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The Arts Experiment With Science

More and more, scientific themes are popping up in plays, movies and other genres, reflecting social changes, experts say.

January 25, 2002|JULIA KELLER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Science in the arts used to mean those chunks of aurally pleasing but preposterous dialogue from earnest characters in "Star Trek" spinoffs: "Captain, try the zylorian two-ply quark crystals to achieve maximum warp density!"

Science in the arts meant long, complicated-sounding words uttered for sheer effect or bug-eyed characters with excitable hair--a la Albert Einstein--muttering theories.

Science in the arts largely meant science-fiction: rocket ships, monsters, alien invasions.

Increasingly, however, science, math and technology have emerged as serious themes in creative endeavors, including the current film "A Beautiful Mind," such recent plays as "Proof," "Copenhagen," "Arcadia" and "Q.E.D.," the fiction of writers Richard Powers and Andrea Barrett, and the visual artwork of Eduardo Kac.

From the goofy robot in "Lost in Space" to the thoughtful speculations about artificial intelligence in the film "A.I.," the distance traveled by science in the arts is a matter of light-years.

What does it say about our culture that we routinely incorporate science and technology in our imaginative mock-ups of reality? Is science--which, after all, requires intelligence and hard work if its deeper mysteries are to be comprehended--trivialized by its widespread utility as a narrative tool?

"You cannot hope to understand contemporary life without a hard look at the ways that science and technology have overhauled every aspect of material existence," said Powers, whose novels include "Plowing the Dark," "Gain" and "The Gold Bug Variations," which employ science.

"Science and its technological descendants are the premier intellectual, economic and social endeavors of our time," added Powers, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Those endeavors can serve as ideal metaphors for human problems. In David Auburn's play "Proof," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, the solving of a thorny mathematical theorem helps a daughter come to terms with her late father's intellectual legacy. His mental illness, she tells a friend, was manifested in "beautiful mathematics, the most elegant proofs, perfect proofs, proofs like music."

The play "Q.E.D." by Peter Parnell is about the life of the late--and sometimes loopy--physicist Richard Feynman. "Copenhagen," by Michael Frayn, is about the building of the atomic bomb. Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" turns on aspects of fractal geometry.

Those productions use math and science not only as plot devices, but also as rationales for the existence of the works themselves. As poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The world is made of stories, not of atoms." But lately, it seems to be made of stories about atoms.

Several factors may be at work when science themes appear in both popular and more rarefied art forms. Prodded by technology, the pace of change in society has accelerated tremendously, leaving a residue of anxiety like an oil stain beneath a departed race car.

Scientific discoveries have always fascinated and terrified, attracted and repelled. In the past, science may have seemed like the exclusive province of a few antisocial geniuses dabbling in arcane mysteries, but today we know that we're all affected by what scientists do.

"We have the sense about science now that so much can change with just a little discovery," said John Darnton, author of the science-themed novels "Neanderthal" and "The Experiment," which deal with evolution and cloning, respectively. His next, tentatively titled "Brainchild," deals with stem cell research.

"As a society, we sense that we're on the threshold of some very profound changes," added Darnton, cultural editor of the New York Times. "DNA, cloning, genetic engineering are going to be changing the way we live in deep ways. We're trying to come to grips with them by raising the issues."

A Modern-Day 'Sword of Damocles'

Scientific knowledge has always seemed like a mixed blessing for humankind, opening our eyes to things that, occasionally, we may feel we were better off not seeing in the first place. The great scientific breakthrough of the 20th century, Darnton pointed out, still casts a mushroom-shaped shadow on the world: the splitting of the atom, leading to the atomic bomb.

"Science had constructed the sword of Damocles over all of us," he added.

The difference between science in the 1930s and '40s, when atomic technology was being developed and deployed, and science today is accessibility. "The atom bomb was done in secret," Darnton said. "We never had what passes for a national dialogue on its moral implications."

Today, however, science and technology are on the front pages of newspapers and in the lead stories of national newscasts. We talk about science over our morning coffee; we argue about the implications of technology at the dinner table. That makes science themes part of popular culture in a new way.

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