Director’s note

When I posted the first audition announcement for this play, I declared that you could take me out of the liberal arts college, but you couldn’t take the liberal arts college out of me. I have always lived on the intersection of arts and sciences (or, more broadly, STEMM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine). But my dreams of somehow exploring the intersection were almost always nebulous, and the developed few never bore fruit until now.

Proof hit Broadway in 2001, where it snagged the Tony, Drama Desk, and Pulitzer, and then jumped to the big screen in a faithful translation in 2005. It racked up accolades from critics, and real-life mathematicians praised it as one of the most accurate, if not the most accurate, representation of real mathematicians on stage or film [1]–[3]. (In one of those “you can’t make it up” coincidences, only one other play, Copenhagen, centered on characters of a STEMM persuasion has won any of those awards… and it was one year before Proof.)

Why did the mathematicians love it so much? Among other reasons, its well-rounded, humanistic representation of their profession challenges stereotypes, acknowledging the very real emotions and dramatics of a group often described – or derided – as closed-off, immature, overly analytical, or cold. “The image of the mathematician,” one mathematician-reviewer writes, “is, too often, that of a nerd, a social misfit, a person obsessed with his (usually not her!) own insights, one who has not yet learned to take notice of those with other interests.” [1] Auburn did not write the play with this intent, and in fact his original concept did not even include the characters’ professions, which may have contributed to his success in crafting stereotype-breaking characters. [4]

Fictional STEMM professionals almost always conform to a limited number of stereotypes: the mad scientist, sometimes dangerous, sometimes almost sorcerous, sometimes just a hapless idiot; the reckless adventurer or explorer; the cold, inhuman machine; or even occasionally, the hero – though often in spite of their profession, rather than because of it. [5] They’re also almost always male, white, and socially inept, or at least two of those three. I would go on, but I suspect you’ve already turned to your seatmate and listed examples for every single one of these stereotypes already.

These stereotypes are stubborn and constantly reinforced by the images in the media we consume. Unfortunately, stereotypes, true or not, are not just for entertainment. They have very real effects on how people view the profession, and critically, who can be a member of that profession. For example, gendered stereotypes of general intelligence are already set by age six – girls already think they are less capable than boys, despite the fact that they do at least as well in school, and the self-assessment gap only grows in width and scope with age. [6]

And there’s absolutely a grain of truth feeding many those stereotypes that needs to be addressed – there’s little point in working to eradicate a media stereotype if it’s true and the truth continues to revive the impression. Women and people of color are systematically underrepresented. (Despite the continuing rise in the prominence of women in STEMM since Proof’s premiere more than 15 years ago, the proportion of women receiving PhDs in math has remained stubbornly below one in three [7]. The proportion of fictional scientists who are female, POC, or both is even worse than the still-underwhelming reality in my observation. But the stereotype is so pervasive I can’t even find statistics.) Communication skills are undervalued, leading to awkward, dense explanations that turn off the public (and even technical types from other fields). Conducting research ethically is sometimes not as considered as it should be.

It’s a well-worn cry in the media studies corners of the internet, but no less true for bordering on a cliché – representation in media matters. It’s the TV version of having a role model. Such calls are most often applied to demographic groups such as women, people of color, LGBT people, or people with disabilities. But they can, to a lesser extent, also be applied to professions, especially ones with identity stereotypes as strong as those of STEMM professionals. (And that’s not even getting into the prejudice that, for example, women scientists face for breaking the stereotypes of both groups.)

Increasing representation, and diversifying the types of characters whose stories we tell, to include humanized, well-rounded characters like those you’re about to see can open the doors to STEMM for people (especially children) who might have thought them closed. Proof focuses the spotlight on women and mental health in the STEMM community, but the stereotypes also encompass race, class, nationality, age, and just overall behavior, not to mention inability to maintain a reasonable hairdo. Inclusiveness, expressed through representation, welcomes all hard-working new professionals into the fields. It invites non-scientist adults to approach us with questions, to strive to understand us and our work, and to see STEMM as being for anyone and everyone. It pushes members of the STEMM community to introspect, to critically examine the truth underlying the stereotypes and determine how the community can be changed for the better (for example, to make the professions more accessible to aspirants of different backgrounds, or to explain our work more clearly.)

Both science (and math) and art probe our fundamental understanding of the world we live in – with wildly different methods, to be sure, and with different specific questions and goals. [8], [9] (Engineering and medicine look more towards altering the world, which art can do as well.) I brought this play to life to ask what it means to do math (or science), who can claim a role in the community, and how the real-life community can become better through looking outside of our traditional borders. By placing scientists in the spotlight both as characters and as creators themselves, we can chip away at the negative stereotypes and maybe even at the truth that feeds those stereotypes too.

At today’s performance, you’re not only seeing scientists represented in the narrative, you’re seeing scientists. Real people who work in the world of STEMM have turned up a few times a week for the last two months to turn my dream into reality. After the performance, they’ll talk a little bit about what this show has meant to them in their identities, their hopes for their careers and fields, and their ability to communicate and represent science constructively. For STEMM professionals in the audience, I hope that seeing not only characters, but also performers, who represent who you are brings you a unique representational experience, and perhaps might convince you of the value of theater as you think about your own presentation or communication skills.

Suggested reading:

On representation: Gina Davis Institute (https://seejane.org/)

On communicating science: Alda Center for Communicating Science (http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/)

On science in media: Lab Coats in Hollywood (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/lab-coats-hollywood); Science in Literature (https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7031/full/434297a.html); LabLit (http://www.lablit.com/)

References

[1]       M. Saul, “The Mathematician’ s Proof,” Am Math Soc Not, pp. 596–597, 2001.

[2]       D. Bayer, “Proof,” Am Math Soc Not, pp. 1082–1084, 2000.

[3]       D. Ullman, “Movie Review: Proof,” American Mathematical Society Notices, 2006.

[4]       R. Kirby, “Conversations about Mathematics,” pp. 333–335, 2002.

[5]       R. Haynes, “From alchemy to artificial intelligence: stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature,” Public Underst Sci, vol. 12, pp. 243–253, 2003.

[6]       E. Yong, “6-Year-Old Girls Already Have Gendered Beliefs About Intelligence,” The Atlantic, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/six-year-old-girls-already-have-gendered-beliefs-about-intelligence/514340/?utm_source=feed.

[7]       W. Velez, J. Maxwell, and C. Rose, “2013-2014 New Doctoral Recipients,” 2014.

[8]       S. Mawer, “Science in Literature,” Nature, 2005.

[9]       A. Lightman, “A tale of two loves.,” Nature, vol. 434, no. 7031, pp. 299–300, 2005.