Tab Tries: Orbital Physics

Engling by name and actor by nature, ROBBIE AIRD sits in on a NatSci supervision and lives to tell the tale

ADC Cambridge Theatre engling Little Eagles Natsci physics Rona Munro supervision tab tries

Although I am an English student by trade, I think I spend more time at the ADC than I do in any library or lecture room, as I’ve acted in practically all of the plays possible over the last two and a half years here at Cambridge.

I’ve always believed that actors have no chance of being convincing unless they truly understand the words they are saying – and usually this boils down to me attending a few characterisation workshops where I link my own personal experiences to a character’s.  As Cambridge students however, much as we like to talk about our gap years, we don’t actually have much concrete life experience beyond the Bubble, and so sometimes I have to do a bit of research. At the moment I’m rehearsing for Little Eagles (Week 4 ADC Mainshow) where I play Sergei Korolyov, Chief Designer of the Russian Space Program during The Cold War. ‘Right’, I said to myself, ‘better learn some physics!’

Keen engling penguin…

It was this that brought me to Caius plodge yesterday afternoon, filled to the brim with arts-student hubris. I had arranged to sit in the corner of my NatSci director’s ‘Orbital Physics’ supervision, and I was, cautiously, confident. I’ve always had a tourist’s interest in physics and was sure I’d be able to garner at least the basics of the subject. I have never, ever been so wrong.

…with serious delusions

What happened in that room is a mystery. There were numbers, I remember that much, and they shot out of the supervisor’s mouth with shocking speed; how everyone else could keep up was beyond me. The environment was so much more like school, and the whole hour missed that one vital thing that we Englings desperately rely on: silence. There was no time to think god dammit! If the answer wasn’t on the tip of your tongue then the supervisor would simply provide it himself and move on with a chilling lack of mercy. Technical terms were mad in their abundance, and presumably everyone else knew what they meant (one of them was a Latin phrase that contained the word ‘rectum’ which made me laugh cos bums). The supervisor feverishly scribbled down diagrams of elliptical paths and orbits and major axes and whatnot and, in my complete lack of understanding, I worried that my over-confidence had left me wasting my time listening to an hour of numbers and Greek letters.

Then something strange happened. At one point in a particularly huge equation, both supervisor and students emitted a small, breathy chuckle. The very same breathy chuckle that I am used to hearing in my supervisions, whenever someone provides a particularly elegant interpretation of a text. And I began to understand what was happening in front of me. However alien the subject was, the psychology employed was wonderfully similar: there was a kind of detective work taking place. I didn’t understand the pieces of evidence, but I slowly began to see how they were being made to fit together. Thinking I was going to leave that room understanding orbits was stupid, gaining a better understanding of how scientists actually think however, had become quite achievable. The specificity of the subject and the assumption of knowledge are far greater for Physicists than for me and my fellow Englings (as we grapple with scope and the fact that there are no right or wrong answers), but I had been wrong to see the scientific mind as so alien to my own.

When I left it was with the warning not to ‘turn into a machine with revision’ ringing in my ears: surely something that only Natscis should beware of?  Although drawing parallels between scientists and literary critics, I too began to fear that I could one day attempt to absorb so much literary theory that I suck my subject dry, becoming some infernal practical criticism machine. Then I remembered I do theatre, that my degree is dead in the water, and went straight to the Maypole. 

Little Eagles, Tue 11th-Sat 15th February, ADC, 7.45pm, £10/£8 (£8/£6)