Thursday, 24 March 2011

Please, sir, I want some more SCIENCE!

UK SCIENCE MINISTER David Willetts MP famously once said, "there are three things that get kids into science: space, dinosaurs and musical theatre". How right he was. The mighty Geek Pop have long been tapping into a rich seam of musical science -- Jonny Berliner's "DNA (The Genetics Calypso)" being the stand-out example from their latest release -- but as anyone with a MSci in Science Communication will tell you, nothing can get across the wonder of Nature's rich tapestry quite like a young, bouncy cast who burst into song at the drop of a neutron.

Yet, paradoxically, experts in the field have noted an apparent dearth of high-quality science communication in musical form. An industry insider, who preferred not to be named, told TANS, "It's simply not enough anymore to say 'we're putting on an all-singing, all-dancing science show'. Good science engagement has to literally be all-singing and all-dancing to cut it with today's General Public." Another added (without being asked), "There's so much more to it than the dialogue, darling. You have to have chorus numbers, heart-rending protagonist duets and Glee-esque levels of choreography to break up what we in the business call the 'boring talky bits'."

With this in mind, TANS did what any reasonable blogging entity would do in the face of such a crisis, and created a hashtag on Twitter. Before you could say, "trending in South Kensington" #sciencemusicals had captured the imagination of tens of people across the Twittersphere. Below are a some of the best suggestions; TANS has taken the liberty of fleshing out some of the more obvious plotlines where appropriate. Enjoy!

  • 10) Flame!: A group of vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, energetic young people gather to audition to study for Imperial College London's Masters in Science Communication. But little do they realise that it takes far more than "dreams" to succeed in a cut-throat industry littered with the (metaphorical) corpses of former-nineties-popgroup-keyboard-players-turned-academics. Who will "make it"? Who will fall by the wayside? Who will succumb to a high-profile Arnica overdose? Drama, bunsen burners, and leg-warmers guaranteed. Not to be missed.

  • 9) Avenue Q=2x+y: Hand-operated puppets stand around on stage listing their favourite equations, with a few swears thrown in for good measure. It's about as funny as it sounds. Brought to you by the constants π, e and the operator ⊕.

  • 8) The Wizard of Osmosis: A young girl and her dog are whisked away to a magical world ruled by witches who have semi-permeable membranes for skin. Do I have to fill in the blanks for you? No? Good.

  • 7) Singing in the Brain: Basically, this is that episode of Scrubs where the fairly attractive lady patient has a neurological condition that provides the premise for the "it's about time we did the musical episode" episode, but on stage. I liked that episode. Zach Braff has a good voice. What's he even up to these days? I miss him.

  • 6) Chitty Chitty Big Bang: A "madcap" inventor played by the ever-lovable Dick van Dyke successfully creates a small Universe in his garden shed. Rather than using it to answer some of the great questions of cosmology, however, he attaches some wheels and some wings to it, gives it a funny paint-job and embarks on some "zany" storyline involving sweets, castles and children (I couldn't stomach the Wikipedia entry, frankly, and I haven't seen the film. I know!). By the end, though, we all learn about the importance of the scientific method, love, and that the cosmological constant was originally invented by physicists to scare their children into making sure their equations balanced.

  • 5) The Prion King: Look, I don't know enough about biology to do this one justice, but I'm sure there's a Broadway smash about badly-folded proteins just waiting to be written. Needless to say, "Circle of Life" sung by the "Mad Cow Chorus" will be in there somewhere.

  • 4) We Will Shock You: FINALLY, the Edison-Tesla rivalry is brought to life with an all-star cast. Young Nikola Tesla (Oscar-winning Christian Bale in his first Broadway role) takes on the might of Thomas Edison (Oscar-nominated Geoffrey Rush) -- who will win the "War of Currents"? Featuring the world's largest functioning Tesla coil, this ground-breaking production will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Contains some elements of audience participation.

  • 3) Mamma Glia: This one is actually bit of a cheat; it's still the songs of Abba tenuously threaded together into a show, but the cast sing "Glia!" instead of "Mia!". Interestingly, research has shown that this actually makes it 12.4% better as a musical.

  • 2) Schrödinger's CATS: As well as being a quantum physicist, Erwin Schrödinger was also a poet. Unfortunately, his poems were terrible. This musical sets a selection of them to equally awful music; audience members are given a small vial of poison as they take their seats, and are technically both dead and alive until the ushers open the theatre doors at the end of the performance.

  • 1) Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Lab Coat: From the people who brought you "Brian Cox: Neutron Star" comes the epic tale you've all been waiting for. Joseph, a lowly technician at the UK National Physical Laboratory, is a dreamer. Unfortunately, he manages to irritate his colleagues with visions of achieving academic glory and non-industry-standard laboratory apparel. They engineer a career-move for Joseph to the soon-to-be-closed physics department of a former polytechnic, leaving them free to undergo their REF assessment in relative peace. Feeling dejected, Joseph soon discovers that his dreams allow him to predict the outcome of research projects before the research has actually been carried out. With this ability to "pick winners", he is soon the toast of the UK scientific community, with research councils lining up to ask which projects they should fund, which spin-offs they should invest in, and which individuals will go on to achieve great things in the world of science. In one the more bizarre songs in the production, Joseph successfully defines and quantifies the term "impact". Inevitably, Joseph's NPL colleagues submit a funding application that he initially identifies as a "turkey"; spurned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the laboratory is threatened with closure. In the end, though, Joseph shows mercy and persuades the Government to quadruple the science budget (including capital expenditure). UK science is saved, and Joseph is presented with his "Amazing Technicolour Lab Coat". The entire cast then break into a catchy disco-soul number about how the peer-review process has its pitfalls, but is ultimately the best system we have for "doing science". Make no mistake, this show has solid gold Tony Award written all over it. Solid gold.

As you can see, there's hope for science communication yet. Thanks to @alomshaha, @jjsanderson, @apontzen, @geekpop, @roobina (and the whole Nature team, by the sounds of it!), @lulucrumble, @JimFraeErskine, @AlexSiddle, @nervaryar, @annalewcock and everyone who joined in with #sciencemusicals that I couldn't string a plot together for (though please add any in the comments!). And for actual science-based musicals, check out this (via @annastarkey) or wait for this (via @alicebell).