Jen-Luc Piquant is going through another irritating diva phase following her Cyber-debut last night in an avant-garde performance art tribute to Dylan Stiles, the young Stanford chemist who performed an NMR analysis of his own ear wax. Unlike Dylan's original post, which is fast becoming legendary in the science blogosphere, hardly anyone saw Jen-Luc's performance. She only had a bit part, playing one small sliver of the resulting spectral analysis. (Meaty roles for avatars are a bit hard to come by, and the director didn't think she had enough "star quality" to pull off the leading role of the ear wax.) But her head is nonetheless spinning with an inflated sense of her own budding celebrity.
Jen-Luc was inspired to trod the virtual boards in the first place upon hearing that physicist Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, made his operatic debut on August 25 in the Austrian mountain village of Alpach while attending a technology conference there. The "opera" in question was called Atom and Eve. It first debuted in 2003 during the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard University -- the libretto was written by none other than Marc Abraham, Ig Nobel organizer and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research -- and it tells the touching tale of a star-crossed romance between a humble little oxygen atom and a beautiful female chemist who notices him one day in her microscope. In his characteristically witty press release for this event, Abraham opined that it is quite a propos for Wilczek (pictured below) to sing the lead role, since his Nobel-Prize-winning work on subatomic particles showed that "distance makes the quarks grow fonder (or at least increases their attraction)."
Wilczek might be a bit of an anomaly in terms of scientists taking to the stage, but science itself has historically inspired its share of timeless drama (and probably melodrama) in the theater, most notably dating back to 17th century England and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Among modern offerings, David Auburn's Proof, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia all deal with scientific themes, and all debuted to critical acclaim. There is now a film version of Proof, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, so the trend is filtering into Hollywood. Alan Alda memorably recreated physicist Richard Feynman onstage in the play QED. And last year the San Francisco Opera debuted a newly commissioned opera called Doctor Atomic, about the events leading up to the first atomic bomb.
Those are just the major league players. There's also a host of up-and-coming playwrights with a passion for creatively weaving scientific concepts and themes into their work -- playwrights like Charlotte Jones (Humble Boy), Jacqueline Reingold (String Fever), and Lauren Gunderson, who has just published her first collection of plays, Deepen the Mystery: Science and the South Onstage. Chaos theory and fractals, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, and string theory have all enjoyed a moment in the footlights, often accompanied by ruminations on their ethical or social implications. And that's not counting more frivolous fare like Abraham's Atom and Eve.
So this is undeniably a cultural trend, one that is analyzed quite extensively in a fascinating new book, Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen, by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, a senior lecturer in drama and theater arts at the University of Birmingham in England. Shepherd-Barr draws on extensive interviews with both playwrights and directors to examine a broad range of contemporary plays that merge drama with scientific content, organized according to scientific themes. The result is a crisp, intelligent, and eminently readable treatise that offers some intriguing insights into this "not-so-newfound chemistry between science and theater," as the book's press release phrased it. There's even a comprehensive (and annotated!) list of science plays over the last 400 years at the back of the book. That alone makes it an invaluable resource for fans of science and theater, like me.
She begins by establishing a working definition for what actually constitutes a "science play," a necessary exercise given the astonishing variety in the range of styles and structures adopted by playwrights dealing with scientific themes. According to Shepherd-Barr, science plays "share certain critical features: a casting of the scientist as a hero or villain (or sometimes both); a direct engagement with 'real' scientific ideas; a complex ethical discussion; and an interdependence of form and content that often relies on performance to convey the science."
That seems clear enough. But then what makes any given science play successful, not just at the box office, but as theatrical art? It's related to that interdependence of form and content mentioned above. Specifically, those science plays that are deemed to be most successful artistically are the ones that thoroughly integrate "real" science, "successfully harnessing a theatrical language to a scientific one." It's worth quoting Shepherd-Barr more extensively here:
"Plays like Copenhagen succeed in part because they avoid the pitfall of sloppily appropriating precise scientific concepts for vague, general purposes. They do not tempt audiences to a reductive and vague application of the uncertainty principle or of chaos theory to life in general, which is just the kind of over-simplification C.P. Snow warns against in The Two Cultures."
It's tough to argue with that sentiment, although I might point out that Shepherd-Barr concerns herself with the cream of the theatrical crop in her book (and rightly so). For every play like Copenhagen, which seamlessly weaves accurate science into its dramatic/thematic web, there are a dozen others that flirt with science, appropriating ideas and metaphors in ways many scientists find objectionable. Does that make them bad theater? Not necessarily. They might not meet Shepherd-Barr's stringent criteria for a successful "science play," but they could still resonate emotionally with an audience and have a powerful artistic impact, even if the science isn't quite up to snuff. That's something many scientists have a difficult time grasping.
Case in point: in January, the physicist Marvin Cohen wrote an interesting article for APS News detailing his experiences during the final developmental stages of Doctor Atomic. Specifically, he was invited to attend a workshop in San Francisco to hear an excerpt of the opera performed. Cohen became, well, a little obsessed with a scientific inaccuracy in the opening lines:
Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered in form
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered in form.
The lines aren't so much wrong, as incomplete. Albert Einstein's famous equation (oh, come on, you know the one!) showed that matter can be changed into energy, which is the underlying physics behind the atomic bomb: "You destroy a little bit of matter and turn it into a huge amount of energy," per Cohen. Indeed, the opera's opening lines are taken from a 1945 report that says just that, but for artistic reasons, the composer (John Adams) and librettist (Peter Sellars) opted to simplify things a little. Cohen pointed out the discrepancy, and admits that he "naively assumed [they] would change the offending lines. It's one of the characteristics of being a professor: you assume people are listening to you, and that they will react appropriately when corrected."
I guess it depends on how one defines an "appropriate" reaction. Needless to say, the line wasn't changed, although Cohen lobbied valiantly on behalf of scientific accuracy, even going so far as to suggest an added line that would make the opening "acceptable." The producers would have been forgiven for taking umbrage at Cohen's chutzpah, and telling him to take a hike. Instead, they were good sports about it, graciously inserting a note into the opera's program acknowledging the "problem." In turn, Cohen was refreshingly frank in acknowledging the uncomfortable position in which he found himself, drawing a parallel between his experience and a famous anecdote immortalized onscreen in the film Amadeus. The Austrian emperor tells Mozart that his new opera has "too many notes." Mozart responds that it had just the right number of notes, and when the emperor blithely suggests the composer merely cut out a few notes here and there to make the opera perfect, Mozart tartly inquires, "Which specific notes did your majesty have in mind?" Cohen confessed, "I never thought I'd be on the other side. I always identified with Mozart."
Kudos to Cohen not just for his willingness to involve himself in an artistic project, but also for his good humor when colliding head on with the age-old clash between C.P. Snow's "two cultures." Art trumps science when it comes to theater. It's as simple as that. Yet I'd venture to say that deep down, while they appreciate the fruits of artistic pursuits, most scientists adhere to the sanctity of cold, hard fact, and are a bit uncomfortable when scientific fact is appropriated for artistic purposes.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Science on Stage is that Shepherd-Barr tackles the innate scientific bias against fiction, and the associated tendency to be overly didactic, head-on, and she doesn't pull any punches while doing so. "Scant attention has been given to the fact that these are first and foremost plays," she writes, also criticizing the fact that critics and scholars alike have focused too much on accompanying social and ethical questions. She explores this issue in-depth in Chapter 8, which proved (for me) to be the most thought-provoking and illuminating discussion in the book. Science plays are "first and foremost... viable dramas, scripts for performance, literature for the stage -- not merely vehicles for the teaching of science." Specifically, she draws
"... a clear distinction between those science plays whose main purpose is didactic -- to educate people about the particular concept or field being dramatized -- and those that stage science in an aesthetically integrated way. There are many science plays whose scientific content is unassailable but whose theatricality is weak. They may teach science, but they do not make superb or even satisfying drama."
It's not just scientists; historians can be equally intransigent when it comes to a work of art taking liberties with established facts. To illustrate her points about what can happen when the fictional world of the theater comes up against the "real" world of scientific and historical fact, Shepherd-Barr uses Copenhagen, which proved to be particularly controversial because it dealt with recent history -- and a controversial history at that. "Many historians and scientists... [feel] that theatricality detracts from or compromises objective truth and historical fact. The very notion of fiction that theater naturally implies seems problematic for some," she writes. There is a very understandable concern that audiences -- who tend to get far too much of their knowledge of both current and historical events from entertainment rather than academic source materials -- could be misled into "learning" something that is, if not outright false, not quite right either.
For Shepherd-Barr, this question is largely moot, again because theatrical works like Copenhagen were not created with didactic intent. She is an unabashed Frayn fan, a champion of the artistic merits of Copenhagen, which she clearly deems the reigning gold standard among the present crop of science plays. And I agree with her contention that the above criticism is negated because Frayn's intent was never to "educate" his audience about science. Or history. He set out to create a work of art. Frayn isn't using theater in the service of art, but rather, he "uses the history of science as a vehicle of the theater."
Science plays can still be a terrific teaching tool, regardless of the playwright's intent, even if the science isn't entirely accurate. Those very inaccuracies can provide an opening to discuss the underlying science in more detail, and an audience might be more likely to pay attention and retain the new knowledge if imparted in a theatrical context. Shepherd-Barr suggests that the educational aspect might be best addressed through the organization of performance-linked scientific symposia on the topics explored in specific plays, as was done in NYC (and elsewhere) for the Broadway premiere of Copenhagen. (Similarly, the San Francisco Exploratorium organized a special exhibit to mark the debut of Doctor Atomic.)
I had the privilege of attending the 2000 Copenhagen symposium in NYC, which featured several excellent lectures by both scientists and historians on the underlying physics and history that inspired Frayn's play. The undisputed highlight was an evening discussion with Frayn and Broadway director Michael Blakemore about the process of creating the theater piece. Frayn was particularly eloquent in describing how, while reading Heisenberg's original 1927 paper on uncertainty, he was struck by the notion of quantum fuzziness -- that one cannot simultaneously know both a particle's position and momentum -- and chose to extrapolate the metaphorical implications of that concept to form the thematic underpinning of Copenhagen. "Human intentions have their own irreducible fuzziness," he said. He envisioned the actors as busy subatomic particles circling around the nucleus during rehearsals until it is time to be "seen." The audience, in turn, reminded him of photons, "shining the light of their attention onto the actors." One of the exciting things about live theater is its immediacy, and the fact that the same exact performance is never given twice, no matter how rehearsed it might be. In Frayn's words, "The energy an audience brings to [the performance], the energy of their laughter, and rapt attention, changes what is there." Observation impacts "reality."
Among the most telling points Shepherd-Barr raises is the fact that the controversy over Copenhagen has largely raged among scholars, critics and certain scientists or science historians."'Regular' audience members seem to have had no trouble separating fact from fiction and keeping Frayn's stage world distinct in their minds from the world of real events and people," she writes.
It's probably true that scientists tend to underestimate the general public on such matters. It's an understandable reaction, given some of the more grievous instances we've all encountered of the public's ignorance of -- and often hostility towards -- science. But there is also a public fascination with the human side of science, and its implications for society. Shepherd-Barr comments on the fact that plays like Copenhagen, despite being dialogue-intensive and demanding close attention from the audience, have nonetheless proved to be extremely popular with non-scientific audiences, asking, "What, in turn, does this tell us about our expectations of the audience; have we underestimated what they can and will see?" In a word, absolutely. Perhaps we likewise underestimate what audience members will take away as "true" from a theatrical production. Perhaps not. There is a great deal of hand-wringing among educators over the disturbing lack of critical thinking in our society. I share those concerns. But how can we foster critical thought if we won't let people make up their own minds, even if it means they might misunderstand -- or worse, reject -- the "truth"?
This issue seems especially pressing in light of the debate currently raging over the factual inaccuracies and historical distortions featured in the made-for-TV movie, The Path to 9/11. ABC and Disney have sought to defend their controversial film by essentially claiming "artistic license": they have never claimed, they say, to have created a factual documentary, but a creative work of fiction. This strikes me -- and many others -- as disingenuos at best, and there is strong circumstantial evidence (via overseas trailers and unedited versions released in, for example, New Zealand) that this assertion is outright dishonest. It also illustrates an important point: when discussing how science and history are creatively adapted to the arts, we must also make a critical distintion between an actual work of art and blatant propaganda.
It's pretty clear to any thinking human being that The Path to 9/11 is, at best, thinly veiled propaganda, and ABC/Disney's attempt to pass it off as anything else is shameful in the extreme. They should be publicly exposed and called to task for their transgression. Frankly, however, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the calls for censorship and boycotts on the part of the left-wing blogosphere -- a misgiving that, alas, finds me on common ground with none other than Senator Bill Frist (and I can't tell you how much that horrifies me). But whereas Frist is waving the free speech flag for overtly political purposes, I'm more concerned with protecting future programming from falling victim to a right-wing counter-attack, for specious political reasons.
We're approaching a critical election, and I understand that feelings are running high. By all means, let's expose the film's distortions (some might call them "lies"), but banning it altogether does a disservice to all of us. We're dealing with recent history, with tragic, world-changing events that happened a mere five years ago, so things are fresh in the public's collective mind. There is also a plethora of publicly (and easily) available documentation regarding the established facts of that terrible day, which makes it easier to poke holes in the film's more outrageous depictions.
It's ironic, and more than a little counter-intuitive, but I would argue that the wisest course of action is also the most difficult: trusting the TV audience to be able to tell the difference between the fantasy scenarios depicted in The Path to 9/11, and the historical facts on record. The risk is that our trust will be misplaced -- and for some people, that inevitably will be the case. Nonetheless, the audience deserves the chance to make its own call (which includes the option, in my case, of choosing not to watch such dreck at all). The freedom to choose what we believe is part of what makes this country great. I think preserving that freedom is worth the risk.