A black hole rolls toward New York.
Has the Large Hadron Collider finally done its worst?
Not by a long shot. This particular embodiment of cosmic hunger, in which space closes in on itself and time dies, heralds not the end of the world but only the beginning of the World Science Festival, the annual New York mash-up of science, art and culture. This black hole is the central menace in “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” a new musical work by Philip Glass based on a story by Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist and festival co-founder. The world premiere of “Icarus,” complete with 62-pieces from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, images from the London artists Al and Al, and John Lithgow narrating, will anchor a gala celebrating science on Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.
Yo-Yo Ma, among others, will be performing, but the star of the star-lovers will be Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University cosmologist who has done more than anyone else to explore, at least metaphorically, the nature of black holes. “Hawking so fully embodies what the festival is all about — courageous exploration of the unknown,” Dr. Greene said.
The festival runs through Sunday with 40 events in about 20 locations around Manhattan and — new this year — Brooklyn. It begins on Tuesday morning with the unveiling in Battery Park of a full-scale model of NASA’s 80-foot-long James Webb Space Telescope, designed to be launched in 2014 to prowl the early years of the universe; it will be in place all week. Subsequent events include dance performances, panel discussions about the nature of reality and about animal intelligence, and group star-gazing along the Hudson River. One event sure to resonate because of recent headlines from the Gulf of Mexico features Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau, and the marine biologist Sylvia Earle, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, discussing the past and future of ocean exploration. Others will explore inner space. In “Strangers in the Mirror,” for example, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author who is pretty much a walking, talking science festival unto himself, and the painter Chuck Close, famous for his large-scale portraits, discuss their common malady — an inability to recognize faces, including their own in a mirror.
The festival culminates in a daylong science street fair in Washington Square Park on Sunday and a repeat of “Icarus” in the Skirball Center at New York University.
This is the third annual World Science Festival, which was founded by Dr. Greene and his wife, Tracy Day, a former television producer, to reunite “those long-lost lovers,” science and art, in the words of Alan Alda, the actor and science buff who is their close co-conspirator. Already, however, the routine seems part of the fabric of the civic cosmos: bright red chairs, professional media-savvy moderators to stir the talk and steer it over rough spots, generous helpings of jazzy graphics and music, and long lines out the door.
Buoyed by what it refers to as its “founding benefactors” — the Simons Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — the festival has an annual budget of about $5 million, Dr. Greene said. This year the Northrop Grumman Corporation, the prime contractor for the Webb telescope, is a principal sponsor.
As the presence of Dr. Hawking suggests, this year’s festival has a decidedly cosmic flavor. The Webb telescope model will preside over a star-gazing party hosted by, among others, John Grunsfeld, the former NASA astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repairman, on Friday night. Telescopes will be available, or you can bring your own. Meanwhile throughout the week visitors to the Broad Street Ballroom in Lower Manhattan can hear what black holes might sound like as they are being formed. Astronomers hope to record them with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, a vast expanse of lasers and mirrors set up in Washington State and Louisiana to measure the twitching and pulsing of space-time in response to cosmic catastrophes.
And of course there is the new cosmic “Icarus.” Dr. Greene said that the impetus for the updated version of the story, about a young man who flies too close to the Sun and so plummets to his death, came from his children’s love of adventure stories, and his own feelings as a child about the fate of the original Icarus. “To pay with your life for going against what you’re told to do — never liked it,” he said in an e-mail message.
In the new version the young Icarus is trapped on a spaceship in the middle of a multigenerational trip to another star. When the ship has to detour around an uncharted black hole, Icarus, a genius pilot and navigator, decides to go take a close look at it. He has carefully plotted a trajectory to avoid falling into the hole, but has neglected to take into account an important effect of gravity on time: a watch appears to move more slowly inside a strong gravitational field than outside it. Icarus avoids falling into the black hole, but when he runs thousands of years have gone by in what to him were a few minutes. The spaceship, with his father and everything else he ever knew, is long gone.
Dr. Green originally envisioned his reimagining of the Icarus myth as a performance piece à la “Peter and the Wolf,” but ended up turning it into a book, which was published by Knopf in 2008 with Hubble photos. Now it has been reworked with a score by Mr. Glass, script by Dr. Green and the playwright David Henry Hwang, and visuals by Al and Al, the artists and filmmakers Al Holmes and Al Taylor of London.
The work was commissioned and co-produced by the World Science Festival and the Southbank Center in London, where it will be performed later this year as part of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.
Several festival programs will be streamed online. Ms. Day said that this was a way for the festival to reach across the nation and the world without becoming larger or more expensive. “We don’t want to expand our footprint,” she said. “We’re big enough.”