SRJC instructor Lynda Williams playfully merges science and performance arts

Jerome Janairo, News Editor

By day, Lynda Williams wears black coveralls smudged with chalk dust as she teacher physics at SRJC. But for the past few weekends she has traded her coveralls for a slinky black dress as she performs in a gig that has been seen by Stephen Hawking and other world-renowned scientists. Despite the initial contradictions, her love for both physics and performing arts makes for an interesting merger in a night of science cabaret.

“Just sit back and trip out,” Williams says to her audience. Underneath pinpoints of projected stars slowly spinning across the pitch-back dome of the SRJC planetarium, she sings about the Big Bang, subatomic particles and life in extrasolar planets in her one-woman show “Cosmic Cabaret”

Proceeds from “Cabaret” will benefit the SRJC Planetarium.

Williams says creativity and the pursuit of knowledge is not uncommon among scientists. She had been acting, singing and dancing in science-centric performances for 20 years in acts that include time traveling go-go dancers, an opera about planet Venus and belly-dancing mathematicians. However, she inhabits a niche few scientists (if any) populate: “Whether or not they [other scientists] can get on stage and entertain, that’s where it’s different.”

Williams never imagined science and mathematics would be an integral part of her life. Born and raised in Auburn, California, she did poorly in high school. After graduating she went to Hollywood with aspirations of being an actress, but became disillusioned.

“I failed because the projects I was auditioning for were so stupid,” Williams says. Flagrant sexism and a culture of worshiping unrealistic body ideals in Hollywood caused Williams to reconsider her career path. “So I said, ‘Forget this, I’m going to go to college!'”

Williams attended LA Valley College to study journalism, though her return to academics was not easy. “Had to completely learn how to learn because I had done so poorly in high school,” she says.

Studying journalism worked in tandem with Williams’ political activism, where she became passionate about nuclear weapons. Studying nuclear physics sparked her interest in science. Encouraged by her journalism professor to “study something worth communicating” in terms of activism, she switched her major from journalism to physics and mathematics.

But Williams’ poor academic performance and lack of interest in science and mathematics during her high school years proved to be a disadvantage; she had a “hole” in her education. Still, she tried hard despite the difficulties. “It still isn’t easy for me today,” she says. “I’m kind of a poster child for ‘If you can try hard enough, you can do it.'”

After getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Sacramento State University, Williams took a five-year break from college and focused on her love for performance arts and other creative pursuits heavily steeped in science, from which “Cosmic Cabaret” has grown. She then returned to college, this time earning a master’s degree in physics and later a Ph.D. in physics education.

Williams applied for a teaching job at SRJC after the events of September 11, 2001; she witnessed the World Trade Center towers collapse while in New York City. She originally planned to teach for only three years but stayed after giving birth to her son William Duncan.

During Williams’ younger years her interest in physics was steeped in her intense interest in the metaphysical and philosophical aspects of studying it. Now she says she focuses on the practical application of science and technology in “fixing the messes we’ve done.” As with her younger days, political activism drives her actions and paints her view of how science should be used.

“We have a catastrophe in our hands,” Williams says regarding environmental degradation, nuclear power and the militarization of space. “How can I use my knowledge and my ability as an educator and entertainer to try to empower people to have some scientific literacy?”

Scientific literacy is the cause behind Williams’ career as a physics instructor and her artistic endeavors. She says that with the fast-evolving technologies of modern society, there’s not much understanding among the people about the fundamentals of science, and that they are being made to believe that only scientists have any say or where technology is heading or how it is being used.

“You just give your power away and democracy fails,” Williams says about the dangers of a public that left out in the dark about technology, and the importance of being “empowered in our scientific culture.”

As an SRJC instructor, Williams says she is a firm believer in what she calls “The Mission” of community colleges: to remediate people who were not getting what they needed in high school, or with adults who decide to go back and make better lives for themselves through education.

“For people like me, if there wasn’t a community college I would have never gone to college. Ever,” Williams says. “It’s an opportunity for people to achieve their dreams where they never thought they would be able to before. And as corny as it sounds I really believe it.”

Williams’ role of scientist-entertainer has garnered her fans within the scientific community. She had performed for many tech giants such as Adobe and Google, and even at the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. But she is particularly proud with the fact that she made a fan out of renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. It was Thorne who later took her in the direction of another world-renowned theoretical physicist.

“I just performed for Stephen Hawking,” Williams says (albeit somewhat nonchalantly) about her performance at the physicist’s private party. “That was pretty good.”

As for Cosmic Cabaret: “It makes science fun and approachable,” Williams says. “When you have somebody who is breaking the stereotype of what a scientist looks, sounds and talk like, then people identify with it more. That is a door that invites them into thinking that they have access to this kind of knowledge.”