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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2000

Ivo Schneider, Federal University of Munich, Germany

Biography

Ivo Schneider has been a Professor for the History of Science at the Federal University of Munich since 1995. He worked as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 1972/73, at the Zentrum fŽr interdisziplinaere Forschung of the University of Bielefeld in spring and summer 1983, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in Spring 1988, and at the Technical University of Budapest in Fall 1999. From 1988 to 1998 he directed the graduate college at the Deutsches Museum in Munich which sponsored research work on the inter-relations between science and technology in German speaking countries in the 19th and 20th centuries and was funded by the VW-foundation.

He is editor and co-editor of international journals and series in the history of science and in the history of mathematics. He has published six books, amongst them biographies of Archimedes, Newton, and Gauss, and is the author of more than a hundred articles concerning the history of science and technology as well as the history of mathematics, especially the history of stochastics.

He is a member of the Academie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences and has received two prizes. In recent years he has developed an interest in questions concerning the historical roots of the negative attitude in the German public towards science and technology. In this regard he has become concerned with the relative lack of theater plays in Germany which deal with the world of science.

Abstract

Science in theater: An historical account

Not only New York theater critics like Bruce Weber were surprised that beginning with Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen", "science and scientists have been on stage all over the place this season". Examples of plays dealing with physics includes "Space" by Tina Landau, in which astronomers try to communicate with beings from cosmic galaxies, "Moving Bodies," Arthur Giron's biography of the physicist Richard Feynman and "Now Then Again" by Penny Penniston, which finally ended its extended run at two theaters in Chicago in May of this year. It deals with the amorous relationship of a young physicist and a physics graduate student to whom the physicist has to explain Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Considering the already anti-intellectual stance of most Americans and their increasingly critical attitude toward natural science and technology during the Cold War, the new connection between science and theater raises questions so far unanswered by sociologists or cultural historians. When 30-year-old Penny Pennison, object of ovations from critics and audience, was asked why she put so much science in her play, she insisted that the world of science and the world of art "have a lot to offer each other" because they are addressing the same large questions and because "the facts of science can surpass the stuff of our wildest imaginations". She finds even parallels between the experiences of a scientist at work and of a person having fallen in love with another. So it seems that young professional playwrights, at least in the USA and in England, detected science, its concepts, methods, and the environment of its production including its emotional side as a new subject capable of stirring up curiosity, new imagination, and feelings. That the authors are willing to confront their audience with scientific content is evident by some more theaters performing pieces concerned with the abstract world of mathematics, especially number theory, and the preparation of a musical "proof" by Joshua Rosenblum and Sydney Lessner which centers around the proof of Fermat's last theorem found by Andrew Wiles in 1995. The motives to bring science at stage are manifold. Feminist intentions to show that mathematics is not the exclusive playground for men have certainly influenced Mac Wellman's "Hypatia" or the movie "Conceiving Ada" directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson in 1997. Science as a key factor in shaping and changing our knowledge society, the experienced or feared dangers inherent in the applications of science, and the responsibility of the scientist are older topics which however are in the background of "Copenhagen" and much older German plays like Bertold Brecht's "Life of Galilei" written in the 1940s and 50s, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "physicists", and Heiner Kipphardt's "The case of J. Robert Oppenheimer" first performed in 1962 respectively in 1964. But these older German plays are concerned mainly with the political side or the responsibility of the scientist for the effect of applying science and not with the content of science as in "Copenhagen". It appears to me that the approach of these German authors and the current reluctance of those in charge for the programs in German speaking theaters to bring science on stage have the same roots: the traditions of the German "Bildungsbürgertum" dating back to the 19th century. But what will be the outcome of the science-on-stage-movement in English speaking countries? Do we observe a short-lived fashion lasting only for a few years or are we witnesses of a permanent change in the perception of science as an indispensable cultural factor and as such a legitimate topic for the theater?