The Gonzo Scientist

The Science Dance Match-Up Challenge

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Science  17 Apr 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5925, pp. 332
DOI: 10.1126/science.324.5925.332b

John Bohannon

A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

Thank you for taking part in the following experiment. You are about to see four dances. Each of them is based on a different scientific research article. Your task is to match the dances with the science that inspired them.

We use science and art for very different things. Science helps us to simplify the universe by deciphering its physical laws and history. In a certain sense, we use art to do the opposite. Artists take the simple, everyday material of our lives and turn it into unique, complex experiences. The dances you are about to see are an extreme merging of both.

They are the final output of the 2009 AAAS/Science Dance Your Ph.D. Contest. They started with the purest form of scientific communication-research papers that supposedly leave little room for more than one interpretation-and transformed them into modern dance, a medium in which individual interpretation is the essence.

If not a single person correctly guesses what science these dances were based upon, it certainly won't make them artistic failures. The goal of the choreographers was to make art, not study guides. Nonetheless, this is an experiment worth doing. When art jumps out of science, can we retrace its path?

What's Ahead

All Illustrations: Katrien Kolenberg

Meet the Scientists

This experiment began back in October 2008 with a challenge to scientists to interpret their Ph.D. theses in dance form, capture the dances on video, and upload them onto YouTube. Six weeks later, a panel of expert judges chose four winners, hailing from Australia, Germany, Canada, and the United States. (All of them have artistic backgrounds.)

The scientists then passed the baton to the artists. Each scientist was paired with a choreographer. Between November and January, the choreographers studied in depth a peer-reviewed research article from their scientists' labs. The scientists helped them come to grips with the research and its underlying science. The four choreographers then used that raw scientific material to create a four-part dance called THIS IS SCIENCE.

You are about to see videos of the output of this collaboration, performed in front of an audience in Chicago, Illinois, on 13 February during the AAAS annual meeting. (The event was made possible with a grant from AAAS, publisher of Science.)

Here are the starting materials that were given to the choreographers:

SCIENTIST A: Sue Lynn Lau, Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia

Article: J. E. Gunton et al., “Loss of ARNT/HIF1β Mediates Altered Gene Expression and Pancreatic-Islet Dysfunction in Human Type 2 Diabetes.” Cell122, 337 (2005). [Abstract][Full paper][PDF]

In a nutshell: Pancreas cells and mutant mice were used to prove which genes get messed up in type 2 Diabetes. (Here is a handy overview that Lau sent to her choreographer.)

SCIENTIST B: Miriam Sach, University of California, San Diego

Article: M. Sach et al., “Unified inflectional processing of regular and irregular verbs: a PET study.” Neuroreport15 533 (2004). [Abstract][PDF]

In a nutshell: There are two theories for how the brain processes verbs. Either regular and irregular verbs are handled differently by different parts of the brain, or they're not. Scanning people's brains while making them do verb puzzles supported the latter theory.

SCIENTIST C: Vince LiCata, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

Article: K. Datta and V. J. LiCata, “Salt Dependence of DNA binding by Thermus aquaticus and Escherichia coli DNA Polymerases.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry278, 5694 (2003). [Abstract and full paper][PDF]

In a nutshell: DNA copies itself with the help of an enzyme called DNA polymerase. This was a biochemical comparison of DNA polymerase from two bacteria, E. coli (of bowels fame) and the hot-springs-loving T. aquaticus. Even though these two versions of the enzymes do the same job, they turn out to bind DNA very differently depending on how salty the water is.

SCIENTIST D: Markita Landry, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Article: Y. R. Chemla et al., “Mechanism of Force Generation of a Viral DNA Packaging Motor.” Cell122, 683 (2005). [Abstract][Full paper][PDF]

In a nutshell: A laser beam was used to measure the forces generated by a teeny-weeny motor (made of protein) that viruses use to stuff DNA into their empty heads, getting ready to infect new cells.

Meet the Choreographers

The Windy City is full of artistic talent. But it takes a rare breed to sign up for a gig like this. Before even stepping foot in the dance studio, each choreographer spent weeks studying his or her research article. It's no simple matter turning hard-core scientific research into music and moving bodies. But Jenn Liang Chaboud, Christopher M. McCray, Helena Reynolds, and Chloe Jensen pulled it off.

These are the dances that they created:

Dance 1

Choreographer: Jenn Liang Chaboud

Dance 2

Choreographer: Christopher M. McCray

Dance 3

Choreographer: Helena Reynolds

Dance 4

Choreographer: Chloe Jensen

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