“This is the Monty Python of Science,” said a star-struck man stumbling out into the street.
On 5 July this year The Magnificent Science Variety Show emerged in the night like a flock of birds. It was a show like no other; a wild mix of erotic space fiction, lobster mating rituals, belly dancing planets, parasites, poetry, puppets, and oxytocin… Oh, so much oxytocin!
The show was a project of the small science communication company I’ve been setting up in Wellington, New Zealand, over the last four years. We run workshops and events training scientists to communicate and connect across sectors and disciplines. In order to get universities to fund our work, we have to talk to vice-chancellors about serious outcomes, like marketing collateral, business connections, industry benefits, capital generation, and the up-skilling of future leaders.
But something inside me knows that all this seriousness is not the answer to the troubles of our world. In my work I’ve discovered that when we create an environment that allows people to let their guards down and their own unique brand of oddness out, wonderful things occur. I’ve found that the best way to open people’s minds to the wonder and possibilities of science, and to coax scientists out of their shells, is to introduce an element of ‘crazy.’
In 2011, for example, we ran a science storytelling competition for postgraduates at Victoria University of Wellington. My co-host and I turned up at the heats wearing elaborate costumes, and sang ridiculous songs about the contestants between stories. It broke the ice. Somehow the daunting prospect of presenting stories to a room of strangers seemed manageable, almost comfortable, after such a display of absurdity. Even the most nervous scientists got up and spoke, which gave them an enormous boost of confidence. The head of the science faculty was pleased too.
“On the night of the heats I was blown away,” he said. “Until you see it, you don’t realise the impact.”
I’m not exactly sure why it works. I haven’t constructed an argument fit for a vice-chancellor. I imagine it’s because we live on the edge of a vast subconscious world, full of unidentified possibilities and impulses. Like Isaac Newton said: “What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” I think many of us feel trapped on the shore. We long to break free from the straightjacket of rationality and let our imaginations roam free; to let a little ‘crazy’ out.
This was the spirit that spawned The Magnificent Science Variety Show. The vision emerged fully formed at a party. We were inspired by Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno series, New York Public Radio’s brilliant podcast Radiolab, and the rough and ready variety show we’d just hosted at the party. We wanted to break down the barriers between audience and performers and between science and the world. Nobody was paying us. We didn’t look for funding. So we didn’t have to pretend.
I produced the show with two friends, Liz Willoughby-Martin and Brandon Mikel. The whole endeavour was propelled by an irrepressible sense of irreverence, and a certainty that we would create the most magnificent evening of entertainment ever. It would be raunchy, wild, and wonderful. It would draw people in with stories of adventure and surprise them at every turn. It would be 100% amateur. It would warm hearts, blow minds and send everyone off confused and happy.
A variety show was the perfect medium—ten five-minute acts and a DJ set. Each contributor had the freedom to be spontaneous within their time slot. We put a call out to all the scientists, science enthusiasts, musicians, friends and theatre people we knew, asking them to prepare items. We offered copious amounts of encouragement, coaching and beer along the way. The show was held at the local community centre in Newtown, a colourful culturally diverse suburb of Wellington. We asked for koha (donations) for entry. The hall filled up, and we had to turn thirty people away. Our guests brought whiskey and wine. Someone bought a chicken and ate it on the floor.
Then we watched as the show took off.
It began with a journey to the heart of matter, where the audience was invited to take imaginary pills that shrunk them a thousand times a pop. They stood beneath towering hairs, swam through biological cells, watched photons of light shoot like stars in a nanoworld, and then arrived at the heart of matter, where the rest of the show resumed. We heard a sad song sung by a sexy lobster lounging on a piano, a poem about women who fall in love with bridges, and a brain’s personal account on depression. We watched erotic space fiction involving aliens with countless nipples, a belly-dancing sun, and a puppet show about Russian mystic Helena Blavatski. We went on a theatrical exploration of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, created an audience loop machine, and sang and danced into the night.
Afterwards I felt as if I’d been on an incredibly successful date with a hundred people. The oxytocin in my system lasted five days. The audience liked it too.
Often when I begin a science communication project, I approach it with my rational brain: analysing problems, target audiences, outcomes and solutions. The Magnificent Science Variety Show came from a totally different place. It was a compulsion; a product of the irrational. It was an experiment—and it worked. It came from a deep impulse in me and seemed to resonate with the audience. It drew people together and fuelled their appetites for science; which, after all, is the point of it all.
Perhaps it is the vast unknown, which is our greatest asset in communicating science. As the great adventurer Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will take you from A to B; imagination will take you everywhere.”Elizabeth Connor captains The Kinship, a science communication company based in New Zealand. She is a former student of the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.