hetty elaborate on some of the acts, their approach seems pretty efficient. Just to give a few examples of the (at this moment) amazing 90 acts that will be attending: Comedian and scientist, Lieven Scheire’s new genetics show, a live dissection of the human brain, a VR act that will try to help you conquer your arachnophobia, bouncy castles for adults, Christine Van Broeckhoven about Alzheimer’s disease, music bands like NAGLØED and Uncle Wellington, a live Nerdland Podcast show, comedian Henk Rijckaert and his super-secret (true story) act about the maker scene and - some of Hetty’s own favourite subjects - astronomer and cello-player Katrien Kolenberg about the “music” that the stars make, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum time travel and many (many) more.
Embracing the dark side (too)
The festival does not shy away form the darker side of science, as you may notice. “We really wanted Sound of Science to show the whole picture: not just the really striking and cool inventions or the populist “hey kids, science is really (reaaaaallly) fun!” approach”, Hetty explained. “Science is messy. There’s doubt, insecurity and you’ll bang into walls. Yes, it can be fun, and wonderful, and exciting - and we will show that elaborately too - but it’s not only that. For that reason, I really love our mini-pop-up Ghent University Museum that will illustrate the reality and the “messy” side of the scientific process. Science and emotions go hand in hand. It’s not just a purely rational practice, like some people tend to believe.”
“It’s also why we’ll give a voice to those that dare to criticize certain aspects of science: like Petra De Sutter who’ll talk about the ethical aspects of the genetic design of embryos. That’s a discussion that we really need too have as a society”, says Hetty. Her statement reminded me of what nexxworks Partner Peter Hinssen calls the ‘Wow!’ and ‘Ow’ side of technology: solutions like VR, AI, IoT or even blockchain can be used just as much for ‘good’ as for ‘bad’. There’s potential for “the best of times” and “the worst of times” (by which I’m loosely quoting Peter Hinssen in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ who’s quoting Charles Dickens who may or may not have been quoting someone else (Feeling kind of meta, today)).
“One of the subjects that lies close to my heart is Big Data, seeing that it’s an important part of my own field of research”, continued Hetty. “With whole-genome sequencing and about 1000 euros in your pocket, you can learn what your medical sensitivities are: are you genetically determined to have cancer, dementia or a certain generative disease. The thing is: “do you want to know this?”. Will it make you happier? And what can and will the companies do that are gathering this huge amount of information about our DNA? The same goes for Crispr: a wonderful technology, but in theory, it could also allow North Korea to build an army of superhuman soldiers. Or what about autism? Do we switch off all the genes related to autism, given that we would know them one day? Is that ethical? The difference between good and bad is always clear, but there is a huge grey zone in between them. And we wanted to show that grey zone as well at our festival.
Hetty continued by saying that Sound of Science wants to allow anyone interested in or active in science to look outside their own field of expertise. “We would love to show cancer researchers the beauty of mathematics or astrophysics. Or allow a geoscientist to really understand how a black hole works, and a hardcore blockchain specialist or tech company CEO to grasp the workings of DNA. We want to build bridges between fields of expertise and industries. Actually, I’m a big believer in open systems and collaboration, because that’s where really Big ideas can sometimes pop up.”
“But you know what”, Hetty concluded our conversation, “our top reason for organizing Sound of Science was to give people a beautiful day to celebrate science in the open air. A day where its “Wow!” and “Ow!” side meets fun, food and music. We – and by we, I mean the good people (Can you call yourself that? My inner voice says “yes”.) at nexxworks – cannot wait!