Scientists dance their PhDs

JOHN BOHANNON
Last updated 15:40 17/10/2012

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Peter Liddicoat, a materials scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia, admits to being a shy researcher, "more comfortable hiding behind the computer monitor".

So when his labmates urged him to take part in the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest, he was reluctant. But he finally caved in to the pressure.

"A turning point was my boss’ enthusiastic laughter when encouraging me to do it," Liddicoat said, "and the realisation that this would tackle head-on the ominous question: 'So what is your PhD about?'"

That encouragement paid off. Liddicoat is the winner, announced today, of the chemistry prize and the grand prize of the 2012 ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest.

He will receive US$1000 and a trip to Belgium where his dance will be screened at TEDxBrussels.

Explaining a scientific PhD thesis to nonscientists is never easy, even with words.

Liddicoat's is titled: ‘Evolution of nanostructural architecture in 7000 series aluminium alloys during strengthening by age-hardening and severe plastic deformation.’

But after six months of preparation, and the help of dozens of friends, he turned his PhD into a burlesque artwork.

The performance employs juggling, clowning, and a big dance number - representing the crystal lattices that he studies with atomic microscopy.

This is the fifth year of the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest sponsored by Science and AAAS.

The competition challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance.

The 36 PhD dances submitted this year include techniques such as ballet, break dancing, and flaming hula hoops.

Those were whittled down to 12 finalists by the past winners of the contest.

Those finalists were then scored by a panel of judges that included scientists, educators, and dancers.

This year's contest saw the first category win for a PhD dance based on pure mathematics.

Diana Davis is in the midst of a PhD in geometry and dynamical systems at Brown University.

She studies geodesic flow on regular polygons.

"It's actually very related to billiards," Davis said, "like what happens if you roll a ball on a pool table and it bounces around, assuming that there is no friction and it goes forever."

The math for describing that system has applications in cosmology where, for example, one hypothetical shape of the universe is a twisted three-dimensional torus - in which a spaceship travelling in one direction will eventually return to the same spot, but upside down.

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For translating her mathematical theorem into dance, Davis has won US$500 and top honours in the physics category.

Europe also had a strong showing this year.

Riccardo Da Re, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padua in Italy, won the social science category and US$500 for a dance based on his PhD work on social networks in rural economies.

And Maria Vinti, a physiology PhD student at the Laboratoire de Biomécanique, Arts et Métiers, Paris Institute of Technology, scooped the US$500 biology prize for dressing up her performers in full-body unitards and elastic straps to explain her PhD thesis: ‘Spastic co-contraction in spastic paresis: Biomechanical and physiological characterisation’.

The winner of the Popular Choice award was Rianne 't Hoen, for the dance based on her PhD thesis: ‘Deuterium retention in tungsten’.

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