“Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and ‘progress,’ everything on earth that is man-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, ‘Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.”
― Robert Anton Wilson
I am beginning to think lately that the secret mission of every play I write—of everything I write in every genre—is to help people understand how the universe works.
(I’d also like to tell you the purpose of the universe… but I can’t, because I don’t know it. I also strongly suspect there isn’t one, but I don’t know that, either.)
We’ve really done terrible job of this over the last, oh, five hundred years or so. (By “we” I mean “humanity.”) Whenever scientists figure something out new and important, our first response is to execute or jail them. Or force them to commit suicide. Our track record is really poor.
For example, it took the Catholic Church several hundred years to admit that Galileo was right and atone for how it treated him. We’ve had 150 years to deal with the things Darwin taught us, and we still have a slate of GOP candidates who believe in creationism or intelligent design. We still wrestle publicly over scientifically undeniable facts about climate change, though they’ve been widely known for at least a couple of decades. What the hell is wrong with us?
Well, there are lots of things wrong with us. But the very worst thing, if you ask me, is that there are 100 million (or so) Americans who are farther behind than the rest of us, who actively resist learning what scientists uncover, and who are trapped in an oppressive culture that explicitly keeps them from learning anything scientifically new.
Lest you start mentally pointing the finger at “those people,” however, you probably ought to realize that there are countless scientific discoveries about which almost all of us are completely ignorant. How familiar are you with Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” paradigm, just to name one (relatively old now) postulate? Do you understand the magnificent revelations of chaos theory? How about the bizarre properties of junk DNA?
I’m not saying, mind you, that I understand these things fully myself, though I have read quite a bit about them. I’m saying that there are many immense things we now generally “know” of which most of us remain relatively ignorant. And these are things with amazing implications for our everyday lives, not esoteric bits of irrelevant knowledge. Most importantly, these are things that ought to fill us with delight and reverence and wonder about being alive!
So I’m making it my job as a playwright to help us, one way or another, understand those things: to humanize them and make them comprehensible, one way or another, on the stage. I don’t have that long a life ahead of me, but I plan to do as much as I can over the remainder of my career. If I can’t be a scientist myself—a member of the only group that can authoritatively claim to be moving the sum total of human knowledge forward, inch by inch, while the rest of us argue over football stats and share recipes for bananas foster—I want to at least lend those folks a hand. I will be proud to have at least tried.