Melding science and art

Crazy scientistCredit: JestMe

Scientists spend a lot of time learning about mostly very tiny things; chemicals, molecules, cells, the occasional protein, so we tend to miss out on a lot of stuff other people seem to think is important, like, social interaction and communication.  Some things can be overcome, for example, I solved the problem of fashion by simply buying all of my clothes the same color.  Steve Jobs had a similar approach, sticking with jeans and a black t-shirt for almost all occasions.  Regardless, sometimes you have a burning desire to communicate an idea to another human being, and, since you’re a scientist, the only thing you feel worthy of passing along is usually your own research.  With all the science jargon in our brains, and no real idea of how to talk to another human being, we frequently end up babbling what seems to be complete nonsense.  It’s a big problem for scientists, how do you explain your research to someone who isn’t in the field?  Most people have no idea what a polymerase chain reaction is, and couldn’t care less about deuterium in tungsten.  So what’s a scientist to do?  Well, dance, of course.

Really?  You don’t see the connection? Well, neither do I, but lack of logic hasn’t stopped hundreds of young scientists from submitting physical interpretations of their research over the past five years.  The entries range from easy to follow, to so abstract you’ll need an interpreter. 


The evolution of nerdy fun

Started in 2007 as a ‘one-off’ fun event, the “Dance your PhD” contest has been sponsored since 2009 by Science and AAAS, and the number of submissions each year keeps growing. Gonzo Scientist John Bohannon’s original intentions were to both allow scientists to express their creativity, and make science more accessible for the average person.   Dispelling the stereotypes about scientists being nothing more than stuffed shirts is just a bonus. From a small start with all submissions being performed live at a conference in Vienna, the contest has changed and grown. Original entrants were divided into three categories, graduate student, post doc, and professor.  The prize was nothing more than a subscription to Science magazine.[1]  You can see some videos of the original participants at

Changing the rules to video submission opened up the contest for young scientists all over the world.  All that’s needed is a camera, an idea, and a fair amount of moxy.  The winner from 2012 didn’t even have a video camera; instead he created a stop-action film using stills taken with an ordinary digital camera.  Researchers submit their videos which are judged by a panel.  Winners are chosen in four categories; physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences.  The winner from each category receives a $500 prize, and an overall winner wins an additional $500 as well as a trip to Belgium to be crowned at TEDxBrussels[3].  The judges include past winners, senior scientists, educators, and professional dancers.  Additionally, from a set of finalists, readers of Science are encouraged to select their entries to win the glorious distinction of ‘the reader favorite’.  Last year’s winners were chosen from 36 entries submitted from all over the globe.  This is down slightly from 2011, which had 45 videos submitted to the contest.

The initial entries are judged by contest winners from previous years and narrowed down to a list of finalists.  From this list, the more professional judges make their selections for each category, and the overall winner. The entire process takes less than a month.


And the winner is.....

I know you’re on the edge of your seat!  Who won??  Wait no longer!  Here it is, the 2012 winner of Dance your PhD, Peter Liddicoat and his amazing dance: A super-alloy is born: The romantic revolution of Lightness & Strength:

Just from watching the video I can tell you that just by rearranging the crystal structure of an alloy you can alter the strength of the material.  I think his research is pretty cool, and apparently the science world does too, since his PhD thesis ended up being published in Nature, which is a pretty big deal. 

um…well…that’s nice…right?  Actually, for last year’s winner, Joel Miller[4], winning the contest has resulted in having his research featured in newspapers, blogs, and worldwide radio – more exposure than many new PhDs can expect to see in a lifetime.  And imagine what a hit you’ll be with the grad students when you start your own lab.  Heck!  Your video will be shown at every major conference at which you present!  OK, if you’re going to enter the contest you’d better have more than a little moxy, in case you win.  Check out Miller’s entry, Microstructure-Property relationships in Ti2448 components produced by Selective Laser Melting: A Love Story, which tells the tale of finding the ideal alloy of titanium for use in durable, yet flexible hip implants.  Don’t get it?  Watch the video:

You could totally do this!

Yes!  That was amazing! Excited? Ready to create your own video?  The rules are loose, but they do require you to be a scientist of some sort, and you must post your video on vimeo (one of the sponsors). Add a brief description of how your entry describes your research and send the link to the gonzo lab by October 1st.  Each researcher also must be in his or her video leading to some fun games of ‘spot the scientist’ during painfully nerdy video watching parties. In case you’re concerned that you don’t have enough talent to pull off a video, check out some of last year’s entrants

Sometimes all you need is a good idea and some snappy music.  I can’t remember if this was one of the finalists from 2011, but I think it’s a great video, and tells you everything you need to know about cross contamination.

See?  Everything you need to know about cross contamination in the food industry, and you'll be humming that song for days! (It's Chocolate, by Soul Control.)

I have no idea how all of this looks to a non-scientist.  From the ‘inside’ I can tell you that despite their inability to communicate in anything less than four-syllable words, science folk are very fun, creative people.  I promise you, if you can teach your scientist to actually talk like a normal person, you’ll have a companion that’s (possibly) a lot of fun to be with.  If not, you can always make yourself a sleep-tape by convincing your science geek to tell you about his or her research.  Plan for a lot of talk time.