Thomas Edison slumps over a tangle of wires and metal parts on his desk. Rattled by nagging confusion, Edison mutters softly to himself.
Direct currents lose energy over long distances. Where could he have gone wrong?
Nikola Tesla strides in. Edison, although hesitant, steps aside to let his longtime foe search for a solution of his own.
Tesla proposes the alternating current: a slipstream of electrons capable of switching directions. In a stubborn huff, Edison dismisses the idea.
He claims that Tesla’s time would be better spent perfecting the direct current.
Watching the sparks fly between two paragons of electrical engineering, the audience hangs on every syllable.
On Wednesday, April 30, the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics held a staged reading of the top four pieces selected in the 2014 SBU Science Playwriting Competition. This is the second year the event has taken place at the university.
Christopher Herzog, an associate professor in the CN Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, founded this celebration of the intersection of theatre and science in 2010 at Princeton University.
Herzog is a former assistant professor at Princeton. He joined the Stony Brook faculty in 2011 and took the playwriting contest with him.
“We organized this event to get more people interested and excited about science,” Herzog said. “It is for authors who might have never thought to write a play about physics and math, actors who do not ordinarily get a chance to perform in plays about science and also the audience who may have never voluntarily attended a physics lecture.”
With just eight actors, three scripts perched on precarious stands and an arsenal of imaginary props, the performance was captivating.
“Understanding,” by Colin West, a Ph.D. Candidate at the CN Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics claimed first place in the contest. “Searching for David,” by Bruce Futcher, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology took second.
“The Future Tells the Truth,” by David Vazdauskas, a marketing strategist and playwright from Maine, took third and “Good Advice,” by Matt Von Hippel, a graduate student in the CN Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, received honorable mention.
The four plays explored diverse concepts in science ranging from the fabled history of the world’s most famous electrical engineers to the plight of young scientists looking to elucidate their intimidating scientific vernacular to reach a broader audience.
The latter drove the narrative in “Understanding,” a chronicle of two scientists, Bill and Alan, who persuade a senator to help subsidize their space program.
Prior to entering the senator’s office, Alan proceeds to speak romantically about space , “the unknown frontier,” and likens himself and Bill, in an analogy, to Lewis and Clark.
“It’s such a perfect fit,” Alan said. “It’s not even an analogy, it’s like an isomorphism.”
Bill warns Alan not to use overtly mathematical or scientific terms when they sit down with the senator.
That could spell disaster for their space program prospects. This moment in the play proved to be a contextual zoom-out. It let the audience see the communicative barriers that science can create.
Beneath the jargon, there is a poetic passion in science that may surprise those not in the field.
By making this visible the playwriting competition, an event that champions the communication and celebration of science, was a success.