ASPEN " The big brains are back in town.
The fourth annual Aspen Ideas Festival opened Monday evening to a packed crowd at the Greenwald Pavilion on the campus of the Aspen Institute.
The sold-out festival, presented by the Institute and The Atlantic magazine, runs from June 30 to July 6 and will feature more than 250 leaders in various fields, from arts and culture, to science, religion and politics.
"What is an idea?" asked Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson in his introduction Monday.
Ideas, he said, are a "way of looking at the world," and are best shared, then refined by others and returned "in a more glorious way."
The sharing of ideas is not only the basis of the festival but at the root of the founding of the United States, said Isaacson.
Programs over the week-long event include lectures and discussions with prominent thinkers and leaders, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has attended all four of the annual events, as well as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, advisers to both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, and well-known scientists, inventors, athletes, artists and thinkers.
A handful of presenters at Monday's opening offered a taste of the coming week.
Damian Woetzel, the former principle dancer for the New York City Ballet, opened the evening by teaching the audience a short "preparation to dance" and spoke of the importance of the arts in society.
Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor, said regaining the American people's trust of their own government is one of the greatest current challenges; while author and specialist in race relations Shelby Steele pointed to "white-guilt policies" that have led leadership away from simple fairness.
John Holdren, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, reminded the audience that we have decade to turn around the catastrophe of global warming; and Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst with the Gallup Organization, told the group that there is no inevitable conflict between the U.S. and the "silent majority" of the world's peaceful Muslim people.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that being a leader in the world for climate change and educating young people is essential to the future, and Columbia University physicist and string theorist Brian Greene said that only by illuminating the big ideas can we fire children's imaginations and excite the next generation of thinkers and leaders.
A number of events will be open to the public during the week at the Aspen Institute (and at venues scattered around town), including a handful of film screenings at the Paepcke Auditorium, public forums on anything from the Bush legacy to a star-studded media roundtable and an evening dedicated to issues facing India.
For more information about the festival and public events, visit www.aifestival.org.