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After 2010-11’s successful Year of the Arts, Professor Bassam Shakhashiri and other Wisconsin notables will present at the Wisconsin Science Festival to induct the Year of the Wisconsin Idea.[/media-credit]

Thursday evening marks the opening ceremony of the Wisconsin Science Festival and the kick-off of Madison’s Arts Night Out. The theme of this year’s festival is explosive, titled “Curiosity Unleashed.” A wide array of exhibits and hands-on learning activities will be offered throughout the campus and city this Thursday through Sunday. The festival will entice the public with performances, experiments and lectures designed to titillate its curiosity.

Marking the start of the Festival is Thursday night’s opening ceremony. The opening marks the transition from the University of Wisconsin’s Year of the Arts to the Year of the Wisconsin Idea. 

Representing the state’s support of public education, the Wisconsin Idea has long been a symbol of Wisconsin’s commitment to scientific innovation and discovery. Although the Wisconsin Idea emphasizes the importance of science, this year’s festival, packed with art of all forms, emphasizes the importance of supporting Wisconsin’s arts in addition to its science.

Bassam Shakhashiri, chair of the Wisconsin Idea and professor in UW’s department of chemistry, called for the creation of the Wisconsin Science Festival two years ago. Now, two years later, Shakhashiri said Wisconsin’s scientists and artists continue to recognize the importance of educating the public about their crafts.

“We care about discoveries that we make here,” he said. “We care about sharing them with other people. We try to influence [people’s] decisions and their attitudes, not only about science but about arts and about technology.”

Fitting with this theme, Thursday’s opening ceremony combines live performances of dance and music with scientific experiments and demonstrations. For instance, UW professor Li Chao-Ping’s modern dance explores the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. She combines images and sounds from scientific instruments alongside recorded interviews with survivors.

By combining these media, Li explores the relationship between technology and human experience. She consulted with UW faculty from the department of geoscience in the development of this work. Likewise, the set of the opening ceremony, sculpted by Carolyn Kallenborn, blurs the lines normally associated between science and art through her use of both metals and fabrics.

The opening ceremony will also include science demonstrations, and Shakhashiri described some of the parts of his own act.

“I’m going to be doing a couple of … chemistry experiments that have proven in the past to be show pleasers,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you the details … but they are going to be colorful; they’re gonna be striking. You’re going to be able to hear them and see them.”

UW dance professor Chris Walker choreographed the opening ceremony. He described the performance as “a place where the artists and scientists can meet and walk hand-in-hand.”

The show blurs the distinctions between art and science through its inclusion of technology, bodies and lights.

“All of this will be in the space, simultaneously exploring movement and science and technology,” Walker said. “When we look at the ways technology is used to improve the human condition … and our everyday lives, we see a lot more similarities than differences. Both scientists and artists create in ways that feed each other. … There’s [an] art to the science and [a] science to art.”

Shakhashiri also sees the boundaries between science and art as a blurry one. While he acknowledges that science and art often use different methods to study the world and human experience, he also believes that science and art may be represented as one culture.

“Creativity and passion are what drive scientists, engineers, as well as artists – whether they’re dancers, musicians or painters. … What makes us human is creativity and the passion that we have to excel and to express ourselves. So I see a lot of potential connectivity and a lot of overlap in what we do as human beings.”

Shakhashiri hopes that attendees will leave the performance excited to see the rest of the weekend’s happenings. But, more importantly, he wants to remind the public that the Wisconsin Science Festival is just the beginning of an entire year’s worth of activities.

The festival is important, Shakhashiri says, because it “appeals to [the public’s] motivation to learn, [and] inspires them to … excel in what they do, whether it’s in science, the arts or humanities.”

The Opening Ceremony takes place on Thursday from 7:30-9 p.m. in the Memorial Union Theater. The ceremony is free and open to the public, but seating is offered first-come, first-serve. For more information about this event and other Festival activities, visit wisconsinsciencefest.org or call (608) 316-4382.