What theatre and science can learn from one another

‘A Journey Round my Skull’. Jonathan Blackford, Kindle Theatre

C.P. Snow’s pessimistic view of “two cultures” – the arts and the sciences at war with each other, glowering across no man’s land, entrenched in their embattled fortress of true expression (as each saw it) was a nihilistic prospect indeed. Fortunately, this view couldn’t be more wrong – wrong then, in 1956, and even further from the truth today.

Never have the arts and the sciences had so much cause to celebrate what they have in common and never has the opportunity for theatre particularly to engage with scientists, and with the scientific process itself, been higher.

Cambridge Science Festival, for example, are hosting a number of theatrical performances that cover topics such as immortality, computer hacking, melancholy and Albert Einstein.

In my opinion (I speak as a scientist), a critical reason for this bridging of the “void” is that academic scientists in particular are increasingly speaking directly to an audience beyond their peers.

Although “popular” scientists have always been with us, the scientific lecture as “performance” has become the norm in the age of university expansion. Audiences for a typical undergraduate lecture can top several hundred, enough to fill a medium-sized theatre, and many scientists, having honed their skills before 300 biology majors, have graduated from the lecture theatre to the theatre proper, trying their hand at stand-up comedy, or in directing or writing for the stage, as Jonathan Miller has done.

With this requirement to perform (student assessment of lecturers’ abilities is now standard), comes an increasing readiness to engage with audiences who might have little understanding of the process of science, but a lot of interest in the message of science. But theatre can engage with science in more ways than simply the technical. The key thing here is that they share a common term and a common tool – that of “interpretation”.

There’s one play in particular that I think emphasises this. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is about the meeting of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. It could never have been about the technical science – no audience could have understood it, but then again neither could (or can still) most scientists. In fact, much of academic science lies beyond the comprehension of a relatively small cohort of similarly trained individuals. It is because of this that vehicles such as the stage can work so well at promoting discussion of the concepts involved.

In the play (and in life) Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s disagreement, the uncertainty, if you will, centred on the feasibility of nuclear weaponry at a critical juncture, early in World War II. The importance of their argument extended beyond who was right to what the enormous consequences would be if either one of them were proved to be so.

The lack of certainty as to whether nuclear weapons could be realised was also mirrored in the lack of certainty as to who said what to whom – Bohr and Heisenberg subsequently disagreed vehemently over what precisely they disagreed on in the first place. Interpretation was key, and each interpreted differently the scientific data and the recollection of their meeting.

Frayn’s play, which is concerned with this uncertainty, speaks to a common misconception concerning science: namely, that science “has the answers” and all that remains is that these answers be uncovered and applied to global problems. This is patently untrue, although it often resides strongly in popular imagination.

This is not to say that science does not contain truth or certainty, but that it is not the answers that science produces (which are always, or at least should be, couched in terms of probability) that are certain but, rather, the methodology by which questions are asked in the first place. Observing, hypothesising, and then testing.

At its core, science tries to gradually direct away from error and towards truth – getting it slightly less wrong in a good cause, if you will. Science is uncertain, and it is at the boundaries of what is known and what is unknown, that creativity flourishes. Interpretation of raw data leads to creativity – the most creative science is often the most uncertain (and often the most personal).

These are all ideas that ring particularly well with the stage. “Interpretation” is of course key to theatre. Texts are interpreted by a director for the stage, books are translated into plays, plays into films, films back into musical theatre.

So perhaps the lesson that each needs to teach the other is that they actually share a common ground – that of uncertainty, interpretation and the application of method, and that by realising this common ground they can engender more creativity in their own sphere.

I’ve been working with Kindle Theatre in developing their play at the Cambridge Science festival, A Journey Round my Skull. The play is inspired by an extraordinary medical memoir written by Hungarian satirist Frigyes Karinthy. It explores brain surgery from the perspective of a patient, and features audio recordings from brain surgery.

I was struck by the common fascination in which I, the scientist, and Olivia Winteringham, the director and actor, held Karinthy’s darkly humorous report of his benign (although no less serious for it) brain tumour. It induced auditory hallucinations in him. The creativity our interaction engendered drove both of us to understand more of what Karinthy experienced during the particularly gruesome surgical procedure to remove the tumour (he was awake throughout).

This interaction of science and theatre permitted the expression of a desire to explore more deeply each other’s domain, and to do so without the fear of looking foolish. Each could explore the other’s, previously uncharted, territory, observing the landscape and bringing back to their own discipline insights and motives potentially useful to our own spheres.

This speaks to a simple truth – science and theatre can learn from each other through their common goals of interpreting knowledge and ideas in new ways. A successful outcome will be that the audiences leave the (lecture) theatre with more questions than answers. It doesn’t get more scientific than that.