Going to the heart of science

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 14, 2008


They are going to have a DJ spinning love songs, flowing beer and wine, and, like, tons of guys and gals dressed as alluringly as possible. For real. This party has all the makings of an off-the-hook Valentine's Day bash.

Then to really get things started, three eminent Harvard professors will lecture on pheromones and the smells of attraction, the mind of a mate, and the language of sex. And it's all going to be filmed.

It's LoveFest, a Harvard party that organizers hope will demonstrate that underneath every white lab coat is a red pushup bra or silk boxers.

Tired of seeing scientists derided as geeks who would rather spend time with a photo spectrometer than a fellow human, Harvard professors and students are throwing a "Science is Sexy" party today to begin to smash those assumptions like a ping-pong ball in liquid nitrogen.

"I've never seen so many jazzed-up students in my life," said Marc D. Hauser, a professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology who is helping to organize the event. "Now, the question is, how far will they take it?"

The party, for the Harvard community and the general public, kicks off at noon in the Cambridge Queen's Head Pub in Harvard Square.

One of those participating will be Carmen Collyns, a 19-year-old psychology major from Bethesda, Md., who is helping to design a fashion show to illustrate the scientific underpinnings of sexual attraction. In the show, a student will model a form-fitting empire-waist dress to show how certain waist-to-hip ratios signal health to potential mates. Another, she said, will saunter in high heels to demonstrate a theory that alluring gaits can be signals of fertility.

Hauser will explain the theories as each student sashays to the beat.

"I'm a little worried," said Hauser, who is more accustomed to working with rhesus monkeys than emceeing a fashion romp. "I've taught these kinds of things in my course on human nature for 16 years. What the students come out with on the catwalk - we'll see. Hopefully, it will be both good and fun."

Collyns recalled that as a child, she liked to build mousetrap-propelled cars, dissect frogs, and design strong bridges made of pasta. But somehow in college, "science became passé and not cool," she said, and her fashion show is one small way to make it cool again.

"We should be fighting against the side that says science is too boring and not worthy of our thoughts every day," Collyns said.

The idea for the party sprang from discussions last semester in Hauser's class, "Consumable Science," which examined why science literacy appears to be declining nationally and globally, he said. Various speakers - naturalist E.O. Wilson, psychologist Steven Pinker, New York Times science writer Natalie Angier - offered their views. The class concluded, in the words of one student, that science is suffering from "bad PR."

"Very early on, we noticed some fundamental things, that science lost its popularity as you grow older, so it's really common to see a grownup strolling by himself in a Monet exhibit, but if you would see a grownup by himself at the science museum or the zoo, you would think he was a child molester," said Mishy Harman, 24, a history major from Jerusalem.

The students decided to form a student group, The Zing, with about 20 members, to devise parties, public events, and anything else that would freshen up the image of science.

"We set our goal as kind of changing the face of science and making science cool and young and something that people would want to take part in," Harman said.

LoveFest is the first fruit of their labors. To promote the event, a computer science major, Andrei Munteanu, designed a "Science is Sexy" T-shirt that features the silhouette of a woman made up entirely of microscopes, beakers, Bunsen burners, double helixes, and other scientific icons.

Besides Hauser, the speakers will include anthropologist Richard W. Wrangham delivering a lecture titled "In Praise of Older Women," explaining why Ugandan chimps prefer older females. "The question," Wrangham said, "is what accounts for the younger female preference in humans?"

Pinker will lecture on the language of sex, exploring "why words for sex tend to become taboo, and why people make sexual come-ons via innuendo ['Would you like to come up and see my etchings?'] rather than baldly," he wrote in e-mail.

The biologist Catherine Dulac will demystify the connection between scent and sexual attraction.

Once the party is over, the promoters hope to keep up momentum by recruiting more Zing members, posting a clip on YouTube, and planning more edgy, science-themed events.

"Now comes the hard part," Hauser said. "What do you do next? And can we really convert this" into a movement?

Michael Levenson can be reached at

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