Thoughts on science theater from a local actor

September 29th, 2014

Casey Preston, a local actor who excels at playing men who are not very intelligent, is in fact very intelligent (that’s the “acting” part, you see!) and wrote an absolutely brilliant response to the beginning of my science-theater manifesto. He’s a little bit skeptical of the endeavor. Here’s what he had to say–much to chew on and I wanted to make sure no one missed it:

I have a number of thoughts floating around in my head about science theater due to being an actor, having a graduate degree in the sciences, having done dramaturgy and acted in science based shows, and having watched more than a few. Mostly, I think theater about science is a trap.
Here are just a few brief thoughts:
1) Almost invariably, actors speaking about scientific concepts sound like they do not understand what they are saying. It is like speaking in a foreign language and having a vague idea of the concept, but not a firm grasp or conceptualization of the actual words.
2) When a show is about competing ideas, the director and actors often try to enhance the drama of the debate. After all, theater is about conflict, right? But, if you are having a passionate argument about science, you are doing science wrong. The scientific method is about testing ideas, not arguing about them. Turning science into a competitive debate is fundamentally misunderstanding and doing a disservice to science. This is how we end up with the fiascos of climate change and vaccinations.
3) The vast majority of audiences don’t want to go to a show whose fundamental purpose is about teaching them about science. Most people don’t enjoy science. Sure, they like entertaining shows that touch on scientific themes, but actual scientific research is boring.
4) Science and research is a very introverted activity. Therefore, shows about these topics have to find artificial ways to make it interesting. Of course, this is the nature of theater, but it also fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the scientific process. Also, most scientists are quite introverted and this can make public presentations by scientists boring.
5) Almost all scientific based shows seem to have this eureka moments of discovery. “Oh my goodness, I just cured polio!” Great theater, but it misrepresents how almost all actual science works.

All that being said, the scientific shows that seem to get produced the most and are the most successful are generally biographical in nature. The scientific themes are not driving the plot and it is still a character based show. Often these shows fall into the trap of having big arguments and conflict around scientific concepts and eureka moments of discovery, but it is still entertaining.

Most people with a decent science education have long ago learned to disregard all science in movies and television so that they can still enjoy the story. The science in entertainment is always junk. I realize that this is the basic point of your blog post- that it doesn’t have to be junk. But, as any decent writer will tell you, the reality of the situation is driven by the emotional life of the characters, not the external physics or processes of the environment. This is why I, personally, preferred the absolute scientific unreality of Snowpiercer, to the almost reality of Apes. I kept questioning the science in Apes, like why people all congregated in the fort and how their power worked, whereas in Snowpiercer I could just accept that the physics served the story and the characters.

Finally, I think the real market for science based theater is educational theater for elementary and middle school. Parents and some schools are willing to pay for theater if they think their kids will learn something. Much more so than they are willing to pay to go see science based theater themselves. Also, the basic science at these levels is much more exciting and the joy of discovery more immediate.

Good luck with your endeavor. I think it is a worthwhile cause, but I also think it can be very hard to do science theater well.

I don’t think Casey has put the bullet through the head of science theater, but he’s certainly identified a lot of the problems with it. His first point, about actors not knowing what they’re saying … yes. I’ve seen that. But I’ve also seen Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It’s not inevitable. One thing I’d like to see happen in Boston would be for actors to know where to go to research science-heavy roles, and for local scientists to open themselves up to be “shadowed” by actors looking to learn.

His points about the tension between science and story are harder to reconcile. One of the reasons I chose to study narrative in grad school was because of my increasing realization that the human mind puts events in story form–it just does–but reality is under no obligation to conform to narrative constraints. We see stories even when they aren’t there. Show people a bunch of shapes moving randomly around a screen and ask them to narrate, and you’ll get a story–”The big circle is chasing the little triangle so it’s hiding with the squares …” And we have culturally conditioned expectations of what a “good” story is. And that high-conflict, big-moment, dramatized “good” story, as Casey rightly points out, is often very untrue to the science of the thing.

Does it have to be? That’s the question. Must story always traduce science? This is what Central Square Theater’s “Emilie” is about.

And if you can tell a story about whether “storifying” is a problem in science, then obviously stories aren’t all bad. But are we making a mistake to get the concept of “science theater” all hung up on stories anyway? Maybe stories aren’t the way to do science theater. Casey is right that tales of great discoveries that are realized to be such in the moment, and scientists with bigger-than-life personalities, and vivid yet comprehensible-to-the-layperson arguments are thin on the ground in real science.

But both science and theater operate under the rubric of demonstration. Scientists have to show their results. They set the stage for a thing to happen, and watch to see if that thing does happen, and try their best to make it happen in a way that will convince everyone else that they, too, saw the same thing, and it means what the scientists said it meant. If that’s not show business, I don’t know what is. There has to be something in that.

Sunday column: Never Mind That, Go See This Play Edition

September 28th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a scorcher–I don’t often come down hard on Letter Writers, even when they’re wrong, but I did on this one. You just don’t argue a teenager into taking less money than she thinks is fair to babysit your kid for a whole day. That’s just wrong:

But I’m not fussed that you didn’t know the current market rates. What I am fussed by is that you verbally bullied a teenager into giving up an entire Saturday for an amount of money that she clearly felt wasn’t worth it. Oh yes you did. Don’t you play all innocent with me. When an adult dumps a whole load of facts over a kid’s head like a verbal ice bucket challenge, that’s bullying?—?the polite, civilized kind that leaves the victim feeling like the bad guy. Have you read any of the studies about how women don’t negotiate their salaries as aggressively as men do? The next time you’re sitting down over the latte and cronut that you bought with the $16 you saved by haggling a teenager down to minimum wage, you might want to catch up on that literature. And ask yourself where, exactly, young women get the notion that their labor isn’t worth much and that assertiveness doesn’t pay off. And ask yourself if that’s the world you want your daughter to grow up in.

I’m glad people are still talking about the ice bucket challenge. That’s the problem with writing a hip, “now” advice column that has a four-week-advance deadline–I do sometimes throw in pop-culture references and hope that we’re still doing that thing, or no one has found out anything horrible about that instant celebrity, in three more weeks when the column runs.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s freaking gorgeous production of “Comedy of Errors,” which we saw last night (and which also illustrates the character-eroding dangers of treating one’s household help poorly). Director David Gammons conceived the play as the production of a small number of off-hours circus sideshow performers–sisters Ariana and Luciana, for example, are played by a pair of “conjoined twins,” Sarah Newhouse and Richard Snee. (Yes, Richard. Because it’s a madhouse circus!) It’s hilariously funny–there is usually more going on onstage than you can fully take in–and surprisingly moving. Mostly, though, it’s breathtakingly inventive and fun to watch–the showbiz hilarity of “30 Rock” with the creepy vibe of Tom Waits and Amanda Palmer layered over it.

If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before because you thought it would be boring, or that you wouldn’t understand the language–go see this one. The actors are all playing characters who also think that about Shakespeare, see! So it’s all extremely clear and vividly illustrated.

Basically, with this production, ASP just did for Shakespeare what Joss Whedon did for horror movies in “Cabin in the Woods.”

I’m going to shut up about it now and leave you with a picture and a link to the tickets page.


Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

Dramatic readings from science reports, and other events

September 26th, 2014

So many science events! Tonight, Mr. Improbable will be doing “Improbable Dramatic Readings — brief public readings from bizarre — yet genuine — scientific studies” at 7pm at Porter Square Books. Per Mr. I:

The studies — which we will treat as if they are dramatic literature written for actors to perform — are things I wrote about in my new book This Is Improbable Too.

The guest readers are:
Robin Abrahams (“Miss Conduct” columnist, and assistant opera director at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony)
Jean Berko Gleason (Boston University Professor Emerita of Psychology, creator of the Wug Test, and deliverer of the “Welcome, Welcome” speech at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony)
Gary (pork-up-his-nose) Dryfoos (Majordomo at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and new Internet celebrity and press darling because of his photogenic demonstration, at the recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, of how and why doctors stuffed cured pork up a patient’s nose)

We did a similar event at Harvard Bookstore earlier this month, with Harvard physics professor Melissa Franklin, BU prof Corky White, and Emperor of Ice Cream Gus Rancatore–and me–as guest readers. Here’s the WGBH film of the event!

The outstanding science playEmilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight” continues at Central Square Theater this weekend through October 5.

On Monday I’m going to an afternoon lecture on “Science/Fiction: Dramatic Arts as a Medium for Translating Science” by Benjamin Morris, a member of the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT. This talk is part of the Science, Technology and Society series at Harvard, also featuring a lecture on “Ecologies of Paradox: A Typology of Scientific Surprise in the Anthropocene” later next month. I can’t wait to go to that one.

Next weekend, MIT presents Hacking Arts 2014:

“In a world… that increasingly values sensory experiences over physical things, interactions between the arts and technology are producing more moving, interactive, personal and immersive experiences than ever before. To extend these capabilities and inspire new advances in the creative industries, we present… Hacking Arts”

This looks fantastic–dig this crazy schedule for Saturday, featuring all kinds of lectures and live performers–but it’s Yom Kippur, dammit. But you, you should go ahead and go. I’ll stay here and atone. In the dark.

Coming up–

Tickets to BAHFest, the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, are on sale and selling quickly, so get yours now! BAHFest, coming to Boston on October 19, is one of the best nights of science comedy I’ve seen. I’ll be seeing it again this year, as a judge, onstage, so come say hello afterward.

Finally, the Cambridge Science Festival is accepting submissions for its 2015 Festival, running April 17-26. Proposals are due December 5:

The Cambridge Science Festival team is busy planning our 9th annual festival! Every year, awesome people, companies, labs, businesses and organizations host events and programs to celebrate science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) at the festival. Now is your chance to join us! Submit proposals for lectures, performances, activities, exhibits, tours, debates, workshops, or creative new ideas we’ve never imagined.

We look for events that offer audience appeal and technical feasibility while we also consider site availability and funding. You are encouraged to involve community organizations in the planning and production of your events so that we can make sure as much of the community is involved in and benefits from the festival as possible. Don’t worry, the whole process is curated so that we can ensure the highest quality festival.

So, hey! Come join us!! There’s a heck of a lot of really cool science out there and it’s time we celebrated the good stuff!! Submit an event or contact us with questions and ideas!

Miss Conduct needs your workplace questions!

September 25th, 2014

I’m doing a special column for an upcoming issue on “Best Places to Work,” and am looking for office-etiquette or career-planning questions. You can leave them in comments or email them to missconduct@globe.com.

Autobiographical memory and H.M.

September 24th, 2014

Do women remember life events better than men?

A better question might be, do little girls get taught to remember better than boys? According to Slate, this might be the case:

Researchers are finding some preliminary evidence that women are indeed better at recalling memories, especially autobiographical ones. Girls and women tend to recall these memories faster and with more specific details, and some studies have demonstrated that these memories tend to be more accurate, too, when compared to those of boys and men. And there’s an explanation for this: It could come down to the way parents talk to their daughters, as compared to their sons, when the children are developing memory skills.

To understand this apparent gender divide in recalling memories, it helps to start with early childhood—specifically, ages 2 to 6. Whether you knew it or not, during these years, you learned how to form memories, and researchers believe this happens mostly through conversations with others, primarily our parents. These conversations teach us how to tell our own stories, essentially; when a mother asks her child for more details about something that happened that day in school, for example, she is implicitly communicating that these extra details are essential parts to the story.

And these early experiments in storytelling assist in memory-making, research shows. One recent study tracked preschool-age kids whose mothers often asked them to elaborate when telling stories; later in their lives, these kids were able to recall earlier memories than their peers whose mothers hadn’t asked for those extra details.

But the way parents tend to talk to their sons is different from the way they talk to their daughters. Mothers tend to introduce more snippets of new information in conversations with their young daughters than they do with their young sons, research has shown. And moms tend to ask more questions about girls’ emotions; with boys, on the other hand, they spend more time talking about what they should do with those feelings.

A few years ago, I was leading a post-show talkback after a production of “Yesterday Happened,” a play at Central Square Theater about Henry Molaison, better known as “H.M.” H.M. was a man born in the 1920s who suffered from severe epilepsy, and the surgery used to cure it–removal of most of his hippocampus and amygdala–also prevented him from ever forming new memories. He lived in 10-minute increments, much like the man in “Memento.” Much of what we know about how human memory works is because of experiments performed on H.M.

Anyway, one of the audience members who stayed for the talkback pointed out that H.M. seemed to have a notable lack of memories from before his surgery as well, and what was up with that?

I said that I didn’t know, but that H.M. reminded me of my father in many respects–the same generation, general ethnic background and social class, IQ and intellectual ambitions, overall temperament–and he hadn’t had a lot of specific memories, either. I pointed out the fact that memory isn’t an automatic recording of events, and that my father simply never bothered to encode a great deal about his own experiences, and you don’t remember what you don’t encode. He was taught to value facts, observable phenomena, and social expectations–not his own personal mythology. He didn’t make a big deal about his life story and the various chapters thereof, the way people do today.

After the talkback, an older man in the audience came up to me and said I was exactly right about the psychology of men of his generation and station in life.

There’s a new play about H.M. in town, if I’ve managed to pique your curiosity! The guy was important–they never write science plays about the subjects of experiments, for heaven’s sake, and H.M. has been the star of two, now! The new one is “The Forgetting Curve,” by Vanda, a Bridge Rep production playing at the Boston Center for the Arts. This weekend they’ve got some great memory experts to lead post-show conversations:

Wednesday, 9/24 – Dr. Howard Eichenbaum; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter
Thursday, 9/25 – Dr. Ayanna Thomas
Friday, 9/26 – Bob Linscott
Saturday, 9/27 – Dr. Bonnie Wong

“The Forgetting Curve” runs through this Saturday. Check it out!

“Cartoon dramas,” political & personal

September 23rd, 2014

The Globe published a good op-ed this weekend by Meta Wagner, a writing instructor at Emerson, about “cartoon dramas”:

But, now there’s a new, popular TV genre that somehow pulls me in while preventing me from becoming fully invested. I’ve come to think of it as the cartoon drama.

With cartoon dramas, the people, the storylines, and the situations are so unreal — or perhaps hyper-real — as to be laughable, which perfectly befits cartoons but not traditional dramas. These shows (their precursor is “24”) take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion. It’s television for an age where we’re concerned and terrified yet simultaneously suffering from compassion fatigue: the age of ISIS, ISIL, the beheadings of two American journalists, war in Syria, a do-nothing Congress, the militarization of our police forces, the Ebola virus, etc.

And so viewers not only turn to sitcoms and reality TV to escape, we also turn to cartoon dramas to confront the ugliness of current events, but in a way that can leave us ultimately untouched. Murder, torture, corruption — none of it sticks.

She identifies “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” as three of the biggest offenders, or perhaps I should say “delighters.” Ever since Bertolt Brecht, we’ve known that while drama inherently draws people in, there are also techniques it can use to push an audience away–not in the sense of disengaging, exactly, but in the sense of making people aware, suddenly or stubbornly, that they are watching a piece of staged entertainment. Brecht called it the “alienation effect.” If you’ve ever seen a show where you can see all the ropes and pulleys backstage, or where the stagehands move the furniture around in plain sight, not trying to be unobtrusive–that’s a little Brechtianism, right there.

Television can’t simply show you the wires and hired help, like theater can, but it has other ways of reminding the audience that this is just a show. (Besides the most obvious one, commercials–which to this day no one has employed to better Brechtian effect than Alfred Hitchcock in 1950s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program.) Television can get the alienation effect by being over-the-top, or self-referential, or–and no stage director would dare try this–simply not very good.

I wrote a similar analysis to Ms. Wagner’s about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which I still consider, pace “Scandal,” to be the finest exemplar of the genre.

An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called “epic theater.” It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today.

“L&O: SVU” achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good.

Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them–those are often very good indeed.

In the episode “Disabled,” for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed–even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out.

After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. “I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister.”

YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in “The Good Woman of Szechuan.”

This is how “L&O: SVU” works. It doesn’t distance the viewer with theatrical “breaking the fourth wall” tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the “Duh” response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing.

Whether the fears are international terrorist threats or the psychopath next door, “cartoon drama” helps you put them in a box and cope. You can read the whole thing here.

Story Collider at Oberon tonight (and my own science story)

September 23rd, 2014

Story Collider has a show at the Oberon tonight at 8pm, on the theme of “Survival of the Species.” Story Collider is one of those “paratheatrical science events” I’ve talked about, and it’s a good one. From their website:

Science surrounds us. Even when we don’t notice it, science touches almost every part of our lives. At the Story Collider, we believe that everyone has a story about science—a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We find those stories and share them in live shows and on our podcast. Sometimes, it’s even funny.

Tickets to tonight’s show are only $12–$10 for standing room–and you can drink, and meet interesting people, and walk around Harvard Square before or afterward. What are you waiting for?

I did a Story Collider last year, and I hope it was funny. It was about two baby rabbits that I raised as a child, and what I learned from them. Here’s the podcast–it’s about nine minutes long. The theme of the show I was in was “It Takes Guts.”

And a transcript:

Nine years old, and the next-door neighbor comes over with a big cardboard box. In the box, hasty handfuls of freshly mown grass. In the grass, two baby rabbits, the size of mice.

Do I want them, he says. He found them in his lawn, and picked them up before he thought twice, and now feared the mother would reject them. Did I want to try my hand at raising them.

Do you not understand that I am a nine-year-old girl? Some part of me wondered, as the rest of me shrieked agreement in a pitch so high a dog began barking across the street. Of course I want the bunnies!

My mother was ready to sue the guy. A Depression-era baby from Queens, she was like some deeply religious primitive who looks at animals with no grasp of their differences in locomotion or dietary requirements, only of their ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness. There were the horses in Central Park, which were Nice, and there were all other animals, which were Not Nice. Intellectually, she was capable of recognizing differences in species, but emotionally, every animal was either Horse or a Cockroach to her.

She was furious at the notion of Not Nice animals in her clean house, but the love of a nine-year-old-girl for small baby animals is a love that burns too bright to be denied. So she got her revenge another way, by explaining in graphic detail exactly why our neighbor had picked them up in the first place, and the connection between the unusually small size of the litter and the presence of that freshly mown grass in their box. The horror! Oh, the rabbinity!

Guts.

Which, on the metaphorical level, one of my little rabbits had to a far greater extent than the other. And this was where a psychologist was born. I would put my hand in the box—one would crawl in and explore, the other would race in panicky circles. One was tame and calm, the fat bunny Buddha of his cardboard world, happy to be petted, to eat bits of apple right off my fingertips. The other one treated me like I was a war criminal. My footsteps signaled terror. The day I took the box to a vacant lot and tipped it over, one dashed for cover—the other lingered, unwilling to leave.

Two rabbits. The same litter. The same rabbit upbringing, disrupted by the same nightmarish slaughter, the same miraculous rescue. And they were so tiny! Their little brains smaller than pencil erasers.

Somehow everything I had ever noticed about how the same song could make one person happy and another person sad, or how the kids in the Oklahoma school were nice to me but when we moved to Kansas I got bullied, or how Sunday School teachers could sometimes draw opposite conclusions from the same Bible story, crystallized around those rabbits and their impossible, irreducible difference.

Two years later, I read Watership Down, Richard Adams’ saga of a band of brave, bonny, British bunnies escaping existential threat for a better life. I cried for a week. (My mother was like, “Honey, it’s just a book. About cockroaches.”) I took to imagining the adventures my own foster rabbits’ adventure in Watership Down style, and it occurred to me that if those rabbits could tell their own stories, what very different versions they’d tell. Were their happy early days the source of a sustaining faith, or a childish illusion to be ripped away? Were the mysterious giants benevolent rescuers or only more subtle tormentors? Did the tipping over of that box into that field represent long-dreamed-of freedom, or expulsion into a savage and chaotic wilderness?

Personality is story. The story of a glass half empty or half full, if nothing else.

A friend of mine is a developmental biologist who works with all kinds of small lab-able animals, from mice to fruit flies. I asked her once how simple an organism could be and still have anything akin to personality.

She said she had worked with flatworms that can do one of two things with their lives: plank on the bottom of the beaker, or hug themselves against the side of the beaker. This is the big existential choice you face as a flatworm; being a career counselor for flatworms gets boring fast. Cut a flatworm in half, each half will regenerate into a whole, equally traumatized flatworm, identical to the original. And frequently, one half will be a side-hugger, the other, a bottom-planker. Planaria personality! Flatworm flair!

We once thought that humans were the only animals who used tools. No. Who made tools. Not that either. Who possessed language, an artistic instinct, morality—one by one, we are nudged from our exclusive pedestals. But still, still, we are the only species that tells stories. Homo narrativus. Who express that willful nubbin of self we call “personality” through planking plot, side-hugging symbolism. Tell me your stories, and I’ll tell you who you are.

My own stories have always been those of wanderers, of the ones born in the wrong place who must seek a new home. And the day came that like Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver from Watership Down, I too began to sense that the place where I lived (Missouri) threatened my well-being. So like those brave and bonny bunnies, I too set out for a better place: Boston. Where I would become a psychologist who studied the science of stories. And that is my story of science.

Sunday column: Being the grownup

September 21st, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions have a similar theme–knowing when you’re the grownup, the person in charge, the buckstopper. Knowing when it’s on you to set the tone. In the first question, two young couples seem to have developed a pattern where the slightly older couple plays host more often, and more comprehensively, than they would like. They need to back off and create some space for their younger friends to step up:

From the gentle condescension of your description (“only boyfriend and girlfriend,” and so on) it sounds as though your differences, though minor, have created a psychological rift, with you and your wife building your fortress as the wise, established couple on one side and your friends as the junior proteges who goof and frolic and provide occasional comic relief on the other. It’s entirely possible that all four of you are a bit tired of that dynamic. Moving to a more equal footing doesn’t require some dreadfully awkward Relationship Talk, fortunately. But if you and the missus want your friends to unlearn the habit of relying on you to provide space, food, and labor, then you will need to learn the habit of asking them to pitch in.

The second question was one of those Rorschach questions: “Should my son’s girlfriend who’s in town call me or should I call her?” Quick, what’s your impression of the Letter Writer? How do you envision the girlfriend? There, that just told you more about yourself than a dozen “Which Great House in Westeros Would You Belong to?” quizzes. I answered it as objectively as I could, but I’m sure my own unconscious biases came into play.

“Emilie” and the theater of science

September 19th, 2014

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” at Central Square Theater gets at the heart of the science/theater conundrum better than any play I’ve seen so far.

I was on the board of Underground Railway Theatre (one of the two companies operating out of Central Square Theater) and we struggled, sometimes, with what a play about science is, and what audiences are expecting and will accept. “Emilie”–sorry, that full title is a freaking albatross and I don’t know what the playwright or her initial producers were thinking–is in many ways a classic “science play,” that is, the biography of a particular scientist. In this case, Emilie du Chatelet, a French mathematician and physicist who was the mistress of Voltaire, among others. Emilie was one of life’s great winners, an energetic woman whose social rank allowed her a vast amount of privilege and the ability to spend her time as she would.


“Having it all,” Enlightenment style. (Lee Mikeska Gardner and Steven Barkhimer. Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography)

What excited me about the play, though, was the underlying theme of the relationship–the correct relationship–between science and theater. Emilie is a scientist, and her lover Voltaire a playwright, and theater and hard science are frequently compared by her, during their arguments, to the disadvantage of theater. Science is about finding out the truth, Emilie implies, while drama is about creating what you want to see. Playwrights invent, actors lie, but scientists discover.

Except scientists have to do more than discover, don’t they?

Scientists demonstrate.

Without the demonstration, no one else can understand the discovery. If no one else understands the discovery, it doesn’t become part of the canon. If it doesn’t become part of the canon, it doesn’t help guide other people’s discoveries.

Discovery without demonstration is a solo epiphany.

Discovery with demonstration is science.

Science needs theater.

If “Emilie” has anything as simple as a moral, it is that uncovered truth must be transmitted–demonstrated–to other people in order to reach its full worth. Emilie comes to realize that drama and science, like love and philosophy, are not opposed, but are necessary complements.

We put on the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony the day after I saw “Emilie,” and that is all about the theater of science, although our demonstrations of prize-winning articles and inventions are usually called off at the last minute by our onstage V-Chip Monitor. This year, the Medicine Prize went to Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork. Here is our distinguished Major Domo, Gary Dryfoos, gamely stuffing bacon up his nose by way of demonstration. Science isn’t always as sexy as Emilie.


(photo: Charles Krupa, AP)

Thinky links

September 18th, 2014

The Ig Nobels (which are today! watch them online!) and my ongoing cold have kept me from reacting much, but I’ve been reading a lot great stuff!

The New York Times uses Randall Monroe’s xkcd to anchor a piece about the rise of geek/nerd culture: “[O]nce-fringe, nerd-friendly obsessions like gadgets, comic books and fire-breathing dragons are increasingly everyone’s obsessions.” UPDATE: Seven more pundits weigh in on the question “So what does it mean when geek culture becomes mainstream?” as a Room for Debate feature.

The NYT also summarizes recent research on how reading Harry Potter can affect young people’s political opinions.

There’s been a lot of good writing about science fiction and politics this week. The phrase “science theater” or “science entertainment” makes people think of stories about the hard sciences, but there’s a lot of implicit sociology and psychology in all stories, and it’s best to get it right.

i09 has a simply brilliant piece about how real-life revolutions work, and how history shows up the overly simplistic dystopias so popular at the moment.

Slate takes on a similar theme–the lack of any kind of real political backstory or worldbuilding in much science fiction. “”Like Snowpiercer, these stories of unchecked economic inequality aren’t finally sure if they want to be taken literally or figuratively. More often than not, they split the difference.

Another article in the same Slate series urges writers to envision better utopias.

This year’s Ig Nobel opera features a microbe chorus–and me, as assistant director pressed into service at the last minute. Thus attuned to microbes in the public eye, I was delighted by this 6 1/2 minute animation celebrating “invisible life,” and the Dutchman who first discovered it. Meanwhile, the Globe gently demolishes a much-quoted microbial statistic, and ponders its staying power:

Ten parts microbe and one part man vividly captures our imagination. Even if the estimate is off, it is innocuous—certainly it has no obvious negative consequences, nor is it a result of outright deception in the sciences, as in the case of debunked research connecting vaccines and autism. Perhaps the crude estimate endures because it serves the practical purpose of astonishing those who hear it, in the same way that bogus Martian canals inspired a greater curiosity about the solar system, or the myth that all humans only access 10 percent of their brains might foster a greater appreciation for neuroscience.

Finally, tickets have been selling fast for BAHFest–the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses–so get yours now! BAHFest is a contest for the most ingenious and hilarious evolutionary explanations for … well, pretty much anything. I was a judge last year and will be again.

They’ve gotten a fair amount of publicity in the past week for last year’s winner, who hypothesized that paleolithic warriors wore babies into battle. (The crying provides an adrenaline boost.) Here’s the winning presentation.

And, yeah, at least one person has taken it seriously. Oy. I do really enjoy BAHFest, but doing satire these days is a dangerous thing.

Recent notes (what I’ve read & seen)

September 16th, 2014

My most recent culture-vulturing:

Closer Than Ever” at New Rep. “Songs by Maltby & Shire” translates to “ballads for the middle-aged and middle-class,” but the sometimes dated numbers are given heartfelt and witty treatment by this excellent cast. A cast which includes … Science-Entertainment Quotient: Surprisingly high for a musical! Local actor Brian Richard Robinson, one of the two men in the four-person cast, “is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, and currently works at a Cambridge-based biotechnology company.” (I tried to talk to Dr. Robinson at the opening-night reception but he was busy being asked how he remembers all those lines, so I made myself scarce.) Also, one of the numbers–”The Bear, the Hamster, the Hamster, and the Mole,” about the advantages of reproduction without romance, was staged as a TED talk.


Photo by Andrew Brilliant

Ravenous.” Ain’t no party like a Donner party, ’cause a Donner party don’t stop. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle are cannibals in the old West–one unwilling, one gleefully triumphant. More satirical than graphic, although definitely very creepy. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Idiosyncratic. The Ig Nobel opera this year, “What’s Eating You?” is all about the food chain and, on some level, the idea that wisdom resides in accepting the fact that we must all eat and be eaten. I watched “Ravenous” after our rehearsal last weekend and found it relevant and inspiring … but clearly, this was me.

The Secret Place by Tana French. The hothouse atmosphere of an elite girls’ school and the 24-hour timeline (with flashbacks, of course), combine to make a claustrophobic psychological mystery. The portrayal of how young women police themselves and each other was especially compelling. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Nugatory, thanks to a credulous portrayal of teenage telekinesis which adds nothing to the plot or characterization.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I’d last been there when I was eight, and yes, it was just as impressive to me today. And surprisingly redemptive. Like a lot of us, I’ve been reading and watching and thinking too much, much too much, lately, about humanity at its worst. The Smithsonians remind you of humanity at its best: curious, questing, ingenious. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Off the charts! The Hall of Human Origins was my favorite. Look at these gorgeous reconstructed faces of early humans!


Does the top right one look like Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland” to anyone else?

Sunday column: Medical TMI edition

September 14th, 2014

Today’s column deals with medical TMI, or at least the Letter Writer’s perception of same. Medical TMI is definitely a thing–if you haven’t experienced it yet, kids, just wait until you, and more importantly your friends, are 40!–but one of the LW’s examples was a perfectly professional note from his veterinarian letting her clients know that she was undergoing cancer treatment, and the other two were passing strangers, and there is not much to be done about the discourse of passing strangers. By this guy’s rubric, I’m subjected to “sports TMI” every time I get on the T.

My own medical TMI is that I have some digestive problems that can occasionally make it hard for me to eat, and very, very easy for me to lose my appetite. So you’d best not be telling me details of your surgery over dinner. One of my good friends is a biologist and I don’t even let her talk about her job when we’re eating. (Gossip of grants and grad students is fine, but no details on the actual experiments, please.) But you can ask friends to indulge you.

I’m also coming down with a bit of a cold today, which I attribute to the weather change and the September Ingathering of thousands and thousands of new students and their germs. I get one this time every year. Since many of you probably do, as well, here’s the section of my book that deals with cold etiquette* for the office:

Take visible precautions. When you’ve got a cold, take every precaution to avoid passing it on, and take these precautions somewhat ostentatiously, so that people know you’re looking out for them. Put on a little “security theater”: you want not only to spare people from getting your cold, you want to spare them the worry that they are going to get your cold. So wash your hands longer and more thoroughly in the bathroom than you normally do. Don’t leave used tissues on your desk, even if you used them only to wipe up a bit of spilled tea. Carry a small bottle of Purell with you and disinfect shared office equipment after handling it. Spray your phone with Lysol and keep the can out where others can see it. Don’t partake of shared food or ask to borrow anyone’s stapler. Toll a bell before you as you approach the cubicles of the untainted and scatter ashes on your head. (Well, perhaps not that.) And don’t ever feel embarrassed saying, “I have a cold, so I can’t shake hands” when introduced to someone. This is a courtesy that people truly appreciate. The warmest, most sincere hug in the world doesn’t convey quite as much care and consideration for others as refusing to touch them when you’re germy.
Apologize in advance. If your cold is noisy—or if you have hay fever—send around an e-mail to your colleagues letting them know that you appreciate their patience until the hacking and schnortling subsides. People are generally willing to be awfully patient and good-natured as long as they feel they’re being recognized for being patient and good-natured, and that whoever is inconveniencing them knows that they are being inconvenienced.
Provide a bit of information—as much as you feel is necessary and are comfortable with. Even when your illness or injury doesn’t affect others, it’s still a good idea to let people know what’s going on if you are visibly or audibly sick or injured. You don’t have to give everyone the full rundown of every highlight of the camping trip that left you with that nasty case of poison ivy, and exactly how much of your body it’s covering, and what exactly you were doing with that cute wilderness guide that led you to get it there. A simple, “Do I look disgusting or what? At least the next time I go on a wilderness excursion I’ll know how to identify poison ivy!” sufficiently acknowledges the scabby, oozing elephant in the room and makes others feel more comfortable.
It’s not as though coworkers or other PTA members aren’t noticing your rash or cast, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Take control of your own information and set yourself, and everyone else, at ease. (This benefits you, too. People are staring when you’re not looking and gossiping when you’re not listening, but they’ll do so less if you acknowledge whatever’s wrong.) This is especially important for women who are injured in such a way that it looks as though they might have been the victims of domestic violence. It can be very upsetting for coworkers or casual acquaintances to fear for your safety and well-being and not know if they should stage some sort of intervention.

*Etiquette for when you have a cold, not, like, Yankee as opposed to Southern etiquette.

So, my husband wrote a book

September 11th, 2014

Mr. Improbable, aka Marc Abrahams, has not one but two bouncing baby books to brag about–This Is Improbable, Too, a collection of Marc’s essays and columns from the Guardian (exploring such questions as why it is so impossible to estimate the number of stupid people in circulation and who is the Einstein of pork carcasses), and The Ig Nobel Prize Cookbook, a “science humor cookbook filled with delicious and other recipes invented, inherited, devised, and/or improvised by winners of the Ig Nobel Prize, Nobel laureates, and organizers of the Ig Nobel Ceremony.”

Speaking of the Ig Nobel Prizes, they’re next Thursday, and sold out, but you can watch them online. Here’s a promo!

You can also join us at the Informal Lectures on Saturday, September 20 at 1pm at MIT Building 26, room 100. Come early, it’s free and always jammed. (If you like strange science and/or strange people, the Informal Lectures are even more fun than the ceremony proper, since the speakers get five whole minutes to explain what they did, and audience members can ask them questions.)

And because that’s not enough, he’s also doing a talk at TEDMED in Washington, D.C., this week. I’m joining him there, so posting may be light for the rest of the week.

If you were a meat puppet, could anyone tell?

September 9th, 2014

If an alien took over your body and controlled your speech and actions, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

That’s not exactly the research question that “cyranoids” are designed to answer, but they could. Neuroskeptic reports that a couple of British psychologists, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, have replicated two “cyranoid” experiments originally done by Stanley Milgram, of obedience-experiment fame.

“Cyranoid” was Milgram’s coinage–from Cyrano de Bergerac–for a person who is not speaking for or as themselves, but merely repeating words that another person is giving them. Cyrano had to hide in bushes and whisper loudly enough to be heard by Christian–and the audience–but quietly enough to be unnoticed by the fortunately rather dim Roxanne. This is all much easier with modern technology, and Corti & Gillespie were able to set up a microphone-and-monitor system that allowed Person #3 (Cyrano) to listen in on a conversation between Persons #1 and #2 (Roxanne and Christian) and feed “lines,” appropriate or inappropriate, to Christian.


Different aesthetic, same idea.

People didn’t notice, not even when Christian was a 12-year-old boy with his conversation being supplied by a 37-year-old psychologist as Cyrano. Maybe Roxanne wasn’t so dim after all.

Neuroskeptic calls this “Milgram’s creepiest experiment” and writes

If I started shadowing someone else’s speech, would my friends and family notice? I would like to think so. Most of us would like to think so. But how easy would it be? Do we really listen to each others’ words, after all, or do we just assume that because person X is speaking, they must be saying the kind of thing that person X likes to say? We’re getting into some uncomfortable territory here.

I’m not sure that much surprise is warranted, although I envy Neuroskeptic’s easy confidence that his loved ones are truly listening to him. We know people often attend more to the form than the content of other people’s speech–this is why Miss Conduct often recommends giving “placebic excuses” when ruffled feathers need to be soothed. And there’s a whole series of experiments showing that people don’t notice change in their environment. (I don’t mean “How could you not notice I changed the shelf liners, honey,” either–I mean like you’re talking to a whole ‘nother person than you started talking to, and you still don’t notice.)

More to the point, though, people aren’t going to twig to a cyranoid because cyranoids don’t exist. As Corti & Gillespie write,

It seems that when encountering an interlocutor face-to-face, people rarely question whether the “mind” and the “body” of a person are indeed unified–and for good reason, as social interaction would be undermined if we began to doubt whether each person we encountered was indeed the true author of the words they expressed.

The authors point out that people do often notice identity discrepancies “in artificial environments (e.g., Second Life and other virtual community games) wherein users can construct outer personae which starkly contrast with their real-world identities.” You don’t even need to go into immersive environments–even the comment threads on opinion blogs will tend to feature people accusing others of not really being a member of whatever group they’re attempting to speak for, or of adopting a sock-puppet identity, or the like. When we know that people’s words and being need not match up, we can be quite vigilant about clues.

I always figured that’s how Starfleet crew members managed to cotton on so quickly whenever their colleagues got possessed by the Aliens of the Week. Deanna Troi learned all the Signs of Alien Possession to watch out for when she was in psychology school, just like nowadays you learn the signs of addiction or suicide risk. I don’t even want to think how long it would take me to notice if my boss got assimilated by the Borg.

Corti & Gillespie write that people have always been fascinated by the idea of persons speaking through other persons, or different identities in the same body:

This well-known story [of Cyrano de Bergerac] is but one of the many examples of a fantasy that has appeared in the arts and mythology throughout history–that of the fusion of separate bodies and minds. Other illustrations include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in part the tale of a fraudster who is able to attain great power by presenting himself to the world through an intimidating artificial visage. The film Big entertains the folly that ensues when an adolescent boy awakens to find himself in the body of a middle-aged man. More recently, films such as Avatar and Surrogates have imagined hypothetical futures in which mind can be operationally detached from body, allowing individuals to operate outer personae constructed to suit their social goals. Fiction though they may be, these stories illuminate the power façade has over how we are perceived by ourselves and by others, and how we and others in turn behave in accordance with these perceptions.

Sunday column: Microbe Choir edition

September 7th, 2014

Today’s column is online here and oy! This month! September, December, and June are simply ridiculous months with far too much going on during them. You really notice this kind of thing as a social-advice columnist. (January and February, however, are dead, and therefore the most brilliant months in which to throw a party. No one has any social plans, and people aren’t traveling then, either.)

In addition to the usual back-to-school, high holidays, can-we-all-just-admit-September-is-the-real-New-Years madness, we’ve got the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony coming up week after next. I got drafted into the role of assistant to the opera director over the weekend, which was … unexpected, to say the least, but I could hardly say no. Even if it weren’t my husband who needed me, how could I turn down an opportunity to assistant-direct a science opera? After only a week of blogging about science theater? Most people would be delighted if their blogs paid off like that, I expect.

(This is all going to circle around to today’s column. Be patient.)

The opera this year is about two eccentric billionaires who decide to live on only vitamin supplements, no food–and their gut bacteria, the Microbe Chorus. I was in charge of the Microbe Chorus.

How would you go about directing a Microbe Chorus? How should they move? What kinds of emotions do they have? What do they do when they’re not singing? What motivates them?

This is what I am spending my weekend contemplating.

Today’s column dealt with two fairly straightforward, common problems in modern social life–whether or not to keep another person’s secret, and how to show gratitude to someone without being crassly quid-pro-quo about it. On the first question, I wrote “It’s a complicated business, the ethics of keeping other people’s secrets (or not). Some professions have ironclad rules: Teachers must report evidence of abuse, priests cannot reveal anything said in the confessional. Everyone knows the rules.”

There are so many ways that a given society or culture can solve the problems of secret-keeping, or thanks-giving, or the proper relations of host and guest, or which side of the road to drive on. Social life is so much easier when everyone agrees on these things. Even if the solution is unfair–hosts must give up everything to their guests, say, and cater to their every whim–at least everyone knows what to expect. 21st-century America is a challenging place to live–and a great place to start a career as an advice columnist–because we are so complicated and diverse a nation that we no longer have these shared agreements. Which means, first, that people have to figure things out on their own, and second, that it’s increasingly difficult to interpret other people’s behavior. Your friend ignored your birthday–is this a slight, or do they simply not care for birthdays? Does the new transfer in Accounts like you like you, or is that just Midwestern friendliness confusing your Boston heart?

Most of us, if asked, would prefer to live in a diverse, individualistic culture that allowed a lot of leeway in behavior. But there will always be something attractive about the idea of societies in which everyone has a role, in which proper behavior is codified, not improvised, in which you can communicate volumes of respect or love or disdain by the way you tip your hat or what kind of flower you bring.

Microbes, I decided, have that kind of culture.

The Microbe Choir will move as one. They will not notice each other, because they are all parts of a whole–I don’t carry on a private conversation with my own hand, now, do I. Their movements are repetitive and their motivation is simple and profound: to love and ultimately consume their human hosts.

The Microbe Choir is a deeply religious thing.

I don’t know if that’s how every director would have seen them. I don’t know if that’s how I myself would see them if I hadn’t been thrown into the project more than two weeks before showtime. Sometimes you can explore with your actors and do all kinds of imagination and improv work to discover what a character is really, truly about. And sometimes, like I’ll be doing in an hour, you say, “This is the emotion your character is feeling, so put it on your face.”

The Microbe Choir is the opposite of a Miss Conduct letter writer. The Microbe Choir never doubts itself. It is not modern. It does not question. It has no ulterior motive. It has no need to make a good impression. It loves in purity and consumes what it loves.

Time to top off the iced coffee and head to the Science Center for rehearsal.