A disappearing number

Shane Shambhu (Ramanujan) and David Annen (Hardy)

Last night I went to see a live relay of Simon McBurnie’s A Disappearing Number in our local cinema, largely prompted by Miranda Cook (who plays Dorothy in Hidden Glory) enthusing about its recent London performance. I missed the Complicité production when it originally opened in 2007: having won numerous awards it’s been all over the world before its final tour in the UK this year.

I thought it was one of the best things I’d seen for ages. I loved Saskia Reeves’s performance – I saw some similiarities between the characters of Ruth and Dorothy Hodgkin, the combination of slight social diffidence with absolute command of and love for her subject, plus incredulous delight at falling in love, and using laughter to cover nervousness, embarrassment or even pain.

I thought the staging was breathtaking, creating so many moods and spaces with such economy. And I was surprised at how few people came on for the curtain call – somehow it felt like a much larger cast.

The story of Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematical genius who came to Cambridge in 1914 to work with G.H. Hardy,  is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Interweaving the historical narrative with modern characters was much more than a device, as McBurnie created moving parallels of love and loss as well as a means of explaining the maths in simple terms. I thought his courage in including complex content with quite a lot of exposition paid off, and not just because the performers were excellent.

I am lost in admiration at the way he wove together the themes of continuity and connection (the way he exploits the dramatic possibilities of the telephone is masterly)  , in a way that made the endings seem optimistic rather than tragic. The use of music (by Nitin Sawhney, dance and video gave physicality to an otherwise intellectual theme and increased the emotional impact.

I gather this was the last performance of the current run, but who knows when anyone might think of reviving it, so I’m so glad to have grabbed the last chance to see it.

Dorothy on tour

Miranda Cook as Dorothy Hodgkin in Hidden Glory

It’s taken a while, but we have finally managed to book five tour dates for Hidden Glory. They are:

SALFORD QUAYS, The Lowry Studio, M50 3AZ, 25 October, 7.00 pm, £8/£6, www.thelowry.com, 0843 208 6000

BRISTOL, The Wickham Theatre, BS8 1UP,  27 October, 7.30 pm, free but booking is essential, www.bristol.ac.uk/twilight-talks, 0117 331 8315

CAMBRIDGE, The Old Labs, Newnham College, CB3 9DF, 12-13 November, 7.00 pm (+ Sat mat),  £8/£6, www.wegottickets.com/f/p/1/2059

OTLEY, Otley Courthouse, LS21 3AN, 19 November, 7.30 pm, £7/£5, www.otleycourthouse.org.uk, 01943 467466

YORK, 41 Monkgate, YO31 7PB, 20 November, 7.00 pm, £8/£6, www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, 01904 623568

Please tell all your friends, and come along yourself!

More science on stage 1

Last Friday I went up to London to see a work-in-progress performance of The Nature of Thingsthe ‘other’ Dorothy Hodgkin play. I don’t regard it as competition as Esther Shanson’s work is so much more ambitious and complex than Hidden Glory. More than two years ago she set out to tell the stories of three women crystallographers – Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin – using dance, drama, music and both still and video projection. The result was a revelation, though still unfinished.

The Place, London’s leading centre for contemporary dance, has supported Esther’s production and it was packed for the free show with an eclectic mix of dance lovers, crystallographers, Dorothy’s relatives and colleagues, and curious members of the public. We saw the first act, which focuses mainly on Kathleen Lonsdale but introduces the other two women, and a video clip from the second act which uses gradually multiplying images of dancers performing to a fast jazz score to represent the three-dimensional structure of insulin.

I know I come to the subject with a lot of prior knowledge and interest, but I was riveted throughout. Esther and her company have developed a wonderfully touching script that fleshes out the relationships between Lonsdale, her mentor William Bragg and her husband Thomas. An altogether more spiky relationship characterises the pairing of a reincarnated Rosalind Franklin and James Watson as they review the history of structural molecular biology. Dorothy’s early, tentative steps in both science and love feature in this first act, but we will have to wait for the second for her ultimate triumph, the solution of insulin.

I’m less qualified to comment on the dance elements, but using dancers to represent the molecules that the three women studied brings out the personal relationships each had with her subject, and the sense of trying to pin down an elusive quarry. For DNA, the extraordinary aerialist Ilona Jäntti wove patterns with her body suspended between two ropes hung from above the stage.

We are promised the complete piece in 2011, and I for one can’t wait.

Dorothy goes on tour

As promised, here are the tour dates and contact details for Hidden Glory so far. Three more (London, Cambridge and York) are close to confirmation and I will add them as soon as possible.

Monday 25 October, The Lowry Studio, Salford Quays M50 3AZ, 7.00 pm, as part of the Manchester Science Festival. Book at www.thelowry.com

Wednesday 27 October, The Wickham Theatre, Bristol BS8 1UP, 7.30 pm, as part of the Bristol University Centre for Public Engagement’s Twilight Talks series. Free. Book at www.bristol.ac.uk/twilight-talks

Friday 19 November, Otley Courthouse, Otley, W.Yorks LS21 3AN, 7.30 pm, as part of Otley Science Festival. Book at www.otleycourthouse.org.uk

Animating Dorothy

Miranda Cook as Dorothy Hodgkin ((c)Mark Brome Photographer)

My long absence from the blogosphere is largely due to Dorothy Hodgkin’s centenary, which fell on 12 May 2010 (belated birthday wishes, Dorothy).

For a couple of years I had  been sending gentle prompts to various quarters suggesting that something should be done to mark the occasion, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s only female Nobel-prizewinning scientist. Jim Kennedy, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History responded by choosing that date to unveil a bust of Dorothy in the Museum, a long-cherished project that he had managed to pull off with support from the EPA Cephalosporin Fund.

Inspired by a one-woman show about Barbara McLintock, The Longing to Understand by Jane Cox, I offered to write a show about Hodgkin, Hidden Glory,  to be performed on the evening of the unveiling. On a scarily short timescale the project came to fruition as a professional show with a wonderful actress, Miranda Cook, and director, Abbey Wright, supported by a young creative team of designer Florence McHugh, lighting designer and production manager Andy Reader, and sound designer Chris Barlow.

Because my promptings had led the Royal Society to hold a commemorative day on 12 May, the Museum event took place on 10 May 2010. Dorothy’s sister Diana, 92, flew all the way from Canada to be there and to unveil the bust; all three of her daughters were also there, as were Dorothy’s daughter Liz Hodgkin and numerous other family and friends. We also invited lots of Oxford chemists and molecular biologists who had known Dorothy. ‘Uncanny’ was the verdict of one of them on Miranda’s performance, which was moving and quietly amusing by turns as it revealed the essential integrity of Dorothy’s scientific and personal lives.

We’re all very proud to have been involved in the project, and hope it can move on to new venues (we did a second performance at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford a few days later); I will post here as soon as we have some dates.

I’m now more convinced than ever that theatre is a great way to introduce audiences to science and scientists, giving them an insight into the scientific life that they will never get either from books or from ‘public engagement’ talks and demonstrations.

A Costa for science

I have made a bit of a career recently out of giving gloomy talks about the lack of public appreciation for scientific biographies. Last week I had to eat my words when Graham Farmelo won the Biography section of the Costa prize for his biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man. Not only has he won the acclaim of his literary peers, but the paperback edition is currently ranked in Amazon’s top 40 sellers.

I am delighted for Graham – the book is a tour de force, using previously unstudied original archive material to dig into the psyche of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century (see my review in the Guardian.) It’s a great start to 2010 – the year in which the Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary and we can look forward to a high profile for history of science.

I hope to be a more regular blogger as a result.

First woman chemist since Dorothy!

No sooner have I bewailed the Nobel Committee’s neglect of female physical scientists than they give the Chemistry prize to Israeli scientist Ada Yonath! She is the first woman chemist to receive it since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964, and the fourth ever. Her award, shared with Venki Ramakrishnan from the LMB in Cambridge and Thomas Steitz from Yale, is for discovering the three-dimensional structure of ribosomes, the intracellular machines that construct protein from RNA templates.

And she is another X-ray crystallographer.

Nobel women

What great news that Elizabeth Blackburn and her former student Carol Greider have shared the 2009 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. Together with Jack Szostak, who also shares the prize, they discovered that DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, protect the chromosome from degradation every time the cell makes new copies of its DNA. Working with Blackburn, Greider also discovered the enzyme telomerase that supports the reconstruction of the telomeres.

Their success brings the total number of  times a woman has been awarded a science Nobel to fifteen. Two of those occasions involved the same woman, Marie Curie, who won both the Chemistry and Physics prizes. Ten of the prizes were for Physiology or Medicine, just five for Physics or Chemistry. There have been just three for Chemistry, one of them won by Dorothy Hodgkin.

It was curiosity about Hodgkin’s tremendous achievement – she remains the only British woman ever to have won a science Nobel – that got me started writing about scientist’s lives. How did she do it? Parents with high intellectual expectations of their daughters, a women-only college at Oxford, a husband who didn’t make her stop working, cheap childcare,  supportive and liberal-minded male colleagues, a new and rapidly-advancing field, and above all her own formidable skills as a chemist and crystallographer – all these played a part.

Crystallography is often said to be a field in which women excel. If so (one thinks of Kathleen Lonsdale, Rosalind Franklin, Judith Howard, Louise Johnson and many others as well as Hodgkin), it may have to do with a ‘founder’s effect’ caused by a small number of labs from which women who were well supported went on to found their own, equally female-friendly labs. According to Catherine Brady’s excellent biography of Blackburn, the  same is true of telomere research. Both Blackburn and Greider are mothers, and both run their labs, to the benefit of both men and women, with a proper respect for the balance of work and home life.

The progress of women to the highest echelons of science is still painfully slow. Hodgkin, Blackburn and Greider show that it can be done, and without compromising family life.

Lives of the cell

The series on The Cell that has just concluded on BBC 4 is possibly the best presentation of history of science that I’ve every seen on TV. No cringe-making reconstructions, just an informed and engaging presenter (Adam Rutherford) visiting the locations of key figures in the development of cell theory and repeating their experiments using their own technology. Result: a programme that recreated the genuine wonder of discovery for the viewer.

Rutherford made us care about the remarkable individuals who got us from medieval ideas about spontaneous generation to our modern understanding of how cells reproduce and differentiate to perpetuate life on earth. He evoked real sympathy for poor Robert Remak, the 19th-century German physiologist who proved definitively that all cells come from other cells – and that therefore we and all other life must trace our ancestry back to the same single cell. Remak’s so-called friend Rudolph Virchow pinched his idea, published it in a book and took all the credit.

The hero-based approach to history of science is rather frowned upon by academic historians. But for evidence that it works as a route in for the non-scientifically trained, see Lucy Mangan’s characteristically ebullient review in The Guardian.’It was, as ever, the incidental anecdotes about the pioneering investigators that lodged most firmly in the mind’, she says, and I couldn’t agree more.

Three cheers for Mangan, by the way, for not assuming that her readers think all science is boring and denigrating its practitioners accordingly.