Science and Entertainment Mash-up

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Science and entertainment are mixing it up everywhere. They have been crossing paths in a variety of ways; some are not that unusual, but others seem out of the ordinary. Here are some recent examples of science and entertainment hanging out together.


Live theater seems to have embraced science in a big way. Has there been an uptick in science-themed plays? It would seem so. Science, technology, and mathematics have been the inspiration for a lot of drama on the stage in recent years. Plays such as Copenhagen and Proof have drawn large audiences and critical acclaim.

Recently, major-friend-of-science and renowned actor Alan Alda’s new play Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie was staged at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. And, Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo was recently revived in New York. The lives of famous people have always provided entertainment-worthy source material, and scientists are no exception. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 is the story of Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA.

Despite the recent controversy, Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs also deserves a mention for its fascinating look at our addiction to technology.  Completeness, a new play by Itamar Moses, is definitely in the unusual category. The two main characters are a computer scientist and a molecular biologist, and the play is about both the love and scientific research that define their relationship.

Turning to another kind of stage production, The Exchange recently discovered that opera is not immune from science. The 2011 festival season of the Santa Fe Opera featured a production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Last Savage, a comedy about a young woman pursuing a degree in anthropology and on a quest to find and study the “last savage.”

And, sometimes real scientists actually take the stage. At least two former scientists, Brian Malow and Tim Lee, now make a living as stand-up comedians.


Although science makes occasional appearances on the late night talk show circuit, comedian Craig Ferguson established an annual tradition of congratulating and paying homage to new Nobel laureates.

Science also shows up in prime time, but science was not what caught the attention of a group of bloggers for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was the mathematics featured in a two-part episode of Suits, a new series on the USA network. In the show, called “Identity Crisis,” the main characters must solve a complicated math problem to find the missing loot.

Science has also permeated daytime television. Miss Piggy, Kermit, and Big Bird may be making movies these days, but they have also been focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education during the current season of Sesame Street.


Online gaming and science have also joined forces recently. For example, an international group of gamers called “The Contenders” helped solve a puzzle about proteins that had been eluding scientists for more than a decade. The discovery, made by playing an online game called “Foldit,” is an important contribution to research on HIV/AIDS, and an article about it was published last year in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Researchers at Michigan State University made another type of discovery when they uncovered a link between video game use and creativity in children. The study of nearly 500 12-year-olds, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that kids who played video games were more likely than others to score high on tests that measured their creativity in drawing pictures and writing stories.

But kids are not the only ones who may benefit from playing video games. Playing the game World of Warcraft makes your brain work better if you are an older adult, according to a study performed at the Gains through Gaming Lab at North Carolina State University.


A few years ago, an unconventional radio show and podcast called Radiolab received the National Academies Communication Award “for their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences.“ Radiolab is a show about science, but it is not your typical show about science. It entertains by using a scientific perspective to explore non-scientific subjects like politics and sports. Not quite sure how that works? Tune in and find out.


The National Science Foundation and NBC Learn (part of NBC News) have joined forces to produce a multi-media series on the science of sports. The most recent addition to this team effort is “The Science of NHL Hockey.” It promises to be a hit like the other two features in this series: the “Science of the Olympic Games” and the “Science of Football.”


A World Science Festival has been held in Manhattan every year since 2008. Lots of celebrities like to celebrate science in this way. The 2012 festival will be held May 30 to June 3. Also in New York City, Discovery Times Square recently hosted “CSI: The Experience,” an interactive exhibit sponsored by CBS, the National Science Foundation, and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Visitors got to experience what it is like to use science to solve crimes.

And, in the unusual department, Grapevine, Texas, has its own Doctor Who Day, bringing attention to the best of British science fiction.


Finally, two stories caught our attention. The first is about scientists and academic researchers seeking help from Madison Avenue in understanding how the media shape public opinion about climate change and support for scientific research. It is not quite the Mad Men of science, but when it comes to influencing public perceptions about climate change, getting advice from the advertising world does not seem like a bad idea.

It was the title of the other piece that caught our attention: “Marketers and Media Companies, Start Your Scientists.” There is good news for unemployed cognitive scientists, statisticians, and mathematicians. Marketing companies want to hire you. According to the author, applying real science in marketing and advertising is the trend of the future, and the skills and expertise of scientifically trained individuals are needed to make that happen. It is hard to imagine that there is any science behind the latest toilet paper commercial. But maybe there is.

Science and entertainment almost always seem to play well together. Perhaps it is because the relationship usually proves to be mutually beneficial.

If we missed some recent examples of science and entertainment pairing up, tell us about them! We would like to hear from you.

Melissa Pollak volunteers at The Exchange, pursuing her interest in both science and the entertainment industry.  She retired from the National Science Foundation in 2010 where she wrote chapters of the biennial report Science & Engineering Indicators.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.