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.