‘Bee’ Reviewed: Radial Symmetry

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Nyx: If you won’t pet me, maybe this book will. *knocks book over*

Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry is less about science than I expected, given that it was written by a research scientist and field ecologist. As a book of poetry, Larson’s imagery, clarity, and vividness is to be admired – there are moments of great beauty scattered throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Radial Symmetry wasn’t really the book for me; if you’re a reader who likes a cohesive narrative (or poems that feel connected), this collection will feel disjointed. Larson writes of her own experiences with loss, love, travel, and more, couching them in biological imagery (sometimes) but leaving us without any discernible threads to meaningfully connect these reflections. Within each of these reflections, there are certainly precise and beautiful moments of writing and insight; it should be noted that Larson pays particularly excellent attention to sound within her work. But much of the collection felt vague and too personal for me to understand. There were also a lot of noncommittally ‘thoughtful’ statements where Larson seemed to be attempting philosophy but fell short of dedicating herself to it – for example a catch-all, like “Either everything’s sublime or nothing is”.

This book of poems would work well for those who appreciate scientific reference without scientific exploration and who like to go on a personal journey with the author through a life not your own. Larson does offer a unique perspective on her human experience, particularly through poems about loss like Grandfather Outside. Readers who appreciate poetry collections in which there is a lot of variety and diversity in thought, imagery, and style will also appreciate this versatile collection.

Some of my favorite lines follow – from Statuary:

“But somewhere between/ the crane and the worm/ between the days I pass through/ and the days that pass/ through me/ is the mind…”

from Study for Love’s Body:

“Saturn revolves/ repeatedly around some distance/ where space is nothing/ yet still something that separates.”

from Love at Thirty-Two Degrees:

“Science-

beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,/ every time I make love for love’s sake alone,

I betray you.”

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Shame and Publications

One of the alumna of my undergraduate institution, Katherine Fusco, recently wrote a post I’d like to highlight: So, I’ve Been Publicly Shamed: On Writing and Resilience. As with all posts that I write about the works of others, I recommend you read the original piece first to better understand and engage with my post.

Fusco graduated from Geneseo in 2003, long before I began attending, and went on to earn her M.A. and PhD from Vanderbilt. She has numerous publications, teaches courses at the University of Nevada, and holds the Crowley Distinguished Professorship in Core Humanities. She is an excellent role model for a younger alumna like myself, just beginning her journey towards a PhD and a writing career. Recently, Fusco was publicly mocked online for her academic work in the field of film studies.

Fusco’s article is well worth a read, crossing the STEM-Humanities divide to speak to every person who publishes work as part of their career. Fusco was mocked on Twitter, where an account I won’t name (so as not to give them attention) posted a photograph of the abstract of an academic article she wrote with the caption, “When you’re not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks.” Fusco speaks of old feelings of fear resurfacing as the Twitterverse began to retweet and engage – fear that she was not good enough (as an academic, a writer, a thinker), fear that her coworkers were all laughing at her, fear that her public college undergraduate education was a stain on her reputation in the often-classist structure of academia.

Fusco’s work is just one of many to be mocked; much of the ridiculed work relates to women’s issues, feminism, or is simply written by women (leaving those mocking them to distribute their picture and comment on their appearance, as Fusco notes happened to her). We could derail into a feminist dialogue here (albeit an important conversation to have), but I’d rather stay focused on something else: As writers/researchers, whether we publish academic work or creative work, we must become prepared to deal with the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that will come up when we, and our work, are mocked online. Gone are the days when a scientist’s work and the critique of their work were largely separated from them as a person.

As a young writer, I worry that I don’t have the resilience Fusco displays – that I don’t have the maturity, sense of self, and career behind me to overcome being mocked. I hardly have the presence of self to send out work for potential publication or share my poetry with my writing group. In undergrad English courses we talked a lot about how to be resilient in the face of rejection by academic or literary journals, but not at all about how to overcome the feelings associated with being actively harassed for our work. When writers are not able to overcome these feelings of fear, anger, and shame when other ridicule or mock them for their publications, we lose valuable, communal knowledge, stories, truths, etc. as those writers/scientists stop pursuing certain lines of work or publishing.

It’s ridiculous to assume that we can stop online trolls but shouldn’t we better prepare our young writers/researchers to deal with often personal harassment and ridicule? If yes, how do we prepare them? Fusco offers some advice, as a scholar and teacher, to others who find themselves mocked, saying:

  1. Writing something better would not have mattered.
  2. Your work is not you.
  3. Some people wish you would just shut up and go away.

It’s important we teach young scholars and writers these principles (among others like: don’t feed the trolls) to prepare them for ‘peer review’ not by literary or academic publications but by the masses that often engage in ‘intellectual crusades’ against those that offer alternate views, lifestyles, etc. As our work and our selves become more intertwined with the ever-increasing net the internet casts, we must prepare the next generation of writers/researchers to deal with all kinds of critics, and to know which ones to ignore. We must teach this generation how to heal when ridiculed, how to respond, how to be resilient like Fusco works hard to be. Otherwise, we run the risk of having many writers shut up and go away, letting the trolls win to the detriment of society as a whole.

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The Perpetual Writer’s Block

Last December to February, I was behind on a writing contract (for the game/app I’m almost done beta-testing…finally). Every day, before and after class, in between homework and sorority, I did nothing but write. With the story rounding out at 185,000 words and completion in 2.5 months, I wrote an average of 2,312.5 words a day. I think one day I wrote about 9,000 words. It was nuts.

For the past month, however, I’ve been trying my hand at regularly producing content for this blog and I’ve discovered what makes my writer’s block shine.

  1. Not having a deadline – as a former college student (and soon-to-be grad student), I’ve realized that I’m very motivated by deadlines and… not by much else
  2. Perfectionism –  each post gives me the anxiety attack of wondering if this post will help or hurt my career overall (the logical side of my brain understands the answer is neither). How can I post something now when I’m not my best writing self yet? Paradoxically, of course, becoming your best writing self takes practice – say, developing content for a blog or something.
  3. Wanting to write something else – honestly, anything else. As soon as I settle down to write something for this blog, I quickly decide I want to write something else. Anything. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, recipes for pizza rolls.

You’d think the fact that this blog is in its infancy would help me not worry about being perfect; logically, if no one is reading what I write what does it matter? Unfortunately it seems I still have a ways to go before I separate my writing self from my emotional self enough to write unburdened by anxiety.

Do any of you suffer from writer’s block in the form of how-to-write and not what-to-write? How do you handle it?

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: I Thee Wed

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Nyx, doing a more typical heroine pose for a romance novel cover, looking up toward her tall, dark, handsome man (a.k.a. scratching post)

I have a confession – I used to be an avid reader of romance. About five years ago, I worked as a reviewer for three blogs and also had my own personal blog where I held contests and centralized all my reviews. Unfortunately, college quickly forced me to re prioritize (homework? sleep? eating? pick two, and forget about the rest of life!). I was delighted when I heard about Celeste Bradley’s most recent regency romance novel, I Thee Wed, which came out in May of 2016 and features not one but two scientists! This was a book with relevance to this blog, if only in how we portray science in mass market paperback.

Orion Worthington is an aspiring scientist in 19th century England with lofty ambitions, working for Sir Geoffrey Blayne as a lab assistant. Hoping to put his family name behind him and advance into the upper echelons of science-society, the last thing he needs is his own personal scandal with Blayne’s niece, Italian scientist Francesca Penrose. Francesca and Orion both agree that their mutual desire is impacting their research goals and something must be done to remove the distraction that temptation provides. But will one night of passion be enough experimentation to last a lifetime? (As any good scientist knows, all experiments must be repeated many times over. So right from the get-go, I’m going to say… no).

This book has all the classic elements of a well written historical romance: there is a great cast of warm, eclectic supporting characters and a completely contrived plot that gets resolved miraculously at the end (literally. the answer here is ‘magic’) which could have been resolved with a simple conversation earlier on. There’s hot, passionate kisses and daydreaming and sex and no one can keep their hands off one another. The dialogue is humorous and both Francesca and Orion are compelling characters. If you’re into romance novels of the historical variety, I would recommend this book – on an A+ to F/Did Not Finish scale, this book would come in at a solid B-. Above average, if only slightly.

But what is compelling and unique about this book is its relationship with science, particularly in that it seems to reflect an incorrect, but socially popular, view of science. The book’s major scientific discovery comes as a singular epiphany and one night of work by Orion, alone in a lab; that discovery is then presented to the scientific community about 16-24 hours later at a conference. In reality, science can involve epiphanies (though they generally need extensive tweaking) – but even in the 1800s, experiments had to be rigorously repeated. Science is slow; having the epiphany does not guarantee you’ll have figured it out the first time around or that your experiment will run without issue (actually, when does that ever happen?). And after getting your experiment to run, repetition and independent verification are required before bringing forth the results to the community (though today that process is more rigorous than in the 1800s, I’m sure).

Additionally, Orion is never seen doing research for his experiments in that he looks at no other literature. Science often requires us to stop and consult the work of others; it is not the work of a mad genius, alone in his lab, but of a collective mind, thriving. To someone not involved in science, I wonder if Bradley’s interpretation of scientists as lone geniuses with perfect epiphanies and perfect results after one night of work would seem odd (the way it did to me) or if this is, truly, the way modern society still understands the process and people of science.

Overall, the book remains light on discussions of scientific theory, touching briefly and vaguely on Lamarck and evolutionary theory, even as the process of science frames the overall plot. Charles ‘Charlie’ Darwin makes an appearance, which I found really humorous. I would even go so far as to say Bradley was daring in portraying a child-like Darwin, this serious scientific figure whose theory changed the course of biology, as a mildly asthmatic, whining troublemaker. This exchange in the epilogue particularly amused me:

“You’re older than Charlie,” he reminded her. “You should have kept him out of the deepest water.”

Attie was clearly offended. “I’m helping him. He needs to get more fit if he is to survive.”

Overdone? Perhaps. But just the kind of light-hearted, dramatic humor to end this kind of book.

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BioPoetics: I: Matured

First published in Mind Murals magazine, page 11, in the Spring of 2016. Listen to it read aloud here.

This poem blossomed out of I: Seeding in which I wrote about the way a strong wind can affect the shape of a growing sapling. Shortly after writing this poem, I learned that sugar maple trees are primarily wind-pollinated, not pollinated by bees as I had originally been led to believe in my previous research (this discovery is relatively new; Cornell’s website uses materials from 1996 which indicate bees pollinate sugar maple flowers but more recent studies show it’s actually primarily the wind). I felt it was necessary to write a follow-up about the relationship between the wind and the trees, when they grew older.

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Photo by Kent McFarland entitled ‘Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) flowers’ (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License), link through photo

Sugar maple trees begin to produce flowers around thirty years of age (this is the minimum for fruit-bearing) and the process of flowering is known as inflorescence. During good years (usually cyclical every two to five years depending on environmental conditions), the flowers fill the tree canopy so heavily that the tree takes on a yellowish cast. Most sugar maple trees will produce flowers of entirely male parts, those of entirely female parts, and those that have both male and female parts.

Pollen grains are (i.e. male spores) and can be found in the pollen sac, or microsporangium, before being distributed by wind (in the case of sugar maples). It’s important to note that all pollen grains are spores, but not all spores are pollen grains as there are also female spores (megaspores). Primitive plants and seed-bearing plants utilize spores differently in reproduction.

If a sugar maple flower is pollinated, it develops into a fruit – what we would colloquially call a ‘helicopter seed’ but can also be called a double samara. After pollination, the flower ripens into a fruit for about two weeks before each samara falls off the tree and is blown by the wind all over the land. The ‘winged’ shape of the samara lends itself well to being carried by wind through forests and fields, over snow and sand. Eventually, the samara settles and germinates if the conditions are right.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Lab Girl

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Nyx: I didn’t get up with you at 4 a.m. to read or write or take pictures. Now pet me.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was published earlier this year in April, to the immense delight of the world.

I cannot take credit for ‘discovering’ this book; my undergraduate research adviser, a truly phenomenal scientific mentor, gave me a copy with a very heartfelt inscription for graduation. It was a touching gift in the thoughtfulness – this professor had attended my senior reading for my Creative Writing major and listened patiently to my series of poems on Sugar Maple trees. After attending, she knew this book was perfect.

I would argue, however, that Lab Girl is not just perfect for young women headed to graduate school, studying ecology and with a peculiar love for writing about trees. Lab Girl is perfect for everyone. From the first page, Jahren introduces her readers to the most fundamental aspects of science, welcoming them into the book with an almost maternal nurturing. While this beginning may feel a little slow for some scientists, these pages set the tone for Jahren’s writing throughout – patient, thoughtful, inclusive, and aware.

I could tell you about the stunning imagery that makes you pause and close your eyes to better savor her words, the evocative chapters on plants that would touch the heart of the most apathetic person, the masterful writing and good humor, the balance between life’s happiness and its darkest points, the organization and pacing that create pages smooth and suspenseful – pages that turn themselves. I could tell you about the unusual awareness that permeates the novel as Jahren deals deftly with her past thoughts (recalled with impeccable detail), with present thoughts full of the uncertainty of an unknowable future, with even your thoughts and predictions. She is unflinchingly honest and this honesty is incredibly thought-provoking.

But all of these things are simply what make Jahren, to me, an amazingly capable writer. This is nothing truly special; there are hundreds of incredible, awe-inspiring writers like Jahren. What sets her apart is the way she engages her readers in the science, how she draws such perfect parallels between the science and lives of plants and her life/our world. Jahren is utilizing a new category of metaphor, one that she shows us has been grossly under appreciated in the past: the metaphor of real science. Jahren chooses not to underestimate her readers’ intelligence and gives us science intertwined with life so intimately that we cannot unravel them and instead must revel in the beauty and passion of that deep and beautiful connection.

Overall this book is a must read for everyone, regardless of your interest in or prior level of engagement with science. I can only hope that Lab Girl continues to flourish and inspire and, perhaps, even usher in a new age of popular literature that is rich with real science, pushing our society towards the revolution in our relationship with science that we all desperately need. That’s a lot of pressure for a book, an author; but if Lab Girl teaches us anything, it’s that Hope Jahren sure can do it.

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Mis-trusting Science

The New Yorker recently published a commencement address given by Atul Gawande here, which speaks to the larger impact of scientific thinking on our culture. It’s a really excellent speech and I recommend reading it in full.

Science is a collective endeavor – beyond the scientists who are actually doing the research, the rest of us in the lay community have a responsibility to science as well. Seeking out correct information, employing the scientific mindset, seeking to think up educated questions about everything, etc. is critical to healthy academic, economic, social, and political environments. We’ve seen how far a healthy, scientific culture can take us all, as Gawande says, allowing us “…to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe”. Gawande speaks to a decreased level of trust in the scientific community and prepares the graduates to go out and defend science and the scientific mindset. But I want to speak to what may be causing this decreased level of trust in the scientific community and I’m not sure it will be a surprise to anyone.

The internet, and the increased general abundance of “information”, has allowed us to build echo chambers for ourselves, the complete antithesis of what would be considered a scientific mindset. To paraphrase Gawande, a scientific mindset is an open mind, gathering information repetitively and testing expectations against that information, with the understanding that no knowledge is ever concrete. But our self-made echo chambers provide us with only one kind of information, leading us to believe that the knowledge we gained is actually completely true – after all, it’s so well supported! No longer are we asked to test our expectations in this new age; instead we are assured we are all experts in the matter at hand. When we can be self-assured experts, what need have we for the scientific community? Why place our trust in studies we didn’t conduct, studies that we, the experts, don’t agree with?

There’s an important distinction I need to make here between safe spaces and echo chambers. I’m not against safe spaces, areas (virtual or physical) that allow an individual to explore at their own pace some kind of trauma, injustice, or aspect of their being through personal expression without fear of harassment, persecution, violence, discrimination, or hate speech. Typically, safe spaces are created for individuals of a minority/oppressed group or those who have suffered unusual trauma such as rape, war, etc. Safe spaces are often used to help individuals come to terms with who they are or experiences they’ve faced; they provide support to people who are marginalized and in need often because the rest of the world is not supportive. This last point is key because it tells us that the people in the safe space are already receiving the alternate view to the safe space in their everyday lives and are thus not isolated from it.

Can a safe space become an echo chamber? Certainly, just as any community can. But they are not designed to be that way – just like a session with a counselor or support group would not automatically be considered an echo chamber (how angry would the public be if a counselor told a patient to ‘go kill themself’ because of a trauma they experienced? Intuitively, we understand people need whole-hearted support at times, with no opportunity for harassment!). All these avenues – safe spaces, counseling sessions, support groups – are simply places for people to work on being their best self without fear of being harmed, harassed, or discriminated against. People talking with others like them about experiences only relevant to them (for example,a group of plant biologists meeting to talk about sugar maple trees) is not the issue here; it’s when those communities decide to begin passing judgments on the world while ignoring factual evidence that we get in trouble.

Unlike what Gawande seems to suggest, this is a larger issue than just combating each individual non-believer in the scientific community. The internet is a new tool that we still haven’t learned how to use effectively, and it’s being used as a weapon of war against the scientific mindset through echo chambers and by perpetuating a culture where we don’t examine our sources carefully. Our culture surrounding internet usage needs to shift from mindless sharing, clicking, and liking to really thorough and informed questioning of what is put in front of us and who is creating and sharing content. Only when we all rededicate ourselves to employing the scientific mindset on the internet will we see the cultural shift necessary to bring back a much-needed communal trust in science.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: An Experiment with an Air Pump

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Nyx, looking up tearfully at the heavens after finishing the play…

An Experiment with an Air Pump is a play written in 2000 by British playwright Shelagh Stephenson, inspired by the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a 1768 oil-on-canvas by Joseph Wright of Derby (picture below).

Stephenson writes what is, so far, my favorite science play. Grappling with two times frames, one in 1799 and one in 1999, she uses a singular house to draw incredible parallels between the morals, actions, and goals of the two groups of people that lived there. Stephenson manages to craft incredible concise, impactful dialogue as she works with twice the time and cast of characters as a typical show.

Stephenson follows the cast of characters making up Wright’s painting in the 1799 scenes, with young lovers, writers, scientists, and family members all playing a role. In the 1999 scene, we follow scientist Ellen and her husband Tom, owners of the home, as they work on selling off the property and discover a dead body hidden under the stairs (presumably one of the 1799 characters).

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Public Domain

This murder-mystery sort of appeal gives the play a lot of suspense, and the clever dialogue between Phil, the 1999 handyman, Ellen, Tom (a humanities professor), and Kate (a scientist with shaky moral principles) all combine with the slower, more direct 1799 dialogue to paint one complete, no-loose-ends picture by the end of the play. Even better, Stephenson chooses to focus on stem-cell research and gene therapy, both looming as big ethical discussions in the very near future.

Every time I pick up this play, I feel like I’ve discovered something new Stephenson has done to make me question everything I know – about the links between science and art, the morality of the scientist, the dangers and benefits of scientific progress, and the nature of humanity, with our history creating our present. If I could recommend a play to get you hooked on the science-drama fusion, my friends and followers this would be it.

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How Nyx actually feels about the book – a much different review.

The dialogue is excellent, the plot is fast-paced and intriguing, but it’s the way Stephenson weaves parallels between the two environments to teach us about scientific ethics that really turns the play from good to unforgettable. Stephenson writes the suicide note for science, leaving a dire warning about what happens when we continue to pursue science with no ethical considerations. The play is masterful, managing to bleed you emotionally and mentally dry each time you read it and yet leave within you the desire to come back for more. And perhaps it is this exact feeling of wonder, curiosity – rapture – that Stephenson inspires in her writing that is the very essence of her warning about science.

 

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Works in Progress

This month, I’ve been working on several new poems for my Sugar Maple cycle. I was inspired to write again after my father and I took a trip around New York and happened to visit the memorial park where my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather all have their ashes buried. It was my first time visiting after my grandparents died a few years ago. The trip included tears.

As we approached the plaques set into the ground, my father remarked how it was hard to find the right nameplates because they’re all flat and slowly are covered by grass and leaves. “Mom – your grandma,” he told me, “Always liked this spot because it was easy to find. You find the garden, and they’re just under this large tree here. She always liked the tree.”

It turned out, upon closer inspection by this young ecologist, that the tree was a sugar maple. My recent fascination with this particular, though ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, tree species, felt like it had been given new breath and poetic meaning as we wound our way home through the back roads of rural New York.

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Making charcoal at Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

I’ve also become fascinated by something my brother told me; Jack Daniels whiskey is actually mellowed over charcoal made from sugar maple timbers as part of production. It’s crazy how, once you’re attuned to something, you see it everywhere.

In addition to those poems, I’m in the midst of beta testing my Narborion Adventures game, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. As my first game development experience, I can easily say I’ve learned so much about the hard work game developers put into the process – especially when it comes to beta testing a choose-your-own-adventure game! Whew! I can also say that I can’t wait for another opportunity because working with Liber Primus on this fantasy-adventure, while not easy, has been very fun.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: The Physicists

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Nyx, looking confusedly up to the future of physics with a saucy turn to her front, left paw…

I first reviewed this play for National Book Review Month, an awesome brainchild of SUNY Geneseo, and have expanded upon that review here. The edition of The Physicists that I read was translated by James Kirkup.

Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a delightful and sometimes silly play filled with intrigue, science, and murder, all leading up to an incredible plot twist that will leave your heart hammering and head swimming from the page-turning, gut-wrenching dialogue. Durrenmatt, a Swiss author, was heavily influence by the events of WWII when writing the play in 1961 and, in the play’s more serious moments towards the end, the gravity of the events of WWII stand in the background of the play’s dialogue.

The play takes place in an insane asylum and follows three patients, all nuclear physicists. New arrivals Herbert Beutler and Ernst Ernesti believe they are Newton and Einstein respectively, while long-term resident, Johann Mobius, believes he is visited by King Solomon. After another (yes, you read another) female nurse is murdered, the authorities are at their wits ends with the madhouse; the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, is forced to tighten security by bringing in new, male nurses to serve as guards. As the patients begin to get restless one night, they reveal their true selves and have a conversation that could end up changing the world…

The play is fast paced and incredibly humorous. The plot twist at the end is masterfully executed with precise and cutting dialogue that leaves you thinking about the future of physics and the ethics of science. As an example of Durrenmatt’s ability to concisely sum up an entire ethical argument, he writes:

“NEWTON: Is it because I strangled the nurse that you want to arrest me, or because it was I who paved the way for the atomic bomb?”

In one line, we are confronted with the huge ethical question of the role of the scientist in the outcome of their discoveries. Is Newton as complicit in the deaths of those who died via the atomic bomb (which his discoveries helped create) as he is in the death of the nurse he just directly murdered? Towards the end of the play, Durrenmatt engages with this ethical idea and more in a way that is stunning both in brevity and wit, and in the richness of the ideas’ direct societal applications. Despite being over fifty years old, this play retains relevance in how it grapples with our changing scientific reality.

Overall, this is masterful play with well-balanced satire; The Physicists is accessible to every audience regardless of someone’s familiarity with physics.

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