Ph.D. Student Breaks Down Electron Physics Into A Swinging Musical

Feb 16, 2019
Originally published on February 16, 2019 7:00 pm

A scientist just scored honors for a musical adaptation of his research on Friday.

Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been named the 2018 winner of the "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.

The competition, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to translate their research into an interpretive dance. The winner takes home $1000.

It took Senarath Yapa six weeks to choreograph and write the songs for "Superconductivity: The Musical!" — a three-act swing dance depicting the social lives of electrons. The video is based on his master's thesis, which he completed while pursuing his degree at the University of Victoria in Canada.

The 11-minute sing-songy rendition is far less paralyzing than the jargony title of Senarath Yapa's thesis alone: "Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance."

Pramodh Yapa / YouTube

"Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature," Senarath Yapa told Science. "Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!"

Senarath Yapa, who's been swing dancing for five years, and playing the guitar for 13, says he cast some of his swing dancer friends as the "shy" electrons partners and the aggressive "punk impurities."

John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science, founded the contest, now in its 11th year. It all started at a party one New Year's Eve that was heavy on scientist attendees and light on the dancing. "I tapped into their competitive spirit," Bohannon tells NPR's Scott Simon. To get them up and dancing, he turned the party into a dance contest where the party-goers had to show what they were working on without using words.

He thinks scientists are apt performers to begin with. "I think in general, they're exhibitionists. If you're willing to stand up and defend some crazy obscure research topic that you've devoted her life to then there's probably something in you that wants to dance."

A 100-judge panel of acclaimed scientists and artists, which grades finalists on both artistic and scientific merit, picked Senarath Yapa as the overall winner and the winner of the physics category. The field of 50 entrants was competing in five categories: biology, chemistry, physics and social science.

While Bohannon may not be able to speak to what caught the judges' eyes, he says Senarath Yapa nailed the purpose of the contest: to simultaneously educate and entertain. "His dance was just really funny and fun to watch and you can't help but sort of tap along as you learn," he says. "The thing that really tipped it was on top of all that, he wrote his own music and then performed it."

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You know, sometimes a dissertation just isn't enough. A Ph.D. has to get up and dance. This weekend, at The American Association for the Advancement of Science Convention, they have announced this year's winner of the Dance Your Ph.D. contest, co-sponsored by Science magazine.

We will introduce you to the academic with the most dazzling footwork in a moment. But first, we're going to speak with John Bohannan. He launched the contest, now in its 11th year. Mr. Bohannon, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: So what made you believe dance could illuminate science?

BOHANNON: Well, I have to admit it all started with a somewhat drunken party.

SIMON: Keep it scientific here, Mr. Bohannan, OK?

BOHANNON: (Laughter) Well, all the partygoers were scientists. And I wanted to get them to dance. So I tapped into their competitive spirit.

SIMON: And as a generalization, are scientists gifted dancers?

BOHANNON: (Laughter) I think in general, they're exhibitionists. If you're willing to stand up and defend some crazy, obscure research topic that you've devoted your life to, then there's probably something in you that wants to dance.

SIMON: Well, we don't want to delay anymore. We want to introduce the winning entry, a gentleman who authored a paper - I know you'll all go about your Saturday humming this title - "Impact Of Nonlocal Electrodynamics And Flux Noise And Inductance Of Superconducting Wires." It has, however, been transformed into "Superconductivity: The Musical!"


PRAMODH SENARATH YAPA: (Singing) These electrons have a predilection to shirk that sociable connection. Some non-interacting loners they can be.

SIMON: Oh, come on, you just can't stay in bed any longer after listening to that, can you? This wonderous tableau of music and dancing electrons was created by Pramodh Senarath Yapa. Mr. Senarath Yapa is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He joins us from the studios of the CBC in that great city. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Senarath Yapa.

SENARATH YAPA: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Describe this video for us, if you can.

SENARATH YAPA: Yeah. So it is a look at the social lives of electrons in three acts. It starts off with electrons in a normal metal, just being very unsociable as they are.

SIMON: You mean, like, cold to each other, distant, not receptive, that sort of thing.

SENARATH YAPA: Yeah, they just completely ignore each other and don't pay attention to any of their neighbors. As the weather changes and it becomes a little chilly outside, as it is in Edmonton right now, they feel a need for companionship. And they pair up, essentially.


SENARATH YAPA: (Singing) Super-duper Cooper pairs. (Singing in French).

And they're much happier that way. And they keep dancing throughout the wire. These electrons form something called Cooper pairs. And in the final act, I bring in some final punk impurities...


SENARATH YAPA: (Singing) The spin impurities come marching in.

SENARATH YAPA: ...Which are just some unhappy little dirt particles that are in superconductors. And they really don't like it when Cooper pairs are near them. And they get very angry and make a lot of noise.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Crosstalk, unintelligible).

SENARATH YAPA: By listening to this noise, you can figure out what the Cooper pairs are exactly doing. And that's the topic of my research.

SIMON: You wrote the music?

SENARATH YAPA: I did write the music. So I've been playing guitar and recording music for something like 13 years now - super into jazz. So yeah, I wrote all of the music and recorded it in my bedroom over the course of six weeks last year.

SIMON: Mr. Bohannon, can we work in another question to you?

BOHANNON: You bet.

SIMON: I know you weren't a judge. But what do you think got to the judges about this routine?

BOHANNON: This year was special because we had not only a great dance. Pramodh really just had a wonderful, wonderful dance that did these two jobs that we're always trying to do at once with the contest - not only explain science but actually entertain you.

SIMON: To be clear, though, Mr. Senarath Yapa, you just can't do this as a dance, right? You have to also, like, come up with papers and that sort of stuff.

SENARATH YAPA: Yeah, I have actually published in an academic journal. So if you want to go read that, the paper should be out in Physical Review Applied soon. But this is also a nice way to think about what's going on at the subatomic level in these really esoteric physics concepts.

SIMON: So you can download the scientific dissertation, or you can download the dance.

SENARATH YAPA: Yeah, or you can do both.

SIMON: John Bohannon is with Science magazine and is the founder of the contest. Thanks so much for being with us.

BOHANNON: Thank you.

SIMON: And Pramodh Senarath Yapa is the winner of this year's Dance Your Ph.D. contest. May your life be filled with dance and good physics.

SENARATH YAPA: Thank you very much.


SENARATH YAPA: (Singing) Now, they say when Cooper pairs flow this way that they stay on the edges, even though it seems to be outrageous. If we peek, when the Cooper pairs... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.