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Music + humor = chemistry

Oct 05, 2017 11:20AM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Matheatre productions are entertaining for audiences that understand science as well as those that don’t. (Sean Buckley)

Gallery: Matheatre [1 Image] Click any image to expand.

Students are humming tunes about integers, giggling about phosphorus puns and reacting to a live Tesla Coil thanks to Sadie Bowman and Ricky Coates of Matheatre, which brings music and humor to the serious task of helping high school and college students understand and memorize math and science concepts.

“We consider our job to be reinforcing and supporting the work that math and science teachers are doing, and to inspire conversations and explorations,” said Bowman. 

The company’s productions, “Calculus: The Musical,” “Tesla Ex Machina” and “Curie Me Away!” provide a context to appreciate calculus, electrical engineering, chemistry and physics and are accessible to both those who love math and science and those who don’t, said Bowman.

“Curie Me Away” is Matheatre’s newest show. It is a musical that tells the story of Marie Curie, the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, who overcomes obstacles to become an inspiring pioneer in the field of chemistry. 

Bowman and Coates both have degrees in theater, but Coates started out as an astrophysicist.

“He grew up intending to be a scientist but fell in love with theater,” said Bowman. For “Curie Me Away,” the two also consulted with Coates’s sister, Dr. Becky Coates, who recently received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Utah. 

“We had some fun conceptual brainstorming sessions with her and did a lot of reading and research on our own,” said Bowman. The show includes core chemistry concepts such as compounds, reactions, groupings on the periodic table, transmutation and radioactivity.

“It is a specific story told in a theatrically engaging way that can be appreciated with no requisite background but woven with very intentional metaphor that will ring bells for those who know the science or are learning the science,” said Bowman. 

Some lyrics are best appreciated by those familiar with the chemical elements like in a love song when Marie claims her heart is “red as rubidium,” “soft as barium” and “glows like phosphorus with a capital P.” Chemistry students catch the jokes when they know, for example, that phosphorus is a luminescent element which glows and its chemical symbol is a capital letter P. (Advanced students might even catch the additional gag if they are familiar with Hennig Brand’s methods of discovery of the element.)

Even without a background in chemistry, audiences may appreciate how Curie takes on housework like a science project (experiment and document) and defines her relationships chemically (her two daughters are two hydrogen atoms bonded to her oxygen).

Bowman’s linguistic humor and variety of musical styles bring more than just science to the story of Madame Curie. The one-hour show also incorporates social and political history as well as women’s studies.

“We wanted to dig deeper and bring more of her story to a broader audience. I found the idea of education as an act of resistance to be incredibly compelling,” said Bowman, who created a Hamilton-eque rap song for the oppressed and frustrated Curie, who was being denied educational opportunities.

“Tesla Ex Machina” aims to entertain audiences with science, history and ethics in a one-man show. Coates, as Nikola Tesla, recreates some of his most renowned experiments, including the induction motor, the world’s first robot and a live Tesla Coil.

 “Our role is to inspire and provide new connections, contexts and portals to engagement, more than necessarily to, say, teach calculus,” Bowman said. 

Matheatre’s first production, “Calculus: The Musical!” was written in 2006 as a learning tool for Calculus students. 

“Watching the show will give you an overview of what calculus is, but it won’t teach you how to do calculus,” said Bowman. “But chewing on the lyrics will directly help you learn calculus. The jokes and references do require a baseline context of mathematical exposure, so it’s best consumed by someone who is at least interested in calculus.”

The music sweeps through a range of genres--from Daft Punk and Eminem to Gilbert & Sullivan to Lady Gaga—expressing the concepts of limits, integration and differentiation. 

Matheatre is based in Utah but performs all around the country during the school year. Last year they performed at 40 different venues between September and May.

“It gives me such hope and joy to see young people lose their minds with excitement about math,” said Bowman. “I think it’s a really cathartic experience for those students who aren’t really encouraged by the culture of high school to stand proud in their love of math.”

Bowman sees this as her contribution to the STEM field. 

“I am employing the things I am good at (writing, music, comedy) to not just entertain but inspire, enable and empower other people (especially young people) to explore and deepen their own passions for math and science, and I find that immensely rewarding.” 

The company has plans to create more shows. It is currently considering the history of climate science and also an astronomy-themed show. 

The idea for the company started with math teacher Marc Gutman, who wrote parodies of familiar songs as mnemonic devices for his calculus students. When he realized how well the songs helped them retain and comprehend information, he wrote a song for every concept in his Calculus I class. Bowman worked with him to develop the songs into a theater production.

Gutman’s original calculus-themed parodies, as well as other albums about conic sections, exponents and logarithms, are available at www.matheatre.com

“This music exists for the purpose of being teaching and learning tools, so I encourage math educators and students to check it all out,” said Bowman.

High schools, colleges and universities and theaters can book a performance of any of the three shows by contacting bookings@matheatre.com.

Further information is available at www.matheatre.com

Education, Today
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