Passion in Science Awards 2019 – William Murta

Passion in Science Arts and Creativity Award winner, William Murta, is the composer of Das Molekul – a musical about the discovery of DNA and the race to sequence the human genome.

Script

Speaker 1: Also meet with Tom Evans, and talk about the research program here at NEB. They will be participating in round table discussions, interviews, and a tour of the campus. I'm hoping that the rain holds out so that we can actually do that comfortably. I think we can kick off with the first category; arts, and creativity. With this award we recognize individuals in the scientific community who are dedicated to finding creative ways to share the intersection between art and science. Now our first awardee is William Murta, and Will comes to us from Bielefeld, Germany. He is the composer of Das Molekul, which is a musical that talks about the discovery of DNA, and the race to sequence the human genome. This musical ran for two years at the Theater Bielefeld. It just finished up this March. Bill actually was nominated by Carl Van [Lair 00:00:56] in our German office. I learned last night that he was actually involved in reading the musical and making sure the science was accurate. I'm super excited to bring up Bill, and he will tell us a little bit more, and then we have a special presentation. William Murta: Everybody hear me? Okay. Well thank you, I just want to say from the start that this is a great, a supreme honor for me. I'm really grateful to be here and become a part of the NEB community, so to speak. I'm an American, I'm from Oklahoma actually, but I spent the last 30 years in a theater in Germany. It's the Stadttheater Bielefeld, and I'm one of five conductors, this is an opera theater with a complete ensemble, and I'm one of five conductors who is responsible for the entertainment side of our season. Anything that remotely seems like entertainment is my job area. I do the musicals, we have a season that runs like a school year from September, the beginning of September until the middle of July. Then we have a summer break, and then start the next season. Every year my theater does about 12 music productions, of which three are musicals. William Murta: Mostly American musicals actually, because there aren't that many German musicals. The German musicals are operettas. The rest of it in the music department is the operas, traditional operas. In 2015, we started having a series of meetings in November and December about what they want to include in the program. For the season after that, and I had this idea that I kind of ventured to approach them with. They were all horrified at first. I said "Yeah, why don't we think about, I have this idea about making a musical out of DNA." Stony silence in the room. Nobody responded, everybody was terrified. I said "No, I think it can be really fun." It can be done kind of like a comedy. There are two, as I'm sure everybody here is well aware, there were two major events that happened in, the first event was in 1950 and then the next one was in the year 2000. William Murta: That I had learned about, I have to back up, I took an online course in 2010, that's how all this began. Called Genetics and Evolution. I really just took it just to do something different than music. I mean it's totally different than what I normally do, and I was just absolutely fascinated. Didn't know anything about it, but I was totally fascinated and began thinking about DNA and the science behind it. Then I read up about their, the Watson and Crick discovery of the double helix. Read about it from a historical perspective, all that happened. Their competition with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Shortly after that I saw a BBC documentary about a race that happened, of which I had heard nothing about. This was of course the race in the 2000s to decode the human genome. That happened between Francis Collins and Craig Venter. I just started thinking about these two ideas, and I was thinking "Well, maybe we could," I mean I was interested in trying to put that on the stage. William Murta: What I did, so that was the point where I suggested to my theater before I had written a sentence or a song. I said "I think this really tells a story. It's a story about discovery. The most significant achievement. It could really be a celebration for our continuing expanding knowledge about the universe." At first they were skeptical and then I wrote them a little prologue, and they said yes. Then I was terrified because I thought "I'm going to have to write this thing now." I kept turning corners, they had already made this poster. Every time I would be walking home from work I would turn a corner and see a poster and think "Yeah there it is, I have to write it now." They gave me a year to work on it and I began seriously working on it. What I did was I thought about these two stories and I thought, "Well, double helix, that's a double strand." William Murta: I very early decided that this needs to be connected somehow, these two stories. I thought well the same cast that would tell the one story would have a parallel part in the next story, and scenes from each story would be overlapping, sometimes even played at the same time. Spiraling around one another like the molecule itself. That was at least what I tried to do. In that sense this is the genesis of Das Molekul in Bielefeld. Yeah, so I would like, we've prepared the first little scene from the show, so I would like for you to sit back now and imagine you're in a Broadway theater. You've just paid $165 a seat for each ticket. I need to go over here and put on my glasses. You've come to the theater to see a story, and this is a story about science. A story about one man climbing the highest mountain so that he can look out at the distant horizon, and another man climbing onto the shoulders of the first man so that he can see just a bit farther. William Murta: Both of them asking themselves the big questions that need to be asked, "Where are we? How did we get here? What is life?" Maurice Wilkins is an x-ray crystallographer at Kings College in London. He's cautious, dedicated, but unfortunately he can't get used to the idea of a woman doing science. Francis Crick is a molecular biologist at the University of Cambridge in England. He has a brilliant mind that jumps incoherently from topic to topic and almost literally never stops talking. Maurice Wilkins is about to get a new colleague from Paris. RosalindFrankli: It's much too cold in here. Maurice Wilkins: I beg your pardon? RosalindFrankli: I have very sensitive equipment arriving from Paris later this afternoon. We will need to keep the temperature at a constant 18 degrees. William Murta: Francis Crick is about to meet a new research assistant at Cambridge. James Watson: Excuse me. Francis Crick: Yes? James Watson: I can't make out this handwriting, can you tell me where Dr. Bragg's office is? Francis Crick: You must be the new guy from America. William Murta: These two meetings will change the biological sciences forever. Maurice Wilkins: From Paris. I say, what bizarre hair. Has it always been like that or was your plane struck by lightening? William Murta: These people are all searching for something having to do with genes, chromosomes and heredity. They don't quite realize it yet, but it's a molecule. One like nobody has ever seen before. Unique on the planet, and for all we know, in the entire universe. The year is 1951, it's a bright Sunday afternoon in early May. Francis Crick has just invited his young colleague over to meet his wife Odile. James Watson: That's when he turned to me and said "What do you mean enzyme synthesis? You'll be sweeping the floor and washing out the beakers." Francis Crick: So you came all the way to cold, dreary London just to learn x-ray crystallography then? James Watson: Yes, I'm afraid I did. Francis Crick: What on earth for? There's so many doing that these days. James Watson: I'm interested in the structure of DNA. Francis Crick: What a coincidence, so am I. Maurice Wilkins: Rosalind, do you know where Ryan laid that last batch of photos? RosalindFrankli: I thought he said he put them on your desk. Maurice Wilkins: Really? I didn't see them. You do that with great skill. Did you learn that trick in Paris? RosalindFrankli: No, this was my own idea. Maurice Wilkins: Impressive. Oh, don't forget, John Randall wants to see us both tomorrow at three. I think he's getting nervous about Linus Pauling again. RosalindFrankli: I won't forget. James Watson: What's more Crick, I think they've got it backwards, I believe that DNA just might have something to do with heredity. Francis Crick: You know something Watson? So do I. Odile Crick: Francis, what is DNA exactly? Francis Crick: It's a very large macro-molecule, a real monstrosity made of sugar phosphates, nitrogen bonds, and endless chains of four repeating base nucleotides. Nobody knows quite yet what its good for, and everyone calls it the stupid molecule. Maurice Wilkins: I've looked everywhere and still can't find them. RosalindFrankli: Have you looked in your briefcase? Maurice Wilkins: I can't find my briefcase either. RosalindFrankli: Ryan will be here at four. Maurice Wilkins: Of course. How do you always get these to come out so perfectly? RosalindFrankli: I experiment with every conceivable mixture in the salt solution and keep an eye on room temperature. A constant ambient temperature and a strictly controlled saline solution encourages better growth. Francis Crick: That may well be Watson, but everyone here thinks genes, whatever they actually turn out to be, will be found on proteins. James Watson: I'm not so sure about that Crick. Francis Crick: Heredity. Whoever solves that puzzle will most likely go to Stockholm and win the Nobel Prize. Odile Crick: Francis. James Watson: Is something wrong? Odile Crick: That look, he gets it when he's about to have an idea. Francis Crick: I say Watson, why don't we take a shot at it? Odile Crick: What did I tell you? James Watson: A shot at what? Francis Crick: DNA, structure, composition, the whole bit. James Watson: That sounds time consuming. Odile Crick: That sounds very time consuming. Francis Crick: It'll be fun. You said you were interested in DNA. James Watson: I meant I'm interested in understanding x-ray pictures better. Francis Crick: Sooner or later someone is going to do it. If the history of science has demonstrated one thing very clearly, it's better to be sooner. Sometimes you have to take the risk doing science. The chances quickly pass and leave you far behind. You can't afford to hesitate. Just relax while you contemplate. Doing science demands an active mind. James Watson: How would we go about it? What experiments? We can't afford to make mistakes. Be careful what you undertake doing science. You don't [inaudible 00:14:14] doing science. Francis Crick: No experiments Watson, I propose thinking. We'll build models. James Watson: Linus Pauling builds models. Francis Crick: Well then, if that's how Linus Pauling works. RosalindFrankli: One aims to always be precise doing science. Maurice Wilkins: Struggles not to miss the forest for the trees. RosalindFrankli: You execute your daily chore. Maurice Wilkins: Will you find what you were searching for doing science- RosalindFrankli: Doing science, there are no guarantees. Maurice Wilkins: There are no guarantees. Odile Crick: There's a status to attain doing science. Rung by rung up the ladder day by day, but when my husband goes insane doing science then the nights get dreary and drab, and each meal is blander than crab because he's locked himself in the lab with DNA. James Watson: All right Crick, you've convinced me. Francis Crick: You have to look to seize the day doing science. James Watson: Throw caution to the wind and gather your [inaudible 00:15:59]. Francis Crick: Once we start to theorize we might even- James Watson: We might even win the Nobel Prize. Francis Crick: The Nobel Prize. If we're daring and attentive- James Watson: If we're daring and attentive. If we're rigorous and wise- Francis Crick: If we're rigorous and wise. If we're clever and inventive- James Watson: If we're clever and inventive when we both [inaudible 00:16:21]. Francis Crick: May go to bed exhausted, but tomorrow we'll arise doing science. Watson! James Watson: Crick! Maurice Wilkins: Ah-ha! RosalindFrankli: Excellent. When do we leave for Stockholm? CAST: It's a long and heavy climb doing science. Each achievement on permanent review, and you can spend a lot of time doing science. There are chemicals to dilute and there's formulas to dispute, and those colleagues still to refute before you're through. We can build a better world doing science. Another problem solved is one more step ahead. Once we start to theorize we might even win the Nobel Prize. If we're daring and attentive, if we're rigorous and wise, if we're clever and inventive and we all hypothesize, then we'll go to bed enlightened and tomorrow we'll arise doing science. Once again. Once again. Once again. Again. Speaker 1: That was fantastic. The NEB volunteers, amazing. In the short amount of time that they had to practice, they just met Bill yesterday afternoon. There was some rapid practicing, and I think it was fantastic. Thank you so much Bill. Does anybody have any questions for Bill? We can take one or two questions if there's anything. No? Okay. Oh Heidi. Heidi: I know I'm new to the award's ceremony, but I do have a question. How long is the play, and do you share it with students and educational audiences? Or is it primarily for pleasure? William Murta: Yeah, it's a normal length. I mean you could compare it to My Fair Lady or West Side Story. It has a first act and a second act. It ran about, I guess two hours and 20 minutes all inclusive. It's with a publisher in Germany at the moment, and they're trying to market it for theaters, for the German theaters because it would require, at the moment, it requires a full orchestra. The German theater system has at their disposal, every German theater has a full symphony orchestra. Yeah, I would wish that it could be also sort of geared towards university's or so, because I would think there would be a possibility. Speaker 1: Wonderful. Speaker 10: Who came, and what was their response? William Murta: Right. Everybody, we have an audience that comes to all the musicals, and this was, what was different about this musical is that it attracted of course a lot of attention from the university in Bielefeld. These were the scientists, and they also were helping me write it because I'm definitely not a scientist. They were informing me if I was making the hydrogen bonds, if I were talking about them, in the correct way. If I could just say, their reaction was terrific. I was the most, a little bit worried about their reaction because I took, of course in order to make this into a stage play, I took certain liberties with reality a little bit. I mean I read about these stories and I thought, "Well if you just sort of exaggerate these historical figures." William Murta: This would be an example, I mean James Watson, there's a character called Linus Pauling, I'm sure everybody knows who that is, he is described by, James Watson went to his, I think it's called Alpha Helix, seminar in Naples one year in 1951 or so. He described it as, well this guy got up on tables and was screaming and doing short little jumps on a table. He described it as being very uninhibited. An uninhibited thing, and so I took that as liberty, the way we did it of course was he's, I turned him into a sort of Fred Astaire character with a glittery tuxedo backed up by the women's chorus all wearing a t-shirt that says Alpha Helix with pom poms, like they're high school. I did take several liberties. The scientists all loved that. Speaker 1: Bill, before you sit down- William Murta: Yeah? Speaker 1: We'd like to welcome you up to come and accept your award. William Murta: Oh, okay. Speaker 1: Before you take a seat. Jim, did you want to come up? Jim: Sure.
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