Dance your physics

If you want to learn about science, you can pick from a wide variety of media. If you’re a student, you read a textbook; if you’re a scientist trying to keep up with the latest research, you read journal articles and attend conferences. If you’re an interested layman, you pick up popular science books and magazines, browse the Web, and watch NOVA. And if none of that does it for you, well, there’s always interpretive dance.

The above video is the work of Theatre Adhoc, a Dutch performance art group. Although it’s hard to tell (especially if you don’t speak Dutch), the movements portray the work of 17th century Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the phases and changes in the shape of the rings of Saturn, patented the first pendulum clock, and developed an early wave theory of light. The performance was in honor of the new Huygens building at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Here’s another interpretive dance project that needs no translation—“Dance Your PhD” was initiated last year, and features PhD students, postdocs, and professors who perform their scientific papers as dance. Does this look like “A spectroscopic study of the Blazhko effect in the pulsating star RR Lyrae” to you?

This year, “Dance Your PhD” went pro: professors teamed up with professional choreographers and dancers to portray four scientific papers through modern dance. Viewers were then asked to match each dance to an abstract. Science magazine, which funded the project, found that, “overall, people guessed far more accurately than random. The 341 people who took part made an average of 1.86 out of 4 possible correct matches between the dances and research articles. That’s far more accurate than the expected 1 out of 4 correct if everyone guessed randomly. So the rigorously tested answer is yes, dance really can encode science.” You can try the experiment yourself by watching all the dances here and trying to guess which one corresponds to “Mechanism of Force Generation of a Viral DNA Packaging Motor.” The dances themselves have definitely evolved from last year’s charmingly amateur gyrations.

This is Science: Jenn Liang Chaboud from Red Velvet Swing on Vimeo.

The latest project of the artists at Theatre Adhoc is a bit more mainstream: it’s a documentary called Higgs: Into the Heart of Imagination. Theatre Adhoc artists Hannie van den Bergh and Jan van den Berg interviewed Higgs and a few of the many of scientists whose careers have been inspired by the most well-known theorized particle of them all. From the preview, it looks like directors have brought their avante-garde sensibilities to the film; the trailer includes beautiful shots of work being done inside the LHC tunnel, set to minimalist, slightly ominous drumbeat and sounds. They wrote about their experiences filming at CERN on their website.If you’re tired of hearing what everyone else thinks of Higgs, why not hear from the man himself? For the last few months Higgs has been on tour, giving a talk titled, “My Life as a Boson.” When he gave the presentation at Stockholm University this October, Higgs elicited laughter from his audience by opening with, “In a way the lecture is coming home to Stockholm because the title…was inspired by the title of a Swedish film of some years ago, My Life as a Dog.”

The lecture answers that burning question “what is spontaneous symmetry breaking?” and leads you through the physics and experiences that led Higgs to write the 1964 paper that saddled him with such enduring name recognition. Along the way you’ll get a few adorable jokes, such as his reminiscence of his days as “steward” of a physics summer school (“The job of steward was essentially to buy the wine and look after it and distribute it to all the people at dinner, and that i did with limited success”) and a clear sense that Higgs is extremely modest about his contributions to particle physics. Clearly all the media attention hasn’t gone to his head. If you can get past his quavering baritone (the man’s 80 years old, so give him a break) and the hand-drawn transparencies, I can think of no better way to get acquainted with perhaps the most popular physicist alive today (sorry, Brian Greene.)

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