Three Proposals of Marriage

By cjohnson | November 3, 2005 8:46 pm

Yes, I proposed marriage three times today.

Hmmm, I see I’ll need to explain.

Well, it all started back in September, at the installation of our new Provost. (Yes, they use that word, like he’s a new light bulb, operating system, or something.) Everybody went along, since the rumour was that he was going to give some hints about what new directions he was going to take the University (still in that solid angle that is steeply up), in the form of maybe announcing some new Initiatives. (You have to capitalize that word around here). You can read his speech (or a transcript of something like it) here I think (don’t know if it is linkable from outside the USC network).

Sure enough, as had been leaked, there was an announcement of a new Nanoscience thing. This means that there will be a focus on attracting new research effort, faculty, and facilities under this heading, (and there is always the worry that you won’t be able to do anything unless it fits under that umbrella, so everybody is paying attention for that reason too). So he spoke about that for a while, and I was standing there thinking whether I could argue that Planck scale physics is really a sort of ultra-Nanoscience…. (recall my ipod Planck joke, by the way, and its explanation).

But then he started talking about another Initiative! The Provost’s Initiative on Arts and Humanities. Basically he wants to further enhance and enrich the life of your everyday USC student with more engagement with the Arts, etc. He reminds us of the list of the University’s core values (which I won’t trouble you with), and then says:

These core values represent USC at its very best. They form its foundation and drive every aspect of President Sample’s creative vision for our future. And so we must pointedly ask: how can the university incorporate the rigorous exploration of these values into each student’s experience at USC, regardless of discipline? I believe we should turn to the arts and humanities. These disciplines fully capture the values of the university and provide students with an outstanding opportunity to examine their own relationship to these values on a truly personal level. The arts and humanities bring these values to life- illuminating their complexities and nuances…

He goes on like this for a while, quoting ancient poets and philosophers left, right and center. (These top guys are truly masters of this sort of speech, by the way, and they really mean what they’re saying and want you to believe it too. You can’t imagine anything like it in a UK university. Everybody’s just too jaded and cynical and would just fall about laughing if their top administrators started in with this stuff.) So I’m lapping it up, since I did not expect quite this level of eloquence and possibly geniune vision. (Since Clinton left office and Bush came along, I’ve forgotten what it can be like to listen to genuinely inspiring speeches from your top officials, I suppose, as opposed to excruciatingly cringe-making ones.) He talks for example about the idea of projects involving USC and art galleries, theatres and other venues around the city, etc…. He talks for a lot longer than he did for the Nanoscience Initiative in fact!

So at the end of the speech, I walk up to some of my faculty colleagues also standing near the back (where the excellent food is still being served hot -one of the main reasons to go to these sorts of events: the catering is above and beyond the call of duty, with on-the-floor chefs cooking the finger food on the spot!) and go “You know, I don’t know whether I should be turning to do Nanoscience, or whether I should write a play.” Two of us then went in unison (I kid you not), “Well, how about writing a play about Nanoscience?!”

I then turned and walked away only to be facing my good friend, Los Angeles Theatre scence playwright and colleague from the School of Theatre, Oliver Mayer. I said the same opening sentence to him and again we completed the joke together. We sat, had more wine (it’s 4:30pm on a weekday, but you don’t install a new Provost everyday…..) and I told him about my standard bugbear about which you’ve heard so many times: Better representation of science, scientists, and the scientific process in the arts and media should be part of the battle of increasing the public’s awareness and appreciation of science and the crucial role it plays in society, etc…… I won’t repeat myself again (see also e.g. here , in comments). He caught on immediately, and spoke of the fact that in all the the characters and scenarios he’s written about, he’s never explored scientists and science, as it is outside his realm of experience. So I then spoke of my general frustrations about this being the case not just for playwrights, but also for actors, filmmakers, journalists, their editors, etc. We spoke about speaking more (you know, “my people will call your people” -except neither of us are important enough to have “people” to call each other-) and we parted.

Well, I forgot all about that conversation for a while and got on with being a crazy busy professor, etc. Then on Friday a memo went around reminding us that the Provost’s committee wanted letters of intent concerning the Initiative on Arts and Humanities, and that the deadline was in a few days…..and a lightbulb went off in my head.

Yeah, it’s insane, as I’m already existing on borrowed time, but why not? Maybe nobody else on campus is going to try to combine science and the arts in a meaningful way for the benefit of the student body. I should not just assume that somebody else will do it. The Provost and his committee obviously only have a vague idea of what they want to do and the invitation for us to supply letters of intent is probably them looking to us, the faculty, for ideas about what should be done under this initiative. If nobody tells them that they should have specific proposals to combine the Arts, Humanities and Science in a challenging way (i.e. not just have chmists go along and listen to some nice singing from time to time) then how are they to know?

So I tapped into my Network of Good People….. beat the drums a bit….brainstormed. (Hard, because I was in the middle of writing a paper at the time, but sleep, who needs it?) So I called Oliver, and we talked. I called my good friend and new colleague journalist/writer K.C. Cole, and we talked. I called my good friend, rising filmmaker Jules DiBiase, with whom I’ve previously worked on a screenplay and who shares my passion for portraying good science and real scientists on TV and Film (by the way, there’s an excellent TV pilot begging to be produced! Anyone brave enough to take on the challenge to do it and keep the science true? Have any powerful TV executive friends who might? email me, or tell them to!)… and we talked.

In each case, we bounced documents back a forth a few times, I wrote, melded, collated, refined…… and today I proposed three marriages -collaborations if you prefer:

A collaboration between The College of Letters, Arts and Sciences (LAS) (well, at least Physics and Astronomy) and the School of Theatre (a year of public readings, and performances, of existing plays about science and scientists, and a series of writing workshops culminating in a festival of readings of new work on campus and around the city.)

A collaboration between LAS (Physics and Astronomy) and the Annenberg School of Communication (to extend and bring Categorically Not! which I’ve told you about here, here and here, to USC and also move it around the city.)

A collaboration between LAS (Physics and Astronomy and anyone else who wants to play) and the School of Cinema-Television (a year of film showings with discussions, again about science and scientists, and workshops, and teams of collaborations to write, direct and produce short films, culminating with a festival on campus and around the city.)

I don’t know if any of the proposals will be accepted by the committee, but I feel that through their getting these three letters of intent, they’ve perhaps been made aware of some possibilities that they had not entertained before. Let’s see where this all goes.


  • Kaleberg

    Even if nothing comes of it, you did the right thing. Too often these opportunities are ignored because everyone is too busy, and it is the people with nothing else to do who basically waste the money. Then again, a scientist who blogs is much more likely to understand the importance of communicating than one who does not.

  • Kate

    Well, clearly it’s time for me to move to USC. My newly started dissertation centers on 20th century science plays…

  • Kaleberg

    More blather:

    Thinking about science and the arts reminds me of the old story teller’s trick of technical explanation as a means of building credibility. Basically, if a story teller wants to tell a believable story about love, or ambition, or betrayal or redemption, it helps to have an emotionally believable story, but it can work even better if the story is set in some area of the world and the teller explains something in fair detail and with good accuracy about that setting and what people do there.

    Lanford Wilson was always rather transparent with this, and Mamet delights in the details of business and confidence games. Lloyd Alexander used this nicely in some of his children’s stories, particularly Taram Wanderer. I remember one rather melodramatic movie, Parrish, set in Connecticut tobacco country, and it would have been complete garbage save for the sense and knowledge it gave of tobacco farming.

    Usually when scientists do this, they concentrate on the big ideas, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetic codes, and the like, but there is an awful lot of knowledge that is overlooked because it is invisible to non-scientists and taken for granted by scientists. So much of science is waiting, setting things up, calibrating them, mistrusting them, waiting, checking and rechecking, and the details of this are so rarely captured.

    I think you could do three guys in a garage who want to prove that solid helium flows would work in the style of the 70s Show.

    It’s getting late. To sleep, perchance to dream. (I actually do dream stuff like this).

  • Belizean


    I hope your efforts bear fruit.

    I do sympathize with the goal of increasing cultural appreciation of science through drama, but I’m not sure that it makes sense to me. Either

    A. Science is integral to the plot, or
    B. Science is not integral to it.

    If A, then were just talking about science fiction. There’s already a fair amount of this that accurately captures the scientific experience (written by current or former scientists).

    If B, then science is just a backdrop. It’s not clear to me how that would increase cultural appreciation for it.

  • Clifford


    Two quick responses spring to mind to each (there are several more, but I’m a bit tired):

    “If A…”: There is a huge difference between science-in-fiction and science fiction. You seem to be confusing the two. Also, there is simply *not* a fair amount of either that accurately captures the scientific experience (I hope you mean -the science content itself, the scientific process; what scientists actually do, and why, and what they are actually like (everyone else), and why science is part of everyday life, and why it is not to be feared….etc), written by anybody. That’s a fact.

    “If B…”: What’s wrong with a science backdrop? There are all sorts of other backdrops, and hardly any science ones. To have “just” science backdrop more commonly would itself be progress. I am striving for familiarity here. So many portrays that it won’t be a novelty anymore…. you just would not notice…. once you break down fear of the unknown (science, scientists), then you can make real prgress.

    You seem to think I want to turn everyone into a scientist. No. That is not the point…. I just dream of a day when……oh…please read here.



  • Plato

    Why not tell us a story about the Onion People? How some are down to earth, while others are straight shooters?

    How they can bring a “tear” to the eye?:)

  • Matt McIrvin

    Science fiction and fiction-about-science are different things, but the categories could overlap more than they do. I’ve always appreciated the rare cases in which science fiction makes a serious attempt to engage with the way scientists really work (as opposed to caricatures in which they might as well be wizards) and how science happens as a social process. Some of the work of Stanislaw Lem, Gregory Benford and Nancy Kress comes to mind.

  • Belizean


    A physics opera, Dr. Atomic, is being staged by the San Francisco Opera. Is this an example of what you have in mind?

  • Elliot

    How about Apollo 13? Not fiction but a great “marriage” of science and entertainment.

    BTW…. Didn’t Tom Hanks acquire the rights to Dennis Overbye’s “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos” to make a movie a few years ago? Anybody else hear about that?


  • Sean

    Yes, Tom Hanks wanted to do a movie of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. But the project appears to have fallen through.

  • Uncle Al

    Scientists must learn to dance and sing, as must singers and dancers. Fair is fair. Singers and dancers ignore science and math because…


    Scholarships are awarded to the deserving, not to scholars. If your school admits matriculants based upon objective standardized performance rather than situtational social activism, then you are all poopy-heads. “Equality” means “majority.”

  • Clifford

    Belizean:- It would not be the first example….but it is an example. Other examples have been discussed on this blog many times, they include examples as diverse as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, or David Auburn’s Proof (which was also made into a film, and I talked about it here). Films like Contact are also well-balanced in this regard…. on television there’s harldy anything, but there are a few shows from time to time that show the scientific process at work. I’ve talked about them. Please look at the several links I gave in the post.

    But note how few there are and how little in variety compared to the number of films, operas, plays, etc, that there have been made (and are made every year) about lawyers, doctors, politicians, writers, painters, businesspeople, sports, sports, sports, lawyers, doctors, polititcians, writers, sports again, homemakers, ……Just count ’em -just for the films made this year, say- and you -like me- will see why there is such a deep cultural problem with science and scientists in this society. I hope you’re getting the point now…..

    Elliot:- go ahead and count Apollo 13.

    My point remains…. the fact that we have to wrinkle our brows at all to think of examples is the point. You don’t have to wrinkle your brow to think of a recent movie about sports, or business, or politics, or….. here I go again. But here’s the point: Science affects our everyday lives at least as much, and often more, than those things. Who controls the quality of the air that you breathe? The water that you drink? The safety of your environment? Your engery supply? Your next medical treatment? The drugs and food that you put into your body? Just a few people who you give control to because it’s “science stuff” that society says its ok to be totally ignorant about.



  • Clifford

    Uncle Al:- With respect, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but to your remark “Scientists must learn to dance and sing”, I would say: – Of course. See the Provost’s remarks, for example. But the traffic should go both ways. And it has gone mostly in the other direction for too long, and look at the state of ignorance society is in with regards science. You hear more often about people in science or other technical careers turning to the arts (singing and dancing, if you like) in their spare time (hobbies, etc) than you do the other way around (although the latter happens a bit…. e.g., some of the readers of this blog are people from the arts who come here for a bit of science in their spare time…which is one of our principal reasons to exist, imho, but it is still unusual.)


  • Plato

    Matt Irvin,

    The Onion People are not Wizardary.

    They are real, although they might not like the insinuation, it developed from within their conceptual framework to relate what and how these detectors are constructed.

    If one extends their scientific background to a possible route that would jell with the populace, then it would have to find examples that would take the “rigidity of science “and make it playful and entertaining at a very fundamental level. With “Alice” it became very clear that Lewis Carroll ‘s mathematics was embedded in a story form that quickly reminds one of the photon’s journey into the world on the other side. :)

    Some were quick to pick up on the “sound analogy” of strings and make insinuating remarks about the very idea. But as I relate this extension to a very fundamental issue it deals directly with the foundation.

    Yes some work at the very basement of these ideas and yes they have contributed to the signatures and design of the detectors, but this does not dissaude one from taking hold of the populace’s idea about science and bringing it to the table.

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  • Elliot

    What about the TV show Numb3rs?

    Seems to integrate science nicely.

  • spyder

    Clifford, your third key “marriage” proposal is, for now, the most easily doable. It can be done with relatively (had to use that term) modest financial assistance, linking films and their filmmakers, along with other media producers, with a group of scientists who have the time and energy to participate in an evening, or even a year’s worth of monthly screenings. I say films only because logistically they can be accessed and presented for minimal fees, which would provide the foundation for subsequent series that could present short plays, poetry jams, even musical productions. We, the folks i work with, do these sorts of things w/ political, environmental, and social justice activism all the time. It would seem a focus on science would not be at all difficult.

    Total aside here:
    If readers in LA are interested in what crazy wild creative Burning Man people do in the winter time: please consider attending Sea of Dreams for NYE (this goes for SanFran Bay Area people as well). This sort of event could provide fodder for creative ideas without limits for the science communities.

  • Clifford

    spyder….. thanks for the remarks. Interesting.


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