Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen
by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Princeton University Press, 2006

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema
by Christopher Frayling
Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press, 2005

ACTOR: Darling, suppose there are only finitely many prime numbers. Multiply them all together and add one. The resulting number must be a prime, but it can't be on the original list. A contradiction, so--

EUCLID'S GHOST: No! The resulting number is either prime, or it has a prime factor, which--

PLAYWRIGHT: Oh, that line didn't work. We cut it.

EUCLID'S GHOST: If students get it wrong, they fail. How can you--

PLAYWRIGHT: We're not students!

EUCLID'S GHOST: Okay (exiting), it's only show business, it's not worth arguing.

ACTOR: I could do my nutty professor act. "Either it's prime or--aha!--"

PLAYWRIGHT: No, we'll cut that scene. We'll go straight to the revolutionary Reality Show. The audience will vote on who's the fittest, like Darwin. That makes them like the observers in quantum theory, creating parallel worlds--non-Euclidean parallels--

REVIEWER (entering): That dialogue is enough to illustrate some dangers in dramatizing science. The book Science on Stage, by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, is a comprehensive survey championing this genre but raising many serious questions. Such plays aren't trying to teach science, but are they doing a service by engaging audiences? Or are they exploiting science to advance an art form? By citing scientific terms, drama may suggest a claim to scientific accuracy and power, while in fact only using those terms impressionistically.

PLAYWRIGHT: But there are so many deeper elements to the artistry: for instance, in contriving textual structure and dramatic form to illustrate content. That transcends mere facts.

REVIEWER: You wouldn't like it if I got the facts wrong about your play. Even in truly thoughtful productions like Stoppard's Arcadia, or Frayn's Copenhagen, the criterion of "working" dramatically is irrelevant to the exact scientific concepts involved. So is the pleasure of playing with form and content. After all, advertising can likewise be clever, artistic and "work" successfully but yet be completely misleading.

PLAYWRIGHT: What a poor analogy! The point is that the artist must meet the challenge posed by science; that's a central problem of our culture.

REVIEWER: Is it? Maybe it just hurts male writer egos that there's material they don't understand: Is that why they perversely choose abstract subjects that can't be communicated on the stage? Shepherd-Barr draws attention to women writers dealing sensibly with well-explained biological issues.

SHEPHERD-BARR (entering): That's putting words in my mouth!

REVIEWER: That's dramatization for you! But in your favor, science plays do suggest the radical potential of science to audiences. They may be more science fiction than science, but they follow the lead of playwrights throughout history--Marlowe, Goethe, Shaw--in evoking quite new possibilities for humanity. The moral dramas arising from scientific discovery are also entirely genuine. Shepherd-Barr's book will be a valuable resource for teachers and writers relating science and human life.

PLAYWRIGHT: That's not enough. In the postmodern world, one must penetrate and criticize the language and representations of science itself; it is the new mythology of our time.

REVIEWER: You could certainly explore how science is a sort of show business. Research has beginnings, crises, resolutions, explosive consequences. Theory is theater: it is setting and symbolic process. Scientists rehearse and present ideas in public speech. But individual achievement in science is rooted in the collective, then absorbed and superseded, in a way that is quite unlike a work of art. Your format demands miraculous individualism, such as in Brenton's play The Genius, where a world-shattering bomb is invented in one "eureka" instant by a young student. If that's a metaphor for 20th-century physics, it's a very crude one.

SHEPHERD-BARR: Didn't you notice that I point out how, in Copenhagen, Frayn carefully shows that "common culture" of scientific discussion?

REVIEWER: He has a passage where various scientists are named. It doesn't show slow and careful learning, problem solving, testing and arguing logically, objectively--

SCREENWRITER (entering in a rush): Objective? You must be joking! Science is about getting your name in lights. Citation counting--worse than the Oscars!

REVIEWER: Which leads to another book: Mad, Bad and Dangerous, by Christopher Frayling, about the Scientist and the Cinema. Frayling conveys a deep love and knowledge of film, but he readily admits that his medium has produced totally ridiculous science stories. He is less concerned than Shepherd-Barr with literary theory. Instead he uses a wide historical knowledge to suggest how film can help shape events. His centerpiece is a narrative running from Metropolis to Dr. Strangelove, indicating that the power of film images affected first German rocketry and then, through the von Braun story, American space technology. In discussing the more recent era, it is harder to separate science from countless political and economic issues. But Frayling hopes that film can serve science better, eliminating "mad, bad" images, educating the public in the reality of what science does, and showing scientists as ordinary people. Frayling points approvingly to the image of the mathematician in Jurassic Park, but this raises problems: Do scientists want to look ordinary or to look cool? You might say that scientists are not ordinary, any more than serious actors or writers are.

SCREENWRITER: You might also say that scientists love acting like starlets on television news and documentaries, blogging, and self-promoting as much as anyone in movies.

PLAYWRIGHT: A synthesis of science and art! That's the future of science performance: a new third culture.

REVIEWER: But there are basic things dramatic performances don't show. Science education and career structure. Rational discussion of everyday but complex health questions. The giant databases and computational methods involved in climatology. The software and hardware that the arts themselves now depend on--

SCREENWRITER: And the global weapons industry, depending on scientific infrastructure.

REVIEWER: Both books have a center of gravity in the 1940s and in the mid-Atlantic. I wonder how their discussion looks to today's postdocs--nomadic, transnational, quite likely Asian, who barely remember the cold war. But both spotlight questions that are erased in formal papers and narrow research-group training. They are full of interest for anyone in the business of showing reality.