Had the privilege of attending a fabulous event as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival (which, SURPRISE, I am also working for. See my badge below!): Science Theatre Scratch Night. I found it illuminating and inspiring.
The evening consisted of six short performances about science across a range of theatrical styles. There were monologues, short scenes, a puppet play, and even a piece incorporating modern dance. And we were asked to take notes for feedback… as you’ll see below, I enjoyed this part the most. I love science theatre.
I actually applied for a science theatre fellowship this very year. I was unfortunately rejected, but I certainly hope to apply again next year. I’ve long been interested in the ways in which science can provide the raw material for creating theatrical productions and how scientific processes can inform creative ones. The Scratch Night was an excellent collection of precisely the type of work I’d be interested in becoming involved in.
Science theatre means something that is both fairly specific and very broad. What I am not referring to is educational performances or demonstrations particularly targeted at children. Dancing stem cells and demo explosions are not what I have in mind when I envision science theatre (these things are excellent, and I enjoy doing them immensely).
By science theatre, I mean theatrical productions about and inspired by science. A good example is Proof by David Auburn, about the complex circumstances behind the discovery of an important mathematical proof. Another is Calculus by Carl Djerassi about the true contentious story about the simultaneous invention of calculus by Issac Newton and Gottfied Liebniz (incidentally, I discovered Calculus only when it occurred to me that this would be a great story to write into a play. Turns out it had already been done!).
In my view, science theatre is constructed on a few key truths about science and the history of science. First, that humans understand and engage with science in terms of narratives, even if the natural world does not always fit within storytelling tropes of humans. Going back to ancient mythology used to describe the patterns of the weather or the four seasons, humans have used story to contextualize the natural world. Nowadays we are closer to an accurate understanding, but we still use models and stories to understand science. We use images and metaphors to clarify abstract invisible concepts; we use empathy to understand behaviour of other organisms. The subtle examples of narrative approaches to scientific knowledge are endless.
The second fundamental truth is that science history is just as fraught and complicated as anything else. The controversy about calculus described in Djerassi’s play is testament to that. Though we use Liebniz’s notation to this very day, and he published his ideas of calculus first Newton was in his own time credited with the invention of calculus. Liebniz was accused of plagarizing Newton’s unpublished notes. Though today it is thought that each developed calculus independently, this major controversy drips with the type of dramatic intrigue of any good courtroom drama. In short: science history is at times incredibly theatrical.
All these ideas were stimulated by that evening of theatre at the Science Festival. Worth every moment.