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Artists, Entertainers Add Sizzle to Science

If you've ever stifled a yawn as a scientist explains how carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, Michelle Ellsworth's approach to the topic may change that. Ellsworth is a dance professor at the University of Colorado. Her audience laughs and watches attentively as she and other dancers pay homage to a hamburger on an altar.

"This burger is carbon-based," they sing. "It has carbon in it. We have carbon in us."

The lyrics go on to explain that while rising carbon dioxide levels increase the pace of climate change, carbon itself is not all bad; it causes trouble when its use leads to more greenhouse gas. Then, to convey how time is running out for addressing climate change, Ellsworth interrupts her act with a timeout beeper.

Ellsworth's performance is not only entertaining, says University of Colorado climate scientist, Jason Neff. As her consultant and collaborator, he's proud to say the science information in it is accurate enough to impress experts in the audience.

"People came up and said, 'Wow, there was a lot of science in that!'" he says with a grin.

Arts change how people think about science

Neff and Ellsworth are part of a growing number of scientists and artists teaming up to create lively - and accurate - performances about science. Ellsworth suggests their collaboration could lead to better climate change solutions.

"I think it is my fantasy that people are going to think longer and think twice and think differently," she says.

Opera fans are thinking differently these days about the power contained in the atom, thanks to Dr. Atomic. In the 2005 opera by John Adams, the singers portray American scientists, working through the night, as the first atomic bomb is readied for testing. The libretto, by Peter Sellars, uses factual information from declassified documents to tell how the United States tried to end World War II by creating the devastating weapon. It also includes poems that were cherished by some of the scientists, as they struggled with their fears that instead of stopping war, their invention might destroy the world.

While dramas such as Dr. Atomic highlight the conflicts that technology can present, the arts can also showcase the joy of science, as in Len Barron's one-man show about the renowned physicist Albert Einstein.

"He was at a gathering one time, and somebody made some mention of his manner of dress," Barron tells his audience, noting that Einstein was well-known for his lack of fashion sense. "And he said, 'Look, after I discovered that the Earth was matter that expanded into nothing that was something, I want to tell you - wearing plaids with stripes was real easy.'"

Delivering science with a sense of wonder

The crowd laughs at Barron's light-hearted stories. But his meticulously researched biographical sketches deliver a serious message. Fewer and fewer American students are studying math and science. One reason, he says, is that educators load them up with data, without engaging their hearts.

"Einstein said you certainly don't start off education by giving people equations. You start them off with a story. If you give them data first, it doesn't matter whether it's science or any other subject. You know, first you have to elicit that curiosity, that sense of wonder, and then the data has a context."

Creating that sense of wonder is why dancer Michelle Ellsworth and geologist Jason Neff teach a class together at the University of Colorado, as well as presenting shows about climate change.

First, Neff gives a classroom lecture on climate science. Then, Ellsworth has students stand up, push their chairs out of the way and produce a performance piece. Sometimes, she even asks Neff to join her in performing science. He admits that while it hasn't made him a better dancer, it does help his students be better scientists.

"If you let students explore ideas through art to sort of internalize the ideas that are behind the science," he says, "they really understand it when they're done."

Neff says he hopes more scientists and artists will collaborate to enliven the dry facts of science with passion and play.

And that seems likely to happen. The National Science Foundation provides some support to untraditional outreach programs such as these, and so do many corporations and groups that support the performing arts.