You may have noticed that I cheated a little in my last blog posting. I sneaked in a mention of Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven under the fiction umbrella, while it is actually a play script, surrounded by a non-fiction narrative.
On her website, the author makes a curious observation about this choice to present a play paired with a history lesson:
“Readers who prefer a strictly historical account may of course skip over the play, though I suspect some will gravitate to the script—perhaps reading only that part. “
There is a notion here that the interests of the science (history) and art community are divided. Why is that? Surely we can take pleasure in both? In fact, I think we are better for stretching ourselves in this manner. Theatre practicioners are notorious for digging deep into the history and events that are at the root of the play. They fling themselves into research with wild abandon, and are thrilled when a script is packaged with author’s notes, let alone a full comprehensive history, all laid out like a banquet of clues to the world they are to re-create. And surely any history buff enjoys the highs and lows of conflict and mystery unfolding from the scientific events. I would suspect that it is the tension of historical happenings, not the timeline of dry facts, that keeps them glued to the books.
So, why does the marriage of science and theatre feel the need to apologize for itself? Why such a bad rap? For me, the union has been nothing but a beautiful love affair.
It was theatre that first turned me on to the beauty of science. Tom Stoppard’s seminal play Arcadia introduced me to the thrilling world of fractal math and chaos theory. There is no disputing that it is one of the most successful examples of art meeting science in the realm of theatre. Thanks to this play, for the last 15 years, every time I’ve eaten hot cereal and stirred in jam or maple syrup, a quote from Arcadia comes back to me:
“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before.”
Theatre connects science to our everyday world, by hitting those emotive and thoughtful moments, large and small, and allowing them to connect. They sit within us, unknowingly. The moment we pour coffee into cream and delight in it, but don’t know why. It takes a playwright like Tom Stoppard to remind us: because it is the shape of the math that we delight in, because it is the shape of our innermost dreams and our outermost universe. Because the coffee or the pudding reminds us of a mother’s warm smile, or a lover’s kiss.
What’s not to love?
So, read Arcadia. Or better yet, see a production when it comes round to your local theatre. And then take in Galileo (or The Life of Galileo) by Bertolt Brecht. Follow it up with Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and Tokyo Atomic Klub by Makino Nozomi.
Find some more. Share them in the comments below.
And then…write your own play about science. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation can help.
I can’t wait to see it.