With Summerhall’s plethora of converted lecture theatres, authentically replete with vertiginous wooden benches and bored graffiti, it makes sense to programme some information-based multi-media lecture-type affairs, even if under fringe marketing conditions the risk is always that like Sir Isaac Newton, you could end up chuntering on to an empty hall.
Not a single soul turned up for his second lecture as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, and it would be this way for the next 17 years. As his assistant related: “so few went to hear him, & fewer that understood him, that oftimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to the walls.” Deliberately making his lectures dense and abstruse, if no one turned up he would reduce his thirty minute lecture to fifteen and then return to what he considered his real work; that of research. It’s this mentality, and the technical complexity of the subject, that has seen the rise and rise of science communications. And Higgs takes on this job with a remarkable degree of legibility, freshness and the requisite tone of breathless wonder.
For the bouncy and floppy haired Jan van den Berg, the discovery that neutrinos have mass, and that 80 billion of them would rush through your fingernails – “now, “now” and “now” – begins a love affair with a quantum understanding of the universe, which is at the same time him giving a bit back, dialoguing with these “devilish little bastards” as one eminent scientist dubbed them. We are given the grand tour from Democritus’s atom to these little neutrinos and the undoing of plenty we’ve hitherto known, through a performed dialogue with a Papuan chief, where Van den Berg found himself opening a cultural centre in his relative’s name. And as problematic a heuristic as that might be, it’s a sharp way to simplify at the same time as setting up a cross-cultural platform as the Chief is rendered curious and concurring (“ancestors, fate: everything is energy and convertible”).
While we take Van den Berg for a man of science, part way through he points out he’s an amateur from a theology background (“you might be able to see it on me”). Apt for the study of “nothing” he tells, seriously. And so there is a natural questing tendency to get to the “God Particle”, the Higgs-Boson we are all familiar with and the drive to understand the “origins of mass, structure, you, me and everything”. A videoed interview with Peter Higgs in which he recalls exclaiming *shit* is lightly hagiographic, and while Van der Berg is an extremely adept communicator who makes his correspondences with smart precision, and with more latitude than someone like the glowing, breathless, Brian Cox’s of telly-land, there is something in the persistence of the note of awe and wonder, and the swearing designed to leaven it, that is in a way domineering: The lecture element is necessarily softened (at times there is an over-reliance on spooling big numbers, and the analogies like battleships and the Titanic are a little kids-book) and while we identify with his curiosity, the sense of a generative set of questions, which might have compelled a narrative feels slightly missing.
The show closes with a fifteen minute interview with a guest scientist, (which on selected performances will be Peter Higgs himself), who tonight was asked about whether art and science have a similar disposition, a similar tendency to produce more questions (Karl Popper believed so, for the deductive philosopher “science is the art of systemic over-simplification”). Our physicist guest havered. Art is a useful tool for communicating science, but does it swim in the other direction, Van den Berg queried, does science learn from art? To which our guest frankly admitted, with some embarrassment “no”. Which is an accurate-enough appraisal of the way this goes, and threw into sharper the relief the way our host pulled science into a storytelling space and gave it an adept cultural sensibility, alleviating the complexities of strange quarks with charms, and however engaging, collected, sharp and questioning Van den Berg appears to be, it felt like this ran close to evangelising, and making a saint of Peter Higgs – science can fill lecture theatres this way, but perhaps this isn’t as much as a dialogue across the two cultures as it sets out to be.