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Theater puts drama of science to test

Debra Wise's studies at Oberlin College in Ohio did little to prepare her for hobnobbing with MIT scientists or producing plays about science.

But a few decades later, both are squarely in the future for the energetic artistic director of the Underground Railway Theater, an Arlington-based drama company that plans a long-term collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Catalyst Collaborative -- a three-person endeavor involving Wise, Alan Brody of MIT's theater department, and Boston-area director Jon Lipsky -- is still in the pilot phase. This year it has staged readings of ``Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman and ``Partition," about the brilliantly intuitive Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan, by Ira Hauptman. Both works show the emotional and creative aspects of scientists' lives.

Wise was relieved to discover that artists and scientists do, indeed, share creative and emotional processes. She first encountered MIT scientists through a salon of 10 or so scientists and playwrights, started three years ago by Brody and Lightman, an MIT theoretical physicist and novelist.

The group has been meeting once a month in an MIT conference room to brainstorm over wine, cheese, and cookies on creative ways to communicate about science. Wise -- whose educational background is in history, political science, and English -- initially wasn't sure what she would have to contribute.

Still, she showed up with her laptop, started recording people's words -- a practice she continues to this day -- and her perspective about science gradually changed. She discovered the human side of science and realized that the theater community had a lot to communicate about it.

``I'd never personally heard anyone say, `What a beautiful theorem,' " Wise said. ``I hadn't thought about how culture might influence the practice of science. My assumption was that the language of science is universal. There are assumptions about art, too: that it's all affect, that it doesn't engage the intellect, that you have to have this ineffable thing called `talent.' "

But the salons helped her see that ``emotions, spirit, and affect come into science, just as rigor comes into art," she said. ``We engage the entire breadth of our humanity in all our endeavors. At least, that's the ideal for any truly fine artist or scientist."

It's not a one-way street. Contact with artists helps scientists a great deal, Lightman said. ``It gives scientists a larger context [in which] to think about their work."

``Sometimes a scientist will have participated in something that extends beyond science. Big ideas in science have metaphorical significance," he said, citing Darwin's discovery of natural selection and Copernicus's overturning of the Earth-centered-universe theory.

``By having contact with artists, scientists can see their work as part of a story," he said. ``Playwrights help scientists to hear the narrative meanings of their careers."

At the staged reading of ``Partition," the audience appeared to appreciate the human side of science as Ramanujan, played by Amar Srivastave, and his peer and mentor GH Hardy, played by Ken Baltin, spar about rigor and intuition.

``Ramanujan, listen. Ideas are made out of other ideas. Mathematical ideas are true because other mathematical ideas are true. You deduce them," said the dogged Hardy, to which Ramanujan responded, ``They are true because they are true. You discover them."

Ramanujan, passionately immersed in mathematics but culturally isolated in England, thirsts for friendship and human contact, which Hardy cannot provide.

Directed by Lipsky, the cast -- which includes Jordan Dann, Stephen Russell, and Wise as the French mathematician Fermat, gloating over colleagues struggling with unfinished theorems -- milked every laugh line, so that the play worked as sheer entertainment, with the audience falling silent toward the tragic climax.

By play's end, all barriers were down, and audience members pelted the discussion panel with comments and questions about science, mathematics, playwriting, and the play.

Kiran Kedlaya, assistant professor of mathematics at MIT and a panelist, was fired up by the portrayal of the emotional and creative sides of mathematics, which resonated with his experience. ``Mathematicians carry on a debate about whether mathematics is invented or discovered," he said. ``It's both."

Asked if intuitive leaps were common among mathematicians, he nodded emphatically. ``Sometimes you see the castle in the sky first and then figure out how to build a stairway to reach it," he said.

Kedlaya feels an emotional connection to math, but said it's a feeling everyone knows. ``You don't have to be an expert to feel that connection. Every day on the subway, you see people playing Sudoku. That's millions of people all over the world making an emotional connection to math."

Hauptman, the author of ``Partition" and a panelist, said he finds the creative process similar for playwrights and mathematicians. ``We sit in our rooms, make up our little worlds, and, after the solitary work, we try to interest the world in what we've done," he said.

``When I get an idea for a play, it's a physical sensation. Later I try to figure out what the feelings are and what I'm trying to say."

Lightman used similar words for his creative endeavors as a theoretical physicist and novelist.

``The creative moment feels exactly the same in art and science," he said. ``It's a soaring feeling, like you're floating free of your ego. You forget who you are."

Aside from the creativity, what about the content of science? Can nonscientists engage with that?

Panelist Robert Kanigel, director of science writing at MIT, said he believes that showing the culture of science helps break down barriers to understanding.

``Science is an alien world to many people, and, out of distance, ignorance is born and the qualities of dismissal or reverence," said Kanigel, author of a Ramanujan biography, ``The Man Who Knew Infinity."

The content of science, Kanigel and Lightman said, can be understood at varying levels by almost everybody, once emotional blocks are overcome. ``To understand a newspaper article about science, you only need interest and some intelligence," Lightman said.

MIT's science writing program does not require a science background, although slightly more than half the students have one.

``With nonscientists, we look for intelligence and enthusiasm about science," Lightman said. ``If you have enthusiasm, you can learn what you need to know."

Wise has both, to which she adds her artistic gifts to help bring audiences closer to science. In late 2007, Underground plans to move to Cambridge, where Wise plans to continue pushing the boundaries of theater.

``Some say that one thing you don't want to do in a play about science is explain the science," she said thoughtfully. ``I can see that. But it's a hypothesis that needs to be tested."

Information about the Underground Railway Theater's programs can be found on the Web at www.undergroundrailwaytheater.org.

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