Posted on behalf of Quirin Schiermeier
Around midnight on 28 January, hundreds of couples lined up in the splendid ballroom of the Vienna City Hall for the quadrilles — and the Vienna Ball of Sciences became tangibly interdisciplinary. Students, scientists and scholars of myriad fields whose paths would scarcely cross in daily academic life moved gracefully to the waltzes of the younger Johann Strauss. Laughter filled the air as rows of elegantly clad dancers performed (in reasonably perfect composure) the bows and figures of the traditional courtly dance.
Balls are the very hallmark of Vienna’s social life and an essential part of its cultural identity. Some 450 take place during January and February. Many trades and professions – from hunters to physicians – proudly hold their own in splendid venues such as the Hofburg, Vienna’s imperial palace. However, the city’s growing and increasingly international research community, currently numbering about 220,000 people, had long been standing aloof from the parallel world of its ball society.
That changed in 2015 when Oliver Lehmann and Alexander Van der Bellen launched an annual Vienna science ball. “We wanted to set a counterpoint to ultra-conservative student corps and the academic ball they organize,” says Van der Bellen, the former Green politician and economist who last week took office as Austria’s new president. “Vienna’s liberal science community absolutely deserves a wonderful ball of their own, we thought.”
Lehmann, a public relation expert with the Institute of Science and Technology (IST Austria) in Klosterneuburg near Vienna, says that Vienna’s balls tend to be high-level political affairs that have in the past drawn violent protests from some on the extreme left, who deem them elitist. But the science ball promotes diversity, reaching out to students and researchers from all academic disciplines and institutions. Like Berlin’s Falling Walls conference, held every November to commemorate the divided German city’s 1989 reunification, it is a clever attempt to associate a big city’s science base with its most distinguished cultural characteristics.
And the sold-out event was ample proof that the organizers had hit a nerve. The 3,000-strong crowd happily waltzed, tangoed and foxtrotted the night away in environs that subtly alluded to science. Light-emitting diodes illuminated dancers’ moves to stunning effect; tables were decorated with supposedly aphrodisiac plants (pomegranate, celery, orchids) selected by botanists at the University of Vienna’s department of pharmacognosy; and young artists with Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts had covered the walls with expressive paintings.
Those more inclined to test the laws of probability theory were offered a chance to do so at two roulette wheels. On large screens, researchers with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology displayed the results of their geomagnetic prospection and ground-penetrating radar measurements of Stonehenge. And at the tables, animated discussions ranged over science and the arts. How often does it happen in academe that a pensive researcher on African cultural identity exchanges ideas with a tipsy quantum physicist about Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of pessimism?
Computer scientist Thomas Henzinger, director of IST Austria and a member of the ball’s honorary committee, is not someone inclined to indulge in rambling sophism. He says he doesn’t even care much for ballroom entertainment, but he does agree that the ball raises Vienna’s profile as a cosmopolitan city of science. Vienna and Austria, he says, benefit a lot from the influx of talent from Eastern Europe and other countries. At the IST, launched in 2009, less than a fifth of 600 staff — and only 5% of postdocs — are Austrian, he says.
Isn’t a ball a bit jingoistic for such a global profession? “Nationalism is the very last thing I support,” Van der Bellen told me, speculating that Europe could soon become a haven for US scientists and intellectuals escaping the Trump administration. “I do appeal to all young scientists, here and around the world, to resist chauvinism and stand up for liberal values.”
As the scientists had a ball, anxiety about world politics became distant concerns — for a few hours. Some had travelled from as far as China to join the fun; many pledged to come again. Tickets for next year’s Science Ball go on sale on 15 November.
Quirin Schiermeier is senior reporter for Nature in Munich. He tweets at @tomboy180463.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.