Science Plays Come of Age

By Sean Carroll | August 7, 2006 3:40 pm

“I’m too creative to do astronomy.” That was the line used, in all seriousness, by a student I once had in an astronomy lab course. The lab in question involved learning about the motion of the planets around the Sun. “If I could just write a play instead of doing the lab, I’d be fine.” Well, I replied, if you write a play demonstrating that you understand Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and have students in the class perform it, I’ll be happy to give you full credit for the lab.

Lauren Gunderson Sadly, the requested play never materialized, as I suspected it wouldn’t. But happily, in a similar set of circumstances Lauren Gunderson responded very differently, as she explains in an article in The Scientist:

My career as a science playwright started when I asked my undergraduate physics professor to let me write a play instead of a term paper. Luckily he agreed, and the result was a time-twisting play called Background, based on cosmologist Ralph Alpher. Unexpectedly, the play not only satisfied my physics professor, it went on to receive awards and inspire productions across the country.

Lauren is a young playwright (and author of the occasionally-updated blog Deepen the Mystery) specializing in plays with scientific themes. She’s not the only one, of course; it’s become quite the cottage industry, these science plays. As Dennis Overbye put it at a conference in Santa Barbara, “Is anyone writing plays that aren’t about quantum mechanics any more?”

I’d be happy to summarize Lauren’s article, but she puts it better herself:

But what does it take to write a good science play? As a playwright, I believe in communicating science effectively, but not taking out what makes science hard. So it is absolutely essential to learn the relevant science well enough to represent it accurately — otherwise the whole play fails. I always do a lot of research from online magazines, scientists’ Web sites, and books on history and theory — everything from Brian Greene’s books on string theory to Newton’s Principia itself has passed across my desk. And many playwrights, myself included, consult scientists in person for critique, advice, and content.

In a science play, you want to make your scientists sound like real scientists. I’m not afraid to use a lot of jargon — I sometimes use what I call the “verbal wall of science” effect, in which I allow a character to speak freely like a scientist, without any further explanation. This isn’t to confuse a general audience, but to allow an appreciation of the character’s expertise. Yet I also try to combine effective science with effective poetry to create something that is true both in the concrete and the abstract. Science metaphors work best this way. For example, the particle physicist in my play Baby M explains her work this way:

We move in secrets. Fundamentals locked, related in code. What is obvious is not always what is. And what is isn’t always what is known. Essentially, we deal in thought made manifest, and this work represents the world.

The best scientific characters do all the things that make us human, not just the things that make us brilliant. So it is not enough for me to show you scientists doing science; I need to show you why they do it. Why do they venture into the essence of nature? Why do they subject themselves to deadlines and peer reviews and failure?

Okay, we wish that most scientists spoke as eloquently about their work as Lauren’s character does. But the point remains: if you’re going to have scientific themes, it’s worth the effort to get the science right, and — perhaps even harder — to get the attitude and language of the scientists right. Nothing different than would be expected if you were writing about lawyers or doctors.

Last year I gave two “literary lectures” at local theaters that were putting on plays with science themes. The first one was a production of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy
at Remy Bumppo Theatre. The protagonist was a string theorist, who used physics as an escape from the messy complications of human interaction; it was a great play, in which the physics was scientifically correct and cleverly deployed to illuminate the plot. The second play will remain nameless. Its protagonist was also a string theorist, but the moral of this story was that the best way to make a breakthrough in string theory would be to give up all those bothersome equations and hike around the mountains in India seeking enlightenment. There’s a joke in there somewhere about the Landscape, but I don’t think that’s what the author was aiming for.

So it’s worth supporting the good stuff — for example, you could do worse than starting with Lauren’s book, a collection of three of her plays. As Sir Isaac Newton says, in words Lauren put in his mouth:

Men have died chasing what I’m after! Sacrificed life and loyalty. It is not funny. This consciousness is as serious as you can possibly come close to knowing. You should treat it as such.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words
  • nye

    I think if I had asked a question like Lauren did in the class, I would get no credits at all…….

    How can a play link with physics?

    but it’s really funny and beyond my poor imagination: I am a graduate student of Astronomy…:)

  • Elliot

    hopefully a sign that these types of projects are viable in an entertainment industry which embraces a wide range (A Beautiful Mind/Porky’s) of target consumers. 😉


  • Stephen Uitti

    There’s also some really, really good science fiction. Check out episode 56 at escapepod. Short story. Free audio in mp3.
    No dumbed down science. Great plot. What’s not to like?

    As for creativity, my astronomy blog has lots of humor that strikes me. Recent speculation is that there are fewer vampires in the Southern Hemisphere, because the Southern Cross is visible all night. In the North, in February, the Cygnus the Swan Northern Cross is only visible for about an hour. Then the vampires get the rest of the night off worry free.

    Or maybe the post on how my girlfriend looks better from a distance because, well, since light moves at a finite speed, the farther away she is, the younger she looks. I understand that i look better at large distances too.

    I bet writing a good play is more work than a term paper.

  • Stephen Uitti

    Opps. My astronomy blog:

    Why didn’t it come out? Where’s the preview button? In a perfect world, it would just owrk.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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