“Does she have a code name?” a staffer asked a man in blue, as The Observer stood backstage minutes before the beginning of “Too Close To The Sun: Stories of Flash Points,” a show from The Moth coinciding with the ongoing World Science Festival. It was the story-telling collective’s 1,000th event and likely the first one to have a team of secret service agents in the midst.
The would-be code-name-bearer in question (alas, those privileges don’t extend to this cabinet member) was EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, on hand at Cooper Union’s Great Hall as one of five storytellers who would take the stage with science-related tales. Ms. Jackson wasn’t the first D.C. insider to have taken this stage; less than a year before becoming president Abraham Lincoln famously gave his 1860 Cooper Union Address in the same spot.
Ms. Jackson wore a pair of bow-bedecked sandals that showed off her blue pedicure as she spun her yarn. The story she told, about the way in which Hurricane Katrina shaped her mother’s perception of her career in environmental protection, was an opportunity for Ms. Jackson to showcase the fact that science isn’t all about hours spent alone over a beaker. “I think there’s still too much of a stereotype that a scientist has to be this introvert who doesn’t care,” she explained.
Neurosurgeon Moran Cerf feels the same way. “There are still scientists that are afraid to speak in public and most look at their shoes when they talk to other people,” he said. Dr. Cerf’s gaze is much more direct, and this wasn’t his first time up at bat at The Moth. He’s a regular at Los Angeles storyslams where he’s taken home honors, but that didn’t mean he met the night without apprehension. “My biggest problem is that I speak extremely fast,” he told The Observer quickly, “especially when someone tells me I only have ten minutes to speak. Then I speed up. So I have three cards in my three pockets saying ‘Speak Slowly.’” The resulting speech, about how a rumor that he was capable of reading dreams made international headlines that caught the attention of director Christopher Nolan, did, indeed, progress at a rapid-fire pace, but endearingly so.
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, told a stirring story that used the passing of his grandmother in India as a frame of reference to discuss society’s relationship to death.
The evening’s decidedly left-brain subject matter was likely a departure from what The Moth’s artsy contingency is used to, but host Andy Borowitz bridged the gap. The comedian’s quips hit just the right note with the audience. (Of the John Edwards verdict, “There’s a guy who ran for president, but he should have just joined the Secret Service.” Agents present bit their tongues.) Also getting the laughs was Dr. George Lombardi, an infectious disease specialist who delivered a surprisingly sidesplitting account of his experience travelling to Calcutta where he took on Mother Teresa as a patient.
As they filed out at the performance’s conclusion, attendees could consider themselves perfectly on trend. After all, science seems to be the discipline du jour. Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA is even dedicating his upcoming album Dark Matter to the topic and has been immersing himself in the subject in preparation. Aspiring MCs, the World Science Festival runs through the weekend! Arm yourself with demo tapes and head on down.
Follow Adrienne Gaffney via RSS.