Chemistry professor’s drama has an element of surprise

Organic Theatre actors in Elementary Carbon, a play they are devising with Professor Malcolm Heggie

University of Sussex Professor of Chemistry Malcolm Heggie is taking to the stage to highlight the importance of carbon.

A “virtual” lecture delivered by Professor Heggie will be at the centre of Elementary Carbon, a play being devised by critically-acclaimed company Organic Theatre. The aim is to highlight the amazing properties and boundless possibilities of carbon, more often linked these days with global warming and climate change.

Professor Heggie is advising on the project via a series of workshops and his resulting lecture will serve as a springboard for the action on stage. The actors will devise scenes, create art and develop opportunities for audience participation for the play. It will be performed in next year’s Brighton Science Festival before embarking on a schools tour.

Three workshops have already taken place – the latest at the University of Sussex in its multimedia Creativity Zone (InQbate).

Professor Heggie, who researches the structures of carbon, first became interested in a theatrical approach for his public lectures, to explain complex ideas. He says: “It’s important to get science across to the public, so I like to undertake public lectures. I’m a theoretical chemist, which is the most formally demanding and mathematical branch of chemistry, so I branched out into an area the public were instinctively interested in: The Chemistry of Smell, Taste and Sex. Now I am returning to my own research area. To get the science across, and to stop the audience from losing interest, I decided to try something more entertaining than a formal lecture. Hence the Elementary Carbon project. It’s a pleasure to do.”

A long association with actors John Dean and Bianca Mastrominico, including producing their Edinburgh Festival play ‘Sheepskin’, led to Professor Heggie teaming up with Edinburgh-based Organic Theatre for the project.

But why a play about an element? For Professor Heggie, it’s the perfect marriage of science education and entertainment. “The threat of global warming and climate change means that we have to aim to be a low-carbon society. But that’s a lazy shorthand for a low CO2 society. Carbon is actually wonderful! The element was formed in the stars and evolved within our planet into graphite and diamond, both which have extraordinary properties. Glittering prizes have been won by scientists who discovered football-shaped and tubular carbon molecules. The possibilities for carbon appear endless.”

John Dean of Organic Theatre says: "We are delighted to be collaborating with Professor Malcolm Heggie and Sussex University on this exciting project - we are breaking new ground and are looking forward to taking the resulting piece to schools, universities and science festivals across the country in 2010."

The project is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) Partnerships in Public Engagement fund.

Notes for Editors


Malcolm Heggie is Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Sussex. He has acted as  a consultant to nuclear industry on graphite science and has delivered public lectures on 'The Chemistry of Smell, Taste and Sex' and 'Buckle, ruck and tuck - folding carbon layers'.

Organic Theatre is an Edinburgh-based company which produces and tours original devised performances, combining a physical approach with new writing

For further information contact the University of Sussex Press office.


Last updated: Wednesday, 4 November 2009