“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)

Some of you will think I am the COOLEST PERSON EVER

November 29th, 2010

… and some of you won’t even know what I’m talking about. But here’s a picture of me from this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, vamping a little before Evelyn Evelyn took the stage for their mini-concert. Yes, that’s Neil Gaiman on the side, there.

Whale snot and rude shoes

October 1st, 2010

The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was yesterday, and it was delightful and exhausting as ever. You can check out the winners’ list here.

It’s the most hectic day of our year, of course. And when a person is busy, and constantly checking e-mail and phone messages and juggling lots of information, a person may make a slip in reading comprehension. Which is why I got rather excited that my daily Google Alerts informed me that “rude footwear” was available in the “Miss Conduct” style. Rude shoes! Like Steve Martin’s famous “Cruel Shoes,” only not quite as directly brutal, perhaps only passive-aggressive.

Imagine my dismay when I reread the link this morning and discovered that, no, they were nude shoes.

And ugly ones at that.

The Big Bank Opera

January 11th, 2010

Every year, the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony features a mini-opera based on that year’s theme. The theme for the 2009 Prizes was “Risk,” and the opera is titled “The Big Bank Opera.” Because when you look at it closely, at least from the unique perspective of Mr. Improbable, the rise and collapse of the banking system does bear some resemblance to the creation of the universe, i.e., the Big Bang.

It is now online for your viewing and listening pleasure.

Hand sanitizing — an informal look

November 23rd, 2009

Proper hygiene is on everyone’s minds this season. I invite you to check out a new report on hand sanitizing by business professor emeritus John Trinkhaus.

John won the 2003 Ig Nobel Literature Prize for “meticulously collecting data and publishing more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him. (Such as: What percentage of young people wear baseball caps with the peak facing to the rear rather than to the front; what percentage of pedestrians wear sport shoes that are white rather than some other color; what percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end; what percentage of automobile drivers almost, but not completely, come to a stop at one particular stop-sign; what percentage of commuters carry attaché cases; what percentage of shoppers exceed the number of items permitted in a supermarket’s express checkout lane; and what percentage of students dislike the taste of Brussels sprouts.)”

Lessons from a Dan: Talking

November 3rd, 2009

And here’s another post I meant to write up from last year! Dan Ariely also came with us to the 2008 festival. Dan, along with his co-authors, won the 2008 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine. (And his book, Predictably Irrational, is a wonderful read.)

So we were at one of the parties that local folks throw for the visiting speakers and their own friends, and I mentioned to Dan, as I did here, that I tend to feel inferior to European women in terms of style. Dan suggested that this was merely the placebo effect in action: that because I knew they were European, I attributed greater panache to them than might be objectively determined. (Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize winner Brian Wansink has shown that people rate a “fine California wine” higher than a “fine Nebraska wine,” despite nothing changing but the label.) “What would you think of that woman’s dress if you saw it in America?” he asked.

Now this was a move of some rhetorical cleverness. It flattered or reassured the other person (i.e., me), invoked the awesome explanatory power of the speaker’s research, and gave the conversation somewhere to go afterward. Quite the hat trick. We can’t always speak as productively as Behavioral-Economist Dan, or listen as productively as Sword-Swallower Dan, but it’s something to aim for.

(Since it is the name of his book, I’m tempted to refer to Dan Ariely as “Predictably Irrational Dan,” but that doesn’t sufficiently distinguish him from Sword-Swallower Dan, as what could be more predictably irrational than a person who swallows a sword whenever someone asks them to? So “Behavioral-Economist Dan” it will have to be.)

Lessons from a Dan: Listening

November 3rd, 2009

This is something I meant to post about after our trip to the Genoa Science Festival last year. Alas. At any rate, this year was the third time Mr. Improbable has been to the festival, and both this year and last, our sword-swallower friend Dan Meyer has come with us to be part of the show.*

Dan, who used to be happy just speaking Danish and feeding his wallaby, is fairly good with languages. Last year, when he came down to join us, he’d taken a nine-hour train ride from one of the northern countries. And he experienced the situation we all dread being caught in: nine hours next to a loud, dysfunctional, argumentative family.

So many times we can’t change the situation that we are in, but can only control our response to it. Dan decided that since the family was Italian, and he was bound for Italy anyway, he’d take the opportunity to eavesdrop himself into linguistic competence. Whenever he could identify a discrete word, he’d look it up, make a note of it, and practice it. By the time he arrived in Genoa, he had enough of a working vocabulary to be able to acquire more. I’m sure Dan might have preferred peace and quiet on his train ride, but if the opportunity to learn some Italian was on offer, he wasn’t going to turn it down.

*Dan won the 2007 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize along with Dr. Brian Witcombe for their report, “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.”

The Shrew event

October 19th, 2009

My talk for Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Taming of the Shrew” last week was terrific fun! We’d seen the production the night before — I’ll review that, too — and it gave me an idea for a great opening.

ASP is staging the play in The Garage in Harvard Square, which they’ve done up to look like a divey bar circa early 1980s or so. It’s the first play I’ve ever seen that incorporates the senses of taste and smell — an actor passes around popcorn during intermission (warning everyone who takes some “You can’t sue us”) and Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, cooks sausages on an electric fry pan, filling the space with their savory aroma. Shakespeare in Smell-O-Vision! Only ASP, I’m telling you.

Anyway, the dive-bar setting, and the extremely violent staging of the play, got me thinking about this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner: a team of Swiss scientists who won “for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.”

So before the talk, I made sure Mr. Improbable had a seat up in front, right where I would be talking. And I got a bottle of Sam Adams and a mug. And this, more or less, is what I said:

“‘Taming of the Shrew’ teaches us that a woman should always put her husband before herself, so before I begin my talk, I’d like to ask my husband, Marc Abrahams, to stand up and take a bow.” (He did) “Marc is known in my column and blogs as Mr. Improbable — for many reasons, the main one being that he publishes the Annals of Improbable Research and produces the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

“When we saw the play last night, it made me think of this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner” — which I then described as above. “Now, this is what might surprise you: you can actually do far more damage with an empty bottle of beer than a full one. An empty bottle is a better weapon. Counterintuitive, no? After all, a full bottle is heavier, by the weight of the beer.

“But here’s the thing. A full bottle of beer already has so much pressure inside it, from the thick, foaming, raging beer, that it takes much less external pressure to make it shatter. When you’ve emptied out all that beer” — and here I poured the beer out and served it to Marc with a dramatic “Milord,” and I must say he was an awfully good sport about basically being used as a prop — “you have a much more effective weapon.”

“Just like Kate, when she empties out all that rage, when she stops holding in all that pressure, becomes a much more strong and focused person. And a much more effective weapon, as her sister and the Widow can attest!

“And now I will stop being Mrs. Improbable” — turning to Marc — “and you can start being Mr. Conduct. Because as ‘Taming of the Shrew’ really teaches us, a happy marriage isn’t about one person being in charge, or about everything being equal all the time, either. It’s about knowing when to take the spotlight and when to give it up to your partner.”

It went over pretty doggone well, I must say. More on the play proper later, but in the meantime, here‘s a print interview I did for the ASP website.

I can explain this

October 9th, 2009

bramask

I’m not going to, but I can.

(Photo credit: David Kessler)

The Ig Nobel Prize winners

October 2nd, 2009

Here they are, folks:

VETERINARY MEDICINE PRIZE: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

PEACE PRIZE: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

ECONOMICS PRIZE: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.

MEDICINE PRIZE: Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, USA, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years.

PHYSICS PRIZE
: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

LITERATURE PRIZE: Ireland’s police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means “Driving License”.

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE: Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

MATHEMATICS PRIZE: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).

BIOLOGY PRIZE: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.

For more information, including full citations on the winners–because all of these achievements are real–go to improbable.com.

ALSO, if you are in the Boston area — the Ig Informal Lectures will be held tomorrow, Saturday, October 3 at 1:00 p.m. at MIT in room 10-250. In a certain way, the Informal Lectures are even more fun than the ceremony, as the winners have more time to explain what — and, more to the point, why — they did what they did. I hope to see you there!

Good grief, I forgot to mention this

October 1st, 2009

If you can’t come to the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony tonight, you can watch the webcast, starting at 7:15 pm EDT, on improbable.com.

Phew! Hectic day. Details, details!

IG DAY!!!

October 1st, 2009

Today is the biggest day of the year in the Improbable-Conduct household: Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony Day!

Surely, by now, you’ve all heard me talk about this enough. Let me just point your attention to a lovely article that came out a few days ago, that I think really gets at what the Igs are all about:

Not everyone has seen the funny side of the Ig Nobels, however. In 1995 a team of British researchers won the physics Ig for research into why breakfast cereal goes soggy – prompting some newspapers to ask why taxpayers’ money was being wasted on such trivial research. In fact, the project had been funded by a leading cereal maker rather than the UK taxpayer and had an entirely serious purpose: consumers prefer cereal that keeps crunchy as long as possible.

Even so the controversy led Britain’s chief scientist, professor Sir Robert May, to ask the organisers not to award any more Igs to UK researchers, who were emerging as embarrassingly frequent winners of the prizes.

With maintenance of reputation being so important among scientists these days, Sir Robert’s request was understandable. But it also ignores the fact that many major scientific advances have come from research into “trivial” questions.

Have a nice read, and I’ll be back with the list of winners for you tomorrow morning!

Well, this is special

September 16th, 2009

I woke up this morning to a rather long, and surprising, comment in this blog’s comment queue, in response to my post a few weeks ago about Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony tickets being on sale. (And there are still good seats left!)

The theme of this year’s Igs is “Risk,” and the ceremony will kick off with a pre-show “Risk Cabaret” featuring songs by the “Penny-Wise Guys,” who will be “presenting juicy cabaret songs about risk, reward, and Bernie Madoff.”

What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as far as our commenter is concerned. (He also posted his comment on his blog — which otherwise appears to be entirely dedicated to examining the difference between reading on paper and reading on a computer screen — here, and here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find his objections popping up elsewhere over the next few days, either.)

Mr. Bloom is concerned that our mockery of Bernie Madoff will add fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism, you see:

Why not pay tribute to Mr Sanford [sic] or Danny Pang of Taiwan, and other world ponzi schemers? Why focus just on the Jewish guy? Of course, there is no antisemitic intention on the part of the Ig Nobel people, they are Jewish people themselves. But by putting on this “SHOW” about Bernie Madoff, who is a known Jewish man among hundreds of antisemitic bloggers around the world — just google “antisemitism + Bernie Madoff” and you will see — the organizers of this show risk– RISK – creating MORE antisemitism online and in newspaper comment sections when the news of this SHOW comes out in the media, worldwide. Oi.

Now, if we were planning to do a cabaret called, say, “Bernie Madoff: 21st Century Shylock” in which a hook-nosed, yarmulke-clad Madoff danced around to a parody of Cyndi Lauper entitled “Jews Just Wanna Have Gelt,” yes, I could see grounds for concern. But we’re not doing that, nor does Mr. Bloom have any reason whatsoever to believe that we are.

When a member of our in-group — our race, our religion, our profession, our political party — does wrong, should we call them out with appropriate mockery or punishment? Or should we sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen because “he’s one of ours”?

Which course of action do you really think will lead to more stereotyping? And leaving that question aside — because there are, in fact, more important questions in the world than “But what will the goyim/whites/Yankees fans/Democrats/customers think of us” — which is the right thing to do?

I know what I think is the right thing, and it’s what my husband is doing. (Of course, if Mr. Bloom is right and Mr. Improbable does get a reputation as a terrible anti-Semite, I’ll at least be spared the awkward annual conversation with my synagogue’s dues committee about why I claim “single” instead of “family” membership.)

Comments open. Repetitive comments will be deleted.

Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony tickets on sale!

August 21st, 2009

Wouldn’t you like to see Mr. Improbable live and in person, and people like Dan Meyer, who can no longer be satisfied speaking Danish and feeding his wallaby? Of course you would! So get tickets to the 19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, Thursday, October 1, 7:30pm at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University.

The Igs honor achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think. Ten winners are announced at the ceremony, where they are handed their prizes by actual Nobel laureates. The theme of this year’s Igs is “Risk,” and the show will feature keynote speaker Benoit Mandelbrot, and premiere of the mini-opera “Big Bank Theory.”

There’s lots of other stuff, too. The Igs are a great night, and are one of the few events that really is fun for the whole family. (I wrote about the Igs as part of “10 Things I Love About Bostonhere.) I hope you’ll come, and if you do, I hope you’ll find me and introduce yourself.

Here’s one of the short “Improbable Research” television shows, that might give you a bit of the flavor of the Igs, featuring an Ig Nobel Prize winner, the patent application of an Ig Nobel Prize-winning invention … and the answer to last week’s Puzzler.

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