PhD candidates are bringing their dissertations to the masses via a video dance-contest, reports Robert Lee Hotz in The Wall Street Journal (9/24/13). Among the competitors is Dr. Sarah Wilk, whose video (link) features "a heavy electronic beat" and a "guy in a silver-colored shirt" who "catches two glowing green balls and spins them over his head." Sarah "twirls a blue hula hoop around her waist while being pelted with flaming balls. The hula hoop catches fire." In case you don’t get it, the "colored balls symbolized atomic particles." Sarah "played the atom."
As it happens, Sarah is both a "trained dancer and nuclear chemist," and so when she heard about the "Dance Your PhD" contest, "she saw an opportunity to turn her five-year research project into ‘a story in light and fire’." "Goofiness is a key ingredient," says John Bohannon, a science writer who came up with the contest idea "over drinks." "The heady cocktail of ridiculousness and exhibitionism and art seem to provide the perfect conditions for people frustrated by their scientific work to let off steam." Anthropologist Natasha Myers says the concept is not as silly as it might sound.
Natasha has studied molecular biologists and found that they tend to use their bodies to explain their work. "They start moving around while they are talking to you about molecules," she says. "They are dancing all over the place." Janet Vertesi has noticed the same thing among NASA engineers, whom she studied for two years. When they operated the Mars robot rovers, "they often contorted their arms like mechanical limbs, shuffled their feet, and splayed their hands behind them like solar panels." Janet calls this "the rover dance," and says it "was very unconscious."