The Enlightenment Party

ASBMB members team with Guerilla Science
to bring modern science to the 17th century

Anyone who passed by Guerilla Science’s Enlightenment Party in San Francisco this past September would have had reason to look more than once: Costumed revelers stood sipping drinks served by peasants while a five-foot rat slunk seamlessly among them. The rat and dirty peasants were not just your garden-variety instances of city squalor but silent plague carriers.
 
In the 17th century, the plague ravaged Europe. Cities were decimated and entire families died. Plague doctors visited the infected homes, examining the inmates from behind fearsome masks, and condemned the household to quarantine and therefore death.
 
It was with a lighter spirit that Guerilla Science teamed up with Teaster Baird Jr. and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to give those with a more fortunate place in history a better appreciation for life in the dark ages. Actors and students from San Francisco State University’s ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate Network chapter donned costumes and characters as part of an elaborate interactive game to show how the plague could spread, what was known about it then and what is known about it now.

UV ink
UV ink, invisible under normal light, was used to spread the plague game’s own benign strain of the disease surreptitiously. Photos by Ryan Johnson.

The plague game was the center of Guerilla Science’s huge, costumed Enlightenment Party, a blend of spectacular performances, science and period culture. Set in a sumptuous co-living San Francisco mansion known as the Embassy, the party was a chance for members of the public to relive the Age of Reason and discover the unimaginable wonders science reveals to us. Plague doctors, salons, Newton and Descartes, Galileo’s bedroom, the Electric Venus, jugglers and musicians were all featured.
 
Hundreds of people attended the event, many of whom had little experience with science beyond high school and indeed had never met a scientist.
 
“It was great to see people who had no science background really get into the debates between Descartes and Newton and have fun getting ‘infected’ and ‘treated’ … and actually learn some of the microbiology and biochemistry behind it,” said Baird.
 
Rats, peasants, aristocrats and famous figures from history touched hands, slapped backs and high-fived their way among the guests, transmitting a benign version of the plague with invisible, insidious effectiveness at each instance of physical contact. It was only later in the evening that a plague doctor singled out the infected party-goers for treatment in the party’s dedicated field hospital, showcasing the ease with which this notorious killer spreads.

Galileo
17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei (actor Alan McLukie) joins the Enlightenment Party. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

Way back when, so little was known about the plague that those unlucky enough to have contracted Yersinia pestis would have gotten a chicken around the neck or a dose of arsenic for a cure. Fortunately for party attendees, Baird was on hand to banish ancient superstition and unwrap all those rubber chickens. Armed with an anachronistic iPad, he shocked partygoers with photos from contemporary outbreaks and explained the basic science behind bacteria. Attendees found out how lucky we are to have antibiotics and Alexander Fleming to combat the plague and put plague doctors out of a job.
 
By blending the latest findings from biochemical research with art, music and play to create a noisy and colorful interactive experience, the plague game was a unique and effective way to introduce people to a scientific concept in ways the written word or a lecture cannot.
 
Guerilla Science specializes in scientific events like this. In the six years since we started staging events at music festivals, we have moved beyond simply speaking to our audiences. We engage people’s curiosity with exciting scientific developments by creating interactive and memorable events in unusual and unexpected settings. Our mission is to revolutionize how audiences experience science. Our name stems from the way we appear in the places where science and scientists are least expected: nightclubs, historical reenactments, art galleries, cinemas and music festivals.
 
By embedding ourselves among cabaret dancers, beatboxers, and mud-wrestling pits, we aim to challenge conventions about science, what it is and how it works. We push boundaries by surprising people with new research (some people in vegetative states are actually conscious) and big ideas (one day, space tourism could be a common occurrence). We inspire people to consider their own lives in new ways. And through this, we hope more people understand how science provides a window into the complexities of the human condition
 
Why does Guerilla Science exist? Simple: “Science is part of our culture, yet often it’s left languishing in the lab or conveyed in dull or patronizing ways,” says co-founder Jenny Wong.
 
“We are experimental people by nature, who like new trying new things. So mixing science, art, music and play (our motto) reflects all of our interests. By bringing these together and collaborating with interesting people with new ideas, you can’t help but think we’ll produce something amazing. People who think in creative ways and succeed in capturing your imagination only make life more exciting.”

Teaster Baird Enlightenment plague doctor
Teaster Baird, who played a scientist from the future, introduces revelers to the basic science behind bacteria and toxins. What caused the plague was so poorly understood in the Enlightenment that plague doctors, as played by actress Katie Dahlson, prescribed arsenic to victims of the disease.
Partygoers, plural partygoer, singular
Hundreds of partygoers, many with no background in science, talked with scientists and engaged with big ideas from science and history.

The organization’s success grew, in part, out of a realization that traditional public engagement activities were primarily attracting people already interested in science. To reach new audiences, we had to think about what makes science interesting and relevant to them.
 
We believe that the future of science engagement is one in which scientists and educators add to their unique and valuable skills the skills of performers, artists and designers. It is only by supporting new, innovative projects like the Enlightenment Party that science engagement can progress. Although many scientists already have left the ivory tower, learning to walk outside it is another matter.

Mark RosinMark Rosin (msr35@math.ucla.edu) is a Ph.D. physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of Guerilla Science. Visit www.guerillascience.co.uk and on Facebook or Twitter to find out more.

comments powered by Disqus