The Hard Problem: Scientists Behaving Badly

Neuroscience in the Media
Damien Molony and Olivia Vinall in The Hard Problem, by Tom Stoppard. Image: Tristram Kenton

What do we go to the theatre for? To be entertained? To temporarily escape? To have our opinions challenged, or affirmed? Science in theatre is a risky business. Too much science and it may as well be a lecture: people will understand, they might even be stimulated if it was good, but will they consider it ‘art’? Too heavy-handed with the poetic license and you risk the scorn and scoffing from those in lab-coat corner.

Tom Stoppard’s much-anticipated new play, The Hard Problem, which debuted at The National Theatre last week, is decidedly the play of a thinking audience which has brought all of its neurons to the table in working order. The staging is appropriately sleek and minimal to ensure that the ideas take centre stage with no distractions. The only exception is a beautiful entanglement of wires and erratically pulsating lights – a representation of the brain – which presides overhead throughout, and makes for a nice touch.

From the opening scene we hit the ground running in the middle of a snappy bedroom debate between psychology student and doctorate hopeful Hilary (Olivia Vinall) and her amorous tutor, Spike (Damien Molony). Reference after reference – from the prisoner’s dilemma, game theory and Darwin to Nagel’s vampire bat – flies thick and fast as they argue whether altruism is self-interest in disguise or not. Forget passive, sit-back entertainment – this is a pacey 100 minutes in which the audience is expected to keep up or be mercilessly left behind to uncomprehending boredom.

‘Above all, don’t use the word ‘good’ as though it meant something in evolutionary science.’

But unfortunately, ‘The Hard Problem’ – drawing on the work of philosopher David Chalmers for its namesake – risks being a misnomer. That’s not to say that it doesn’t discuss problems in science which are indeed hard, it’s just that on the whole it’s not about The Hard Problem: why we have conscious experience. Despite the clear, focussed set-up in the exposition, we end up with altruism in one corner of the ring and egotism (our ‘selfish genes’) in the other: this is a battle concerning evolutionary behaviour, not why we are particularly conscious of it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but naming your play ‘The Hard Problem’ makes for inevitable disappointment and mixed reviews: it invites the interpretation that this is Stoppard setting out to present a possible solution.

But putting aside whether he successfully addresses consciousness or not, one of the reasons the play is enjoyable nonetheless (for this scientist, at least) is that it’s a fascinating and insightful commentary on the types of scientist it’s possible to be. The Hard Problem, is captivating in the way it shows the different ways in which scientists, as people, might wear the cleverness they make their living from.

‘There just ain’t anywhere else to come from except three pounds of grey matter wired up in your head like a map of the London Underground with eighty-six billion stations connected thirty trillion ways, hardwired for me-first.’

Spike the materialist, atheist, rationalist – in short, every ‘ist’ you’d expect of a scientist (‘I’m Darwin. I’m Mendel. I’m Crick and Watson.’) – knows how to deftly drive home an argument before you can say ‘whiplash’. Damien Molony gives a strong, straight-talking performance that complements Olivia Vinall’s naïve Hilary in a way that makes their scenes easily the most engaging and substantial throughout. But his cutting quips only leave you smiling in agreement for the short time it takes to get that sinking feeling that he isn’t actually likeable. A cautionary reminder that being clever – even being clever and being right – doesn’t give you a license to make people feel small.

Throughout this snapshot of the precarious politics of scientific research, other characters come and go who could do with a similar warning. Amal, an arrogant and insecure young mathematician is unthinkingly patronising to the only non-scientist in the room. Leo, under pressure that he will suddenly find his department’s funding snatched away if he doesn’t come up with the goods is bluntly demanding (‘The cover of Nature is pretty sexy. Do you have anything that sexy?’) Bo, an ambitious foreign student is prepared to do whatever questionable data-tweaking she has to in order to please the right people and get her brilliance noticed.

But it is Vinall’s contribution as Hilary that carries the whole play. As she struggles to reconcile her beliefs in human goodness, a higher power, and mind and body as separate entities, with her professional position as a scientist – where these values are embarrassingly misguided and best kept to oneself – she brings an element of expressive humanity to the play, where other characters are only brief impressions. Hilary might not be right, her maths might not be watertight. But despite this there’s a sense that we can forgive her for that because she’s not arrogant or dismissive, she’s simply searching and open with her insecurities and doubts. In short, she’s a kinder human being.

Searching for answers: Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem. Image: Johan Persson

So perhaps if Stoppard doesn’t quite confront the problem of consciousness head on, in his brief picture of life in the ruthless academic rat-race, he is at least successful in leaving us the suggestion that we could all perhaps be a little more self-conscious in our haste to tell other people we think they’re wrong. After all, it’s not called the Hard Problem for nothing.

The Hard Problem is currently playing at the Dorfman Theatre at The National Theatre, London until 27th May.

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