Scientific method acting, when all the lab's a stage

Oxford scholar offers full-length analysis of staged ‘two-culture’ entanglement. Matthew Reisz writes

November 22, 2012

There has been an opera about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”, and a musical about University of Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s last theorem. Tom Stoppard wrote an unperformed play about Galileo for the London Planetarium. Yerma’s Eggs, by Anna Furse, called for “projected biological material” for its staging, including “a four-dimensional ultrasound image of a fetus in utero”. And cosmologist John Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge, put together a series of paradoxical thought experiments - an infinite library, a black box full of people living for ever, a universe where it is possible to leap through time - that formed the basis for Infinities, an extraordinary five-room spectacle staged in a Milan warehouse.

All are examples of what Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, university lecturer in modern drama at the University of Oxford, calls the “interdisciplinary phenomenon” of the “science play”. Her book, Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen, just released in paperback by Princeton University Press, offers “the first full-length analysis” of the genre.

Although this theme can be traced back to playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Moliere, she said, her book focuses on the past 25 years, noting that “Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia [1993] and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen [1998] have become classics and taken on a life of their own. There is continuing debate about the latter and its use of history,” notably its fictional account of the real meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in 1941.

Both are striking examples of “plays which enact their ideas. Even if you don’t care about fractals or ‘the Copenhagen interpretation’, you can see them unfold dramatically in the theatre in ways which wouldn’t work in a novel or radio play,” Dr Shepherd-Barr said.

Playwrights have always been interested in arrogant doctors, miracle cures and the ethics and emotional upheavals of medicine. Science on Stage also traces how in the post-war years there were many plays about “the pros and cons of nuclear physics”, and then writers turning to far less obviously dramatic themes such as “uncertainty in physics, chaos theory and the neuroscientific basis of perception and memory”.

Although Dr Shepherd-Barr argues that “the theatre has been one of the most consistently prominent sites of engagement between the two cultures (of the arts and sciences)”, this has also led to sniping from the scientific side.

Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the contraceptive pill who turned to playwriting in later life, has accused many non-scientific dramatists of falling back on the old cliches of scientists as “just Frankensteins, Strangeloves or idiots savants”.

Dr Shepherd-Barr agreed that we have not seen many glamorous or heroic scientists on the stage recently: “Ever since 1945, we have cast scientific knowledge in a different light. There is a general awareness and sense of accountability about what science can do. That’s a public concern, and theatre is a public space.”

Yet plays can also be honest about science in ways that standard scientific procedures obscure. Dr Shepherd-Barr recalled how one neuroscientist she had interviewed had always been “bothered by how the presentation of results can mask the hesitation and doubt behind the eventual data that get published”.

“It is good to understand the process behind the actual scientific findings,” she added. “Most people don’t see that, and the way papers are presented and refereed doesn’t allow that hesitation to be shown.”

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