Play rights and wrongs

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The Independent Culture
I really ought to write a play about playwrights. The central character will be a third-rate fornicating academic in an English department who is appointed head by the retiring old buffer. He admires a talented colleague who writes a play that receives brilliant reviews until it is realised that he has plagiarised Hamlet. He also has great admiration for another member of his department, female, also a playwright, but who has not published for years. She is working on a play that she keeps secret, and she only allows the actors to see it on the opening night. She receives great honours, the plagiariser says it was just a mistake, and they all exit happily to loud sentimental music.

Actually this nonsense is currently filling the Cottesloe Theatre at the National, but the difference is that the central characters are scientists. Stephen Poliakoff's play, Blinded by the Sun, has at its core a scientist who commits fraud and tricks the scientific world into believing that he has invented a method of getting cheap energy from the sun by using baking powder and bleach to produce some bubbles. Very silly.

Scientists have been neglected by the theatre and on this showing I am relieved that they have been. The great exception is said to be Brecht's famous play The Life of Galileo but even this playwright's view of science was suspect.

What, I wondered would my hero, Galileo, think of the play? I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to interview Galileo after he had seen the play at a special celestial performance. He was not pleased.

"Once one uses real people in a play one has the obligation to depict them as accurately as possible. I even find the title offensive - The Life of Galileo. What a gross distortion, for it is as if my life was nothing more than a battle with the church.

Where is my contribution to science, the understanding of the physical world in terms of mathematics? Where are my insights into falling bodies, floating bodies, the strength of beams, my attempts to understand the tides?

"Brecht shows no understanding of science in the first scene. He has me gobbling on about a New Age, with everyone in the market place questioning old certainties and saying that they should look for themselves and not accept authority. What nonsense. Just looking will never help one find out that the earth goes round the sun - it requires much astronomical calculation.

"My true enemies were not the church but the philosophers: I undermined everything they stood for and could expose them for their empty dogma. They were not interested in mechanisms but only the ultimate causes behind all events. They believed that the nature of the heavens was fundamentally different from our earth and that heavenly bodies were perfect spheres that moved in perfect circles. They had not the slightest interest in whether this was true. Brecht is wrong in saying I confirmed the Copernican view with my telescope: I showed that heavenly bodies like the moon lacked the perfection ascribed to them by the philosophers.

"I never wanted to undermine the authority of the church. Just the opposite: I wanted to prevent them from making pronouncements on science. I know that my recantation is seen as a betrayal of science. But I did not want to be a martyr and so gain sympathy for my cause. More important I knew that I was right and that my ideas would triumph eventually. Here Brecht again distorts my position by having me say that my sole aim in doing science was to lighten the burden of human existence. I wanted only to understand how God's wonderful world worked."

I thanked him and wanted to tell him that modern sociologists and philosophers were not unlike his old philosophical opponents, but he had left to the sound of angelic music.

Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College London