Scientific Review

Scientific Review

This is a review of a play, but first, let’s talk science.

In theory, science is a rigorous quest for empirical truth governed by logical and epistemological principles. In practice, science is only as infallible or incorruptible as the scientist.

Hence the history of science is as much a tale of deception, accidental or not, as it is of discovery. Preposterous and often disastrous paradigms—of animals-as-automata, phrenology, lobotomies, the Food Pyramid—have been earnestly endorsed by some of the most prominent scientists of the relevant era and field. Other practitioners have more intentionally misapplied the imprimatur of science, for professional, financial, political, ideological or psychological reasons. You might assume things are different in the present, that science is getting more rigorous all the time, and yet, as scientific practice becomes ever more specialized, monetized, politicized and idolized, the incentives and opportunities to fudge, invent or simply miss the truth are only growing, as is the ability to get away with it.

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Those of us who have put too much faith in science will get an awful lot out of Queen, the play this article is actually about, as will anyone who enjoys an incisive airing of big ideas. Written by Madhuri Shekar, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar and opened last week at Long Wharf Theatre, Queen follows PhD candidates Sanam Shah (Avanthika Srinivasan) and Ariel Spiegel (Stephanie Janssen), rising stars who’ve won an intensely coveted publication in Nature—“the most high-impact science journal in the world,” Spiegel says early on as she and Shah relish the envy of their colleagues and competitors. The duo have spent several years studying the potential causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker honeybees suddenly abandon their hives as well as the natural and agricultural food systems that depend on them. Spiegel is the field researcher, communing with the bees as she observes firsthand their decimation. Shah is the statistics whiz (and the play’s lead character), using her prodigious skills to devise their complicated research model and analyze the data Spiegel collects.

But their study isn’t just a research project or even a passion project. It’s also a moral and political project. All of that data and analysis have been pointing to a familiar and—especially for Shah, Spiegel and their politically connected advisor, Philip Hayes (Ben Livingston)—much-despised culprit: infamous agrochemical company Monsanto. As the trio dare to fantasize about how their findings might finally break the chemical giant’s political stranglehold on Washington, one last round of data, arriving just days before a critical presentation, confounds not just their previous conclusions but their entire model. With the scientists’ ethical obligations and personal incentives now badly misaligned, a series of wider-ranging dialogues, also encompassing Shah’s smarmy suitor Arvind Patel (Keshav Moodliar), illuminate and scrutinize the ways scientific practice can be compromised by unscientific motivations. Cleverly, the play’s examination of these motives also enriches our understanding of the characters themselves and where they come from.

Overall the play was a success, although, a little like Shah and Spiegel’s data, it wasn’t perfect. With only two previews before opening night last Thursday, some moments fell short of believability, including a fast descent for one character into melodramatic villainy. Another character abruptly reversed course at a pivotal moment with little explanation. A few scenes outlasted their utility to the story.

Of course, even a carefully refined experiment can’t control for all variables—a critic’s tastes included.

Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Through June 5

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed for Long Wharf Theatre by Jeremy Daniel. Image 1 features Janssen and Srinivasan. Image 2 features Janssen (foreground), Srinivasan and Livingston.

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