The Gonzo Scientist

Can Scientists Dance?

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Science  15 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5865, pp. 905
DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5865.905b

John Bohannon

This is the first in a series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from ScienceContributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

No one quite knew what to expect as the lights came up on a pair of astrophysicists dressed as binary galaxies. To the tune of an old tango, Ruth Gruetzbauch stalked and twirled around Jesús Varela before surrendering to his supermassive gravity. The rowdy audience of scientists exploded with applause. The world's first Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, with Christoph Campregher at the controls of the sound system, was off to a good start.

Campregher was the inspiration for the event. By day, as a molecular biology Ph.D. student at the Medical University of Vienna, he studies the connection between inflammation and colorectal cancer. But by night, he becomes an experimental DJ with the stage name trockenmoos, spinning in clubs and salons across the city. The Ph.D. dance contest was the warm-up act for the debut performance of Campregher's latest collaborative project, called Molecular Code, a work that uses only sounds sampled in a molecular biology lab. Between 100 and 200 scientists showed up for the occasion—an open bar may have helped—fittingly held not in a nightclub but in the new steel-and-glass building that houses the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) and the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA). Organized by IMP Ph.D. student Nilay Yapici, the event snowballed into a blowout science party, with two other scientist-DJs agreeing to take part: Ph.D. students Martha Körner of IMP and Philip Starkl of the Medical University of Vienna.

It's not surprising that scientists make good DJs. As vinyl gives way to ever-more-sophisticated software on laptops, having an ease with complex systems—and a nerdy fetish for technology—is a natural advantage. But what about the audience? After all, a DJ show requires warm bodies reacting on the dance floor. By reputation, scientists are skilled in making music, but I wondered, “Can scientists dance?” (If you've ever witnessed the weddinglike awkwardness of dances at scientific conferences, you know what I mean.)

To address the question, I added one more component to the event. The rules were simple: Using no words or images, interpret your Ph.D. thesis in dance form. Entrants were divided into three categories—graduate student, postdoc, and professor—and the prize for each was a year's subscription to Science.

Dance Your Ph.D.

What surprised me about the Ph.D. dance contest was its diversity. Although I widely advertised a call for submissions in institutional newsletters and on the Internet, I expected that only molecular biologists would take part. But the final roster was a broad sampling of fields, including astronomy, quantum physics, anthropology, and archaeology. There was even one dance—Ingrid Schraffl's Ph.D. on the history of opera—based on what Anglo-American academia considers the humanities. But here, the academic term Wissenschaft places the sciences and humanities on equal footing, so no one felt that was out of place. Nor was it limited to Vienna: The 12 dancers included an Italian who came north from Trieste, an American and an Italian who flew in from England, and several other expats.

But the diversity of the dancers was nothing compared with the diversity of their output. The graduate student category is a case in point. The first dance, Gruetzbauch's 30-second galactic tango, focused on one phenomenon: the capture of a galaxy by a larger one. Schraffl gave us raw data—a small scene from Il pittore parigino by Domenico Cimarosa—without analysis or metaphor. Sven Ramelow did a bit of both. His quantum physics Ph.D. title allowed him to make a play on words: The acronym SPUC is a homophone of a German word for ghost, and hence the scary sheet dance. Meanwhile, he used a laser light attached to his head to illustrate the strangely behaving photons he studies. (Very clever.) But then came Brian Stewart.

Stewart was the winner not only of the student category but also of the contest overall. The points were awarded by a panel comprised of four judges who watched the show from a table near the stage. They were Michel Breger (a champion folk dancer as well as a professor of astrophysics at the University of Vienna), Karl Grammer (a professor of anthropology at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology and a world expert on the evolutionary roots of dance), Brigitte Gschmeidler (a science communicator at the nonprofit organization dialog<>gentechnik, and Fabiana Pastorini (a Vienna-based professional dancer). Without conferring, the judges awarded each dance a score between 0 and 5 points on three scales of creativity—artistic, scientific, and physical—and up to 5 bonus points for an attribute of their choice, such as costumes, philosophical depth, etc. At the end, all the judges' scores were pooled. Out of 80 possible points, most dances scored in the 20s and 30s. Stewart scored 54.

No one was surprised when he scooped the prize. For one thing, Stewart wore nothing but a shimmering, translucent loin cloth. (That's worth a few bonus points in my book.) But the judges told me afterward that his dance stood out because it accomplished two things at once. Most importantly, “he connected with the audience,” said Pastorini. “That is the purpose of dance: to create emotions.” A big help was his choice of music—a jazz interpretation of African Pygmy tribal music by Herbie Hancock—which created an atmosphere of funky ancientness.

But like all the dancers, Stewart had a second job: to somehow convey his Ph.D. thesis. Before the show, each dancer had about 60 seconds to describe their research to the judges. So this was more than just a dance contest. Folded in was the ability to summarize your work succinctly. In Stewart's case, that work is titled “Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, sharing, cooking, and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa.” His highly stylized chase of an antelope—played by fellow University of Oxford archaeologist Giulia Saltini-Semerari—followed by processing and sharing of the goods, was elegant. “What I most looked for was that scientific ideas came across,” said Gschmeidler. “He did this perfectly.”

The other two winners had radically different approaches. The winner of the postdoc category, molecular biologist Nicole-Claudia Meisner, performed a tap dance. She held up a series of index cards with symbols to mark different mechanisms of messenger RNA regulation, all in time to a piece of music composed by Campregher. The winner of the professor category was Giulio Superti-Furga, scientific director of the Center of Molecular Medicine (CeMM) in Vienna. With the help of two CeMM Ph.D. students, Adriana Gonçalves and Evren Karayel, he interpreted his 1991 Ph.D. on human developmental gene regulation with a complex, cabaret-style medley. (I can confirm that none of it was improvised because they later performed an encore flawlessly.)

Those were the winners, but at least to my mind, none of the dances came close to the raw energy of Simone Recchi's flailing, hazardous-looking interpretation of “Dynamical and chemical evolution of blue compact dwarf galaxies.” But I'll let you judge for yourself from the videos.

Molecular Code

After the dance contest had ended and the judges had retreated to a quiet room to add up the scores, the reins of the event were handed over to the scientist-DJs for the main event, Molecular Code. True to the scientific spirit, Campregher prefers collaborative projects with rigid constraints. In one long-running collaboration with Australian DJ little-scale (Sebastian Tomczak) called Milkcrate, the sounds to be sampled for electronic mixing must come from objects that fit together within a milk crate that each musician brings to the session. Another of Campregher's regular gigs involves laptops and live classical music performance. In a recent show, he was joined by a string quartet that included his wife, the violist Lena Fankhauser, during which they played a Shostakovich quartet and then jammed with his real-time laptop remix of their performance.

The idea for Molecular Code started, Campregher says, when he listened with new ears to “all those common sounds produced on a daily basis in molecular biology labs—by devices such as sequencers, centrifuges, beta counters, luminometers, and so on. Since everything we hear is based on oscillating sound sources, it can be transformed into musical patterns and rhythms.” It seemed like perfect material for a Milkcrate session, he says, “but an ABI Prism 310 DNA sequencer does not fit into a milk crate.” So Campregher and Tomczak launched Molecular Code with a new constraint: Only lab sounds are allowed.

A good DJ show is a feast for both the ears and the eyes, and Molecular Code was no exception. During “Sequencer,” Campregher and Tomczak's musical transformation of the sounds of DNA sequencing, one wall of the room was dominated by images of the device and the data it produces. (Full disclosure: When marketing officers at Applied Biosystems learned that one of their devices would feature in this project, they chipped in €300—nearly $450—to help Campregher pay for professional sound editing.)

The music of Molecular Code is interesting on its own if you know the constraints. But the videos provided the necessary ambience. And in some cases, they were the solution to riddles. In “Drosophila,” for example, the music was created from the mating songs of male fruit flies recorded by laser vibrometry in the IMP laboratory of Barry Dickson. But you would never guess this until the video—of a male fly chasing a female in a petri dish—finally sharpens from Atari-like pixelation to full resolution.

For the two videos I was most impressed by, Campregher had help from James Hutchins, a biochemist and microscopy expert at IMP. The videos for “Beta counter” and “Luminometer” include gorgeous scenes of fluorescently glowing cells moving and dividing. Besides Stewart's loin cloth, those made the show for me. (See the credits below for a full list of the researchers who contributed images.)

And what about the dancing? On the timeline of the entire evening, the dance contest and Molecular Code were only the appetizers. Starkl's “nu skool breakz” and Körner's groove and “nu jazz” spinning kept the party going into the wee hours. During this period, I noticed a trend: The more senior the scientist, the more willing they are to dance.

I base this on observations made on a dance floor dominated by postdocs and largely abandoned by graduate students in favor of the bar. Strangely, the dancing contest produced the opposite trend: Taken as a population, the students scored higher than the postdocs, and the postdocs beat the professors. An analysis of variance of the scores shows the age effect to be marginally significant (p < 0.11), and it merits further research. My guess: Students may look better on the stage, but it takes years of scientific experience to lose all inhibition on the dance floor.

Molecular Code: Credits

  • MOLECULAR CODE: Beta counter Music performed and recorded by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Movie footage taken by Christoph Campregher. Cell movies courtesy of Maria Nemethova (lab of Vic Small, IMBA). Editing by Jim Hutchins (Faux Pas Films).

  • MOLECULAR CODE: Luminometer Music performed and recorded by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Movie footage taken by Christoph Campregher. Cell movies courtesy of Stefan Köstler (lab of Vic Small, IMBA). Editing by Jim Hutchins (Faux Pas Films).

  • MOLECULAR CODE: Drosophila Music performed by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Drosophila sound recorded by Alex Keene (lab of Barry Dickson, IMP). Movie footage taken by Ebru Demin (lab of Barry Dickson, IMP). Editing by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos).

  • MOLECULAR CODE: Sequencer Music performed by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Movie footage taken by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Editing by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale).

  • MOLECULAR CODE: Microsatellites Music performed by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos) and Sebastian Tomczak (little-scale). Movie footage taken by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos). Editing by Christoph Campregher (trockenmoos).

2009 Dance Your PhD contest: Want to dance your own thesis? Stay tuned to where a CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS will be announced soon. Rather than a localized contest, the next round will be global. Scientists will video their own dances and post them online (e.g., to YouTube). The prize? Negotiations are underway to have the winners' latest peer-reviewed publications interpreted by a professional dance company next year. Good luck and happy grooving.

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