Honoring Science and the Arts

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There’s a lot of breaking space-related news coming out of the American Astronomical Society meeting this week in Washington, DC, but one that caught my attention — for personal as well as professional reasons — was a special public lecture on “Science as Performance: Communicating and Educating through Theater, Music and Dance,” by Brian Schwartz, vice president for research and sponsored programs at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Schwartz is being honored this year with the Andrew W. Gemant Award (given by the American Institute of Physics), “for ingenious creativity in engaging the public with the history and cultural aspects of physics, and for inventing ways to celebrate physics through such varied vehicles as plays, musicals, exhibitions, street fairs, cabaret, posters, and operas.”

They may have left out a few examples. Anything goes at Science and the Arts — the program Schwartz founded at CUNY — so long as it’s both fun and informative.

I’ve known Brian and his trademark ponytail for more years now than I care to admit — somewhere out there is an infamous photo of me in an Alice Cooper costume with Brian sporting a bowtie and Conehead costume — and have worked with him on a number of outreach activities.

He’s always had an eye for innovation and unusual pairings. In 1999, when the American Physical Society held its Centennial Meeting, he organized a series of public lectures to engage the general public, held at venues around Atlanta: the physics of dance, the physics of brass instruments, the physics of foamy food and drink, the physics of baseball, and a special lecture by renowned physicist Stephen Hawking (the hall was so packed, they put the overflow in a theater courtyard and telecast the talk live to those who couldn’t get into the lecture).

Brian brought the same sensibility to the Science and Arts program a few years later, beginning with an all-day symposium celebrating the Broadway debut of Michael Frayn’s award-winning play, Copenhagen, about a mysterious meeting between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the midst of World War II. (The late, great physicist Hans Bethe is pictured below with director Michael Blackmore.) 

It’s since blossomed into a regular program of lecture, performance, film, even art, all centered on the interplay between science and the creative arts. There was a symposium on the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Doctor Atomic, for example, and a musical based on Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams is in the works. (The CUNY Website maintains an extensive online database of science-themed stage plays, dating back to ancient Greece, for those who are interested.)

Schwartz himself describes it best: “CUNY’s performance series… has established working relationships with actors, playwrights, dancers, choreographers, musicians, composers, artists and scientists who work at the intersection of science and the arts.”

Here’s a video of the CUNY Science and Arts 2006 Science Street Fair, then an audacious new approach, and now a staple of the annual World Science Festival in New York City. Schwartz and his team brought science demonstrations of all stripes right into the street: flowers frozen in liquid nitrogen, a bed of nails, dissections, jugglers, magicians, even an Einstein lookalike (played by Latif Rashidzada and pictured with Schwartz, above). Look closely at the footage and you might catch sight of yours truly and my Brooklyn dojo buddies demonstrating the science of the martial arts with a few jujitsu techniques. Congratulations, Brian, and may you have many more years of innovative outreach at the interface of science and art to come!