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Watch the Winners of the 2017 Dance Your Ph.D. Competition

From sea stars to mathematical braids, scientists translate their work into hot moves and killer choreography

smithsonian.com

There’s saying whose source has been lost to recent history: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, the two don't really translate. But Nancy Scherich, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently figured out that she could create a dance about mathematics and still get her point across. She created a nine-minute dance synopsis of her thesis that beat out 52 other scientists to win the AAAS. 

Sherich’s Ph.D research isn’t light reading. According to a press release, her master’s thesis focused on knot theory and her Ph.D. work focuses on braids and how to translate them into matrices, which are easier to understand and manipulate. In her dance routine, which includes a full cast of aerialists and dancers, she creates a scenario in which the braids are transformed into matrices by mathematical equations—and there’s even some drama when one braid “kernal” tries to sneak into the matrix dance party under the nose of the equations.

While it’s unclear whether Sherich could summarize the research in 30 seconds to a non-scientist at a cocktail party, the dance does get the gist across. “Mathematics has a disadvantage over the other scientific subjects because most of the things we study do not exist in physical reality. How could one possibly make a physical dance to describe things that aren’t physical?” she says in the press release.

It turns out Sherich, who collaborated with fine art photographer Alex Nye to direct the piece and Lauren Breese of AIRDANSE to coordinate the aerials, found dance and math go well together.

“I think dance is an excellent form to describe mathematics. The first hurdle in communicating mathematics is to make the abstract concepts relevant and relatable to a largely math-phobic society. The human element of dancing helps to remove the veil of intimidation and allows the viewer to have a positive encounter with mathematics. Furthermore, the storyline and characters help to make the viewer emotionally interested in the mathematics as well.”

Sherich wasn’t the only winner of this year's composition. Other winners in four other categories below each received $2500. If you take a look and can't stop the dance party, check out all twelve finalists here, which include circadian rhythms dancing to traditional Indian music, a group of ballet dancer's probing dark energy and a Matrix-inspired dance on optically disrupting nicotine receptors.

Chemistry, People’s Choice

Natália Oliveira of the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, presents a dance battle in which one of the participants gets killed. The dance routine goes on to show how her research, “Development of biosensors for forensic sciences applications,” is producing techniques that can be used by forensic technicians to detect minute traces of blood and other biofluids even after it has been washed away. And of course the dance ends with Oliveira making a CSI-style arrest.

Social Sciences

While it’s difficult to understand on first watch how the modern dance in Judit Pétervári entry connects with her research, “The evaluation of creative ideas—analyzing the differences between expert and novice judges,” it’s easy to appreciate the amazing choreography, direction and ambiance of the piece put together by the student at Queen Mary University of London. The room represents creativity, and the dancers, both experts and novice judges, struggle to arrange the furniture properly.

Biology

Monica Moritsch at the University of California, Santa Cruz, illustrates “Intertidal community consequences of sea star wasting syndrome,” by having lines of sea stars—which usually eat shoreline mussels, creating habitat for other species—hold back the bivalves. But when sea star wasting disease dances into the mix, as it did in the Pacific in 2014, the stars turn to mush, letting the mussels dance all over the place.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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