Cooking Up Science in Cambridge

By John Durant and P.A. d’Arbeloff
From ASTC Dimensions
November/December 2008


  1. Take one science city.
  2. Carefully extract the juiciest parts, making sure to retain all the most enthusiastic graduate students, and as many superstar researchers and Nobel Laureates as you can find.
  3. Mix thoroughly with generous quantities of actors, artists, broadcasters, critics, curators, entrepreneurs, exhibitors, impresarios, inventors, musicians, raconteurs, and writers.
  4. Add a cup of civic leadership and a teaspoon of organizational flair, and bake for several months.
  5. Serve as more than 200 separate courses over nine days, making sure that all sections of the community get plenty to eat.

This, in essence, is the Cambridge Science Festival ( The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Museum, Cambridge, launched our first Cambridge Science Festival in April 2007, in the belief that what festivals have long done for art, literature, and music they can—and should—do for science and technology. Our aim was to throw open the laboratory doors in our particular science city, so that the whole community could celebrate what makes Cambridge—a small, not particularly prosperous city in Massachusetts—a truly world-class place.

A science stew
We have been excited by the positive response to the Cambridge Science Festival from the wider community. During our first festival, about 15,000 people attended 150 different events. In the second year, we almost doubled our attendance, as an estimated 28,000 people came to more than 200 events in 45 venues. Each year, the festival benefits from experience and momentum. Presenters become better at offering science to a broader audience in creative ways, and neighbors buzz about what surprises next year’s event might hold.

Highlights this year, from our point of view, included Lunch with a Laureate, a series of five lunchtime conversations between a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and the public; Powers of Ten, an oratorio about scale in the universe performed by the North Cambridge Family Opera; QED, a play about physicist Richard Feynman (MIT Class of 1939), produced by the Catalyst Collaborative (a partnership between MIT and a local theater company); and the Curiosity Awards, which honored more than 100 students for essays and artwork expressing their curiosity.

Brewing up benefits
Why would the MIT Museum—a relatively small museum of science and technology—take the lead in organizing a big initiative like this? First, the Cambridge Science Festival is an ideal flagship for MIT’s community outreach. Second, the MIT Museum is perfectly positioned to do something like this, with one foot firmly planted in the professional world of science and technology and the other foot equally firmly planted in the wider community. Third, organizing a festival is a great way to establish a wide network of partners across the community. Through the festival, our museum now works actively with several others (including the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, and the Museum of Science, Boston), as well as with dozens of civic, commercial, cultural, and educational organizations.

Our festival brings us many other benefits. For example, museum attendance more than doubles during the week of the festival. With the surge in visitation comes an increase in the number of “science inattentive” visitors, or folks who are not naturally drawn to science and not likely to visit science museums. Admittedly, the audience for our Lunch with a Laureate tended to have an established interest in science. But this was not so for the Science of Wine, or its sequel, Brewing Innovation. Sure, our full houses on those nights were enticed by the wine and beer tasting that followed the lectures, but attendees also soaked up the scientific research being done with yeast. Many of them were first-time visitors who enjoyed this slightly unusual introduction to the museum. A survey given to every visitor showed that they overwhelmingly felt that they had both benefited from the programs and enjoyed themselves.

We’re committed to cooking up the Cambridge Science Festival annually. (The 2009 festival is set for April 25 to May 3.) And we’re happy that other cities across the United States appear to be developing a taste for the same sort of thing. We’re actively collaborating with colleagues on the San Diego Science Festival, planned for March 2009. We’re also looking to the possibility of creating a web portal and resources to help other cities start their own science festivals. We believe ASTC-member institutions can play an important role in creating a strong network of U.S. science festivals. After all, aren’t we in the business of creatively communicating science to new audiences? If you can turn that communication into a celebration, invite a crowd, and have some fun, it’s icing on the cake.

John Durant is executive director of the MIT Museum. P.A. d’Arbeloff is director of the Cambridge Science Festival.

About the image: A festival participant gives science a closer look. Photo courtesy the Cambridge Science Festival