World's Fair

AAAS Meeting – Science in the Theatre

I was just in San Diego for the 2010 AAAS National Meeting – that’s the American Association for the Advancement of Science – the parent organization that publishes the journal Science. This year’s theme was “Bridging Science and Society”. As part of this, I organized and chaired a session called “Science in the Theatre” (although the AAAS changed “theatre” to “theater” in all the speakers’ abstracts). I invited Carl Djerassi from Stanford, Lauren Gunderson, a professional playwright, and Brian Schwartz, a physics professor at City University of New York who also runs their Science and the Arts Program, which features dozens of cross-disciplinary performances each semester.

I was quite nervous about the potential turnout, but it turned out fine – the room was mostly full most of the time. And afterwards a large number of people stayed to talk to one or another of us.

I introduced the session with some “open questions” about Science in the Theatre – questions that those of us involved in writing science plays are continuously grappling with: How much science can one put in a play and still have a good play? How didactic or pedagogical should a science play be? Do plays written by or with scientists differ from science plays written by “regular playwrights’?

First up after my intro was Carl Djerassi. Carl has written quite a few science plays that have been produced all around the world, and he spent a good deal of time talking about how the same scenes or science events in his plays get interpreted differently in different cultures: like the difference between portraying a headstrong and stubborn female labchief in US productions versus an Asian production.

Next up was Lauren Gunderson. Although not a scientist, Lauren has established a real niche with her science-based plays, which comprise a substantial portion of her work. She has plays on Einstein, on Humboldt, on Ralph Alpher, on Newton – just to name a few. Lauren discussed how she tries to balance the drama in her plays with the science – that both need to be there for her, and one shouldn’t totally overshadow the other. She also spent some time discussing how she doesn’t just try to explain a scientific fact or concept in plain English, but tries to put it into a form that is moving towards poetry in her dialogue.

The last speaker was Brian Schwartz, a physicist from the City Universty of New York who is fast becoming the Jerry Bruckheimer of performance science. He created and runs the Science and the Arts program at CUNY, which produces dozens of science-based performances each year – including plays, dance, and music, and gets audiences actively involved in discussion of the performances they see. He talked about many of the shows that he and his program have produced at CUNY – all of which are open to the public, so definitely join their email list if you are in the NY area. One take home message from his talk was: science gets all the money, but the arts get all the press – and he was using as examples the difference between the 60 billion dollar a year funding of science in the US versus the 300 million dollar a year funding of the arts, contrasted with 6 pages of science news per week in the NY Times versus a dozen page arts section every day (plus an extra one on Sunday).

Organizing one of these sections is always a toss of the dice – you never know what the attendance or response will be. I walked into more than one session at the meeting that had fewer than a dozen people in it, and more than one that was standing room only, so I was very happy that our session was well attended and gots lots of questions and response from the audience.


  1. #1 David Ng
    February 23, 2010

    Hey Vince, Sounds like a really great session. Wish I could’ve been there to listen in.

  2. #2 Lois Spangler
    February 24, 2010

    Speaking as someone who’s a playwright and has a powerful interest in science, what’s key to me is finding where theater and science meet: a sense of wonder. I always resent the misrepresentation of science on television or in the movies, because it’s a cop-out. There’s so much real science that is emotionally compelling and engaging, and surprising and wonder-invoking, that it kills me to see hand-waving at technicalities.

    One of the coolest ideas I heard of, and it might actually have been a CUNY production, was a dance piece where the dancers moved like molecules.

    All I can say is, I really wish I could have been there for the talk, and I hope this isn’t the only year you do it. Cheers!

  3. #3 DNLee
    February 24, 2010

    That sounds like a great panel. Thanks for teaching me something new.

  4. #4 Vince LiCata
    February 25, 2010

    Lois, the dance project you might have heard about (or one very similar) was initiated by John Bohanon and sponsored by AAAS and Science magazine — and our lab was one of the participants — it was incredibly fun! — you can check out all the dances at:

  5. #5 Kombi Servisi
    February 25, 2010

    There’s so much real science that is emotionally compelling and engaging, and surprising and wonder-invoking, that it kills me to see hand-waving at technicalities.
    yes definitely agree.

  6. #6 Lois Spangler
    February 26, 2010

    Vince, you totally made my day! Cheers for that.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    February 28, 2010

    Ah, you should have said Hello! I did not know you were there…. :-(

  8. #8 gucci
    March 7, 2013

    Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the good job! gucci