Sarah Marr: review

February 11, 2005

Punkscience: The Albert Einstein Experience
Dana Centre, Science Museum, London May 17, 24 and 31

As I travelled home on Tuesday night, my beloved iPod began to play Secret Message , by Gothic "cello-rock" ensemble Rasputina.

" Two objects at equidistance, acting as if they cared. Does weight follow mass in this instance? Oh, E equals MC squared ," sang Melora, their mellifluous lead.

This was a serendipitous reminder of Albert Einstein's modern-day ubiquity.

His famous equation and white-haired visage have become culturally entrenched, a moustached metonym for all things scientific, with no further explanation required.

In 1905, Einstein published his theories covering the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and special relativity: it was a good year for the guy, you have to give him that.

Given that my day job involves playing with esoteric models of space-time, it is no surprise that I am acutely aware of this centenary. And if the physics illuminati are doing their job, then people beyond scientific academia have also realised that 2005 has been declared Einstein Year in the UK.

The Albert Einstein Experience is part of these celebrations, and the most recent outing for Punkscience. For a succinct description of this four-strong comedy team, I turn to the words of the friend with whom I attended the show: "charmingly nerdy".

The audience consisted of mid-20 to late-30-somethings, whose general degree of hipness (or whatever the hip word for "hip" is nowadays) was in keeping with the glass, chrome, primary colours and overpriced drinks of the Science Museum's Dana Centre. This is a venue in which adults can engage with contemporary science, and the space was certainly used effectively for the evening's performance.

Stand-up, sketches, songs and "scientific demonstrations" were accompanied by slide projections and lightly sprinkled with kazoo-and-drum interludes: a much undervalued musical genre, in my opinion.

Audience participation also featured, not least by means of electronic voting on questions of varying seriousness. We correctly surmised that Einstein spent some time in Norfolk but were wrong in our belief that he could control small animals through telepathy. Who would win, we wondered, in a straight fight between Einstein and Jesus?

The classic and much-loved "distorted rubber sheet as curved space-time" analogy was played out to great effect, being to general relativity what ten-day-old grass stains are to detergent commercials. But could we explain Brownian motion after bouncing beach balls over our heads?

Did the (surprisingly phallic) light-clock demonstration convey the nature of relativistic time dilation? Perhaps not. But that is no real criticism.

This is science presented as entertainment, with infectious enthusiasm and the hope that the audience will go out and discover more for themselves.

And this must surely be the key to exploiting the Einstein phenomenon for the dissemination of science. Use Albert the cultural icon to generate an interest that goes beyond a Warhol-esque repetition of the man's smiling face and leads to some understanding of his work.

For children, this might even be the beginnings of a career in science. For adults, it is, at least, a fun way to spend an evening.

Oh, and if you were wondering, a majority thought that Einstein would kick Jesus's ass. Readers should, however, be aware of some audience bias in that result.

Sarah Marr is a postgraduate student of theoretical physics at Imperial College London.

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