Insufficiency and the drama of science: play & discussion

Saturday 6 October, 2.30pm until 6.30pm, Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL

Carl Djerassi’s new play Insufficiency is concerned with contentious topics among scientists, including suspicion of commercial-research funding and the dangers of conservative and conformist thinking amongst academics. Yet attempts to dramatise important scientific debates are themselves notoriously difficult and controversial. While there are undoubted successes, such as Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, universal acclaim across the science and arts world is rare. John Adams’ Doctor Atomic may have offered an operatic vision of Robert Oppenheimer, for example, but offered little of historical or scientific value. Alternatively, it can be difficult to know in Inherit The Wind whether the audience is cheering on a thrilling depiction of the Scopes Monkey Trial, or applauding themselves for being on the ‘right’ side of the argument over teaching evolution.

It is a question which becomes even more vexed in an age where leading scientists such as Sir Paul Nurse express concerns over the ‘scientific illiteracy’ of the public and detect an increasingly confused and occasionally hostile attitude towards science in political life. Leading science commentators have declared it is time to ‘mobilise the geeks’ and there is a thriving community of celebrity scientists and science communicators dedicated to challenging ‘bad science’ and better educate society on increasingly complex scientific issues. The question of artistic licence becomes ever-more fraught with considerations in this climate. Playwright Richard Bean may have thrilled Royal Court audiences with his dark comedy on climate change scepticism, but some questioned whether it merely played upon the prejudices of a non-scientific audience. At the same time, Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion may have been an innovative attempt to ‘perform’ a lecture as a piece of art but, in choosing to present one side of the debate on overpopulation as ‘The Science’, it could be accused of misrepresentation.

Good drama can thrive even if the audience does not subscribe to its politics, but what about scientific inaccuracy? Is it true that there are few good plays about scientists, and even fewer about science itself? Does drama have a duty to educate and inform as well as entertain or engage? Can it successfully offer a bridge between the two cultures, or does it invariably drive them further apart?

Speakers
Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Dr Jennifer Rohn
principal research associate, University College London; editor, LabLit.com; author, Experimental Heart

Rupert Sheldrake
fellow, Institute of Noetic Sciences, California; author, The Science Delusion

Chair:
David Bowden
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; culture writer
Session partners