Physics on stage in ‘multiverse’ love story

Just one kiss? Each moment contains infinite alternative realities, physics suggests.

A hit play seeks to explain cutting edge quantum physics through a love story with infinite variations. Audiences love it. What happens when science meets the arts?

‘In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made or never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.’

This dialogue from the play Constellations, which opens in London’s West End this weekend, is certainly not your average banter between a courting couple. But in this case one of the characters, Marianne, is a quantum physicist trying to explain what she thinks about all day.

Roland is a beekeeper: the pair meet at a barbecue and hit it off, the rest is history. Or is it? Because at each important stage of the plot as conceived by playwright Nick Payne, the actors and the staging signal that the characters are locked inside different developments of the same love story. All exist in separate realities of which there could be an infinite number, as Marianne’s research suggests.

Payne, who is not a scientist, was originally beguiled by these ideas while watching a documentary about cutting edge physics: it suggested that what we once called the universe is so vast that it could contain many worlds, with infinite variations of history being played out within them.

‘Several outcomes,’ as he puts it, ‘can co-exist simultaneously.’

The playwright admits his response was emotional, finding these ideas alternately ‘soothing and terrifying’. So he chose to explore the implications of physics through that most traditional subject of human storytelling: a love affair. Maybe it works out for Marianne and Roland or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe both can be true, and with countless variations.

Payne is not alone in turning scientific preoccupations into a successful play. Another very recent hit, A Disappearing Number, told the story of two mathematicians from different continents coming together to explore their love of pure maths. Critics raved about its ability to express the abstract beauty of numbers through the physical and verbal medium of theatre.

Friend or foe?

Writers sometimes argue that art, when taken to its highest level, is as pure as science. The poet T.S. Eliot, for example, believed that the ‘continual self-sacrifice, continual extinction of personality’ necessary for great art make the two disciplines comparable. Mathematician G.H. Hardy, on the other hand, claimed that the pattern-making and harmonies of science can make it like the work of a painter or a poet. ‘Beauty is the first test,’ he wrote.

Some will see this latest theatrical sensation as a sign of the two tribes of artists and scientists moving closer together in their attempts to grapple with the human condition. Others will look at the play’s focus – the emotional push and pull between two individuals – and conclude that art will never be able to attain the abstract grandeur of physics.

You Decide

  1. Is wondering ‘what if?’ a waste of time?
  2. ‘Authors of fiction and scientists have one thing in common: both like to play God,’ Discuss.

Activities

  1. Class brainstorm: quickly write down three adjectives that describe a scientist and three that describe an artist. Then share and discuss.
  2. Use any medium you prefer to try and explain multiverse theory: a poem? a graphic? a play? a short story?

Some People Say...

“Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.’Albert Einstein”

What do you think?

Q & A

Oh no! My head hurts!
Mine too. But it is worth thinking about how far apart the arts and sciences have drifted. Chances are if you are a maths or science boffin you are in one tribe and if you are good at arty things you are in another. Civilisation didn’t start out like that. It’s interesting to see if it works when someone like this playwright tries to break down a few barriers to understanding.
You mean, be open-minded?
Exactly. Don’t assume you won’t understand or enjoy what the other lot are up to. Multiverse theory is about as complicated as science gets anyway, so even if this play only gives you a very simplified version of a controversial theory, it might make you think about your own life – or ‘lives’! – differently.

Word Watch

Quantum multiverse
This is based on an interpretation of quantum mechanics that sees reality not as a linear, unfolding history, but a series of possibilities that exist simultaneously. It’s extremely complicated, but has proved very influential in art and literature.
T.S. Eliot
(1888 – 1965) One of the foremost poets of modernism, T.S. Eliot, who also wrote plays and criticism, was born and raised in America but settled in England. His most famous works include The Waste Land and The Four Quartets. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.
G.H. Hardy
This Cambridge mathematician (1877 – 1947) is one of the two main characters in A Disappearing Number.

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