Physicists on song

30th September 2005 at 01:00
A lively new musical about Einstein is helping to make science a more celebrated part of mainstream culture. Carolyn O'Grady reports

A motley five have landed in present time owing to a flaw in the spacetime continuum. They have one thing in common - a profound understanding of physics. They are Einstein, an American hoodlum, like his buddy Hubble (of the telescope); Newton, a crazy boffin with wild hair; Marie Curie, a sassy sophisticate with a sexy French accent and a small dog; and an effete and artistic Galileo.

Under the leadership of modern scientist Anna, they come together to thwart the machinations of Nicholas Strangeglow and his evil two-headed mentor who, having stolen Anna's discovery of an renewable energy source, are intent on destroying the world. The denouement occurs at the Nobel Prize ceremony after a brief, but potent appearance by Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, singing a rap number entitled "A Blast from the Past".

That's the story. Throw in a bevy of catchy songs, James Bond-style action - with the difference that our lead is a kick-boxing female physicist - lively dance numbers, pantomime-style audience participation and you've got the flavour of a musical, The Big Bang, which has been doing the rounds of some Merseyside schools and theatres.

In this year of Einstein, it aims to make physics sexy and to encourage young people, especially girls, into the laboratory. Though its vivid characterisation owes nothing to our historical understanding of its chief characters, and there's no overt instruction, its audience laps up a diverse range of messages about physics and its role.

Last term, The Big Bang was performed at Hillside High School - a science college in Bootle, Sefton - to pupils in Years 7 to 10, and to children from one of its feeder primary schools. There were performances during the day for pupils and in the evening for parents and other members of the public. For the students, it was the culmination of weeks of work on Einstein.

Each group, says science college manager Wendy Daly, reacted in their own way: the primary school hissed and cheered; the adults danced in the aisles; Year 10 pupils (staying cool an obligation) were more restrained, but "feedback from all groups was 100 per cent positive.

"People commented that they had learned what Marie Curie did, when Isaac Newton was born and that energy can be dangerous if used in the wrong way," Wendy says.

They also learned about the Nobel Prize and taken in that iconic equation E=mc2.

Students agreed that the show promoted female scientists. There were other messages, too: one boy commented that he had learned it wasn't right to "try to be someone's friend and then cheat on them".

The project was the idea of Dr Dominic Dickson, a reader in Liverpool University's Science Communication Unit, which investigates new ways to communicate science to a wider audience. "It started with only the title and the idea that it would be a musical with human interest, and incorporating a journey of exploration," he says.

"I wanted to create a change in attitudes towards science - to say that it is something that is accessible, that can be enjoyed, that is part of our culture and is not just an academic discipline."

Dominic suggested the idea to Phil Freeman, a writer in education and former science teacher who "picked up the ball and ran with it".

A workshop attended by undergraduates resulted in a basic script and over time musical numbers were written, actors recruited and, under director Adam McGuigan, the show came together.

Last year, it played at a small Liverpool theatre, then toured as part of the university's Science Journeys project, for an audience of young people in schools and colleges. In April it went to an International Science Festival in Goteborg, Sweden, where, a British Council spokesperson says it was "very well received".

Recent funding from the DiverSETy Unit, part of the Office of Science and Technology, has enabled more work in schools and a performance at Liverpool's Unity Theatre. All the time the piece is evolving - its recent manifestations have taken in more Einstein in recognition of this year. And it's not over yet - the company keep evaluating the project and seeking more funding.

Meanwhile, at Hillside High School over the summer, a gifted and talented primary liaison project was organised for pupils to work with Phil and make their own piece of theatre inspired by The Big Bang. Other schools, take note.

* For more information contact Phil Freeman Email:

For information on scientists and song lyrics visit

Lesson ideas

* Research lives of scientists using books and the internet

* Find human interest stories to make science come alive: check on the Big Bang website for a start.

* Develop song ideas based around formulae, slogans and basic laws.

* Brainstorm unusual combinations: could Isaac Newton be a country and western singer or Einstein a rapper?

* Improvise a short play, using songs in different styles.

* Put on a performance, and end with a question and answer session on "Is this really physics?"

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