Sunday, 7 July 2013

An Experiment: All for the show.

On Friday afternoon I was helping a friend with a service operating in a local community centre. We arrived during the service's staff lunch break, but while waiting I checked out the notice board. One notice caught my eye. A science variety show to be held that very evening. Admission $10, no one would be turned away for lack of funds.
Being skint, I was able to muster a $5 donation. And they were true to their word. The community hall that evening was packed, I was perhaps lucky to find a seat.

The MC started with an improv feel and introduced the audience to a real live physicist. The physicist took the audience on a progressive journey into the very small, first stop, on the back of your hand where a hair shaft is as thick as your wrist and skin cells were as large as the hall itself and a bit sticky. Second stop,  cells are as large as city blocks, with massive structures like pulsating mitochondrial bacteria - the power house of the cells of almost all species, and filaments of DNA chains swirling. Third stop,  cells are half the size of the earth and water molecules flit before your face like "butterflies on cocaine". Final stop, into the quantum world where teleportation is mundane, and things appear from nowhere and vanish as though they never existed.

In the second piece, we heard from a poet, the daughter of a parasitologist - she rebelled. A poem from the published words of women who love things (objectifilia - I think). And then we heard from the parasitologist himself with a poetic musing of the types of parasites that aflict us. For a bonus, another wimsical piece drawn from the experience of having a catheter fitted to treat urinary retention. While reading this might make the this piece seem kind of vulgar, the reality was quite different indeed it was received with great humour and empathy.

The next piece was a song from a lobster, about her mating habits. The audience gave a big laugh to the bit where she crooned about squirting urine into the males face. The chorus spoke of the lobster shedding it exoskeleton in preparation for mating.

There was a skit about the sun the stars and moon. Answering questions that had been asked by email. Questions like is the sun the brightest star we see in the sky. The answer being no, well more like NO! Other stars appear fainter because they are so far away but their output dwarfs the sun by hundreds of orders of magnitude. The perform did seem to get flustered trying to explain the black moon phenomenon. She did say it occurs twice a month, which suggests to me it is the time when sun light reflects from the Earth to faintly illuminate the shadowed surface of the moon. It can observed when the moon sets a few hours after sunset, or a few hours before sun rise. What colour is the sun? Our visual system fails to see, but the suns main emission frequency is green. So kids if you are picking the green crayon for your sunny day at the beach picture, no one can bust you for it now.

In Act II, puppeteers recreated the story of a Victorian era mystic philosopher who was preparing for a public address. She had a very special conversation With Thomas Edison. This was around a time when Physicists started to think they had it all sorted despite not yet having figured out electricity. This was before the theory of quantum physics had been conceived. None the less, the fad of vitalism and voluntary electrocution for one's health is a peculiar chapter in history of social misapprehensions of science.

We saw also, a demonstration of polystyrene dissolving in acetone with the explanation of how polystyrene is made, by adding extra benzene, bubbles form making polystyrene into a foam which is 96% air. Once the acetone has evaporated the polystyrene returns to solid form, thus it can be recycled as long as there is acetone and reformed for a new purpose.

The next piece was introduced and narrated by a scientist who has clinical depression. Which is not "feeling a bit sad" as one person once tried to tell me. Behind her, six people, three in white, three in black. The white represented neurotransmitter emitters, they were tossing chemicals like serotonin at the receptors on near by neurons. But then the depression kicked in and they got bored, and stopped transmitting. After a while the receptors, having nothing to catch, got bored too. At this point, the narrator told us, this is when her partner may find her in a catatonic state on the floor. He picks her up and puts her in the shower. The movement and the exercise is enough to excite the emitters and restore normal communication between neurons which brings her back to her more functional self.

The last piece connected us to our deep ancestry and kin ship with other species. Three actors portrayed rabbits responding to a potential threat, while the narrator explained the physiological response, including the cortisol surge, slowing of digestion, and immune suppression. The rabbits when off stage, to be replaced by three people working in an office this time the threat trigger is a post-it note, the physiological response kicks in and a brawl breaks-out. But of course people don't do that in real life so what actually happens is that when threat is observed the same physiological response still happens but it takes longer and people have long exposure to stress and cortisol damaging their well-being their immune response and their health. After the threat is gone, oxytocin kicks in creating feels of happiness, contentment and communion. and bunnies return to share the stage for a big hug-in with the cube-farm inhabitants.

The show is an experiment in conveying science to the public using performance art. Despite having the quality of amateur pantomime and the audio loop machine breaking down resulting in audience participation as a loop machine, or perhaps because of these, it was a very fun evening, and I'm happy I took the time to attend. It reminds me of news coverage of a variety show put on by scientists to show they weren't stiff characters seen in '50s documentary pieces or lunatic characters sometimes seen in '50s sci-fi.  Certainly, the men and women of science need better media representation than Professor Bunsen, Beaker, The Nutty Professor, or Dr Evil can provide. As endearing or humorous as these characters are, they don't create an impression in young minds of scientists or of the their work that is worthy of respect from a young audience. This is at a time when we need more scientists to help us solve the huge problems that face us today concerning the environment.

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