From The Chronicle of Higher Education B 19, dated April 26, 2002

Quantum Reflections

AMONG MY FAVOFITE childhood outings were little weekend trips to my dad's office. It was in one of those monstrous 1960-ish architectural behemoths--a lost generation of science buildings, all cinderblock and charmless, unconsciously ironic winks at the bunkers and fallout shelters their physics had helped make necessary. But within those blunt facades, all was magic.

Seemingly endless hallways were lined with clues--pictures of Rube Goldbergesque machinery, charts and diagrams, conference announcements with impenetrable titles for meetings in exotic places--pointing the way to the treasure trove that was Dad's office. I'd race down the slippery tiled floor, running the gantlet of strangely labeled, brown wooden doors, until finally, just past the "computer room"--that dimly lit, cable-lined crypt filled with blinking lime-green and white on black screens--I arrived breathlessly at the entrance. "Beware the Hamiltonian," began the "Jabberwocky"-inspired physics poem-incantation on the door, which I would quietly recite to myself and then, heedless of the admonition, open the door. I'd gingerly step over the stacks of books and papers, to get to the desk that I'd rifle for postcards and letters from afar and, joy of joys, try my hand at replicating the ideographs on the glyph-filled blackboard.

Worlds were created within this concrete carapace, and I thought that one day it would be fun to be one of the gang. One day I'd stare out the window at a beautiful blossoming cherry tree and think big thoughts and draw curious personal pictures in colored chalk on my blackboard. I'd have collaborators in far-flung lands. One day I would be a scientist, too.

But I had two science heroes while growing up. One was my dad, real-life physicist; the other was Alan Alda. Or, rather, Alan Alda as Capt. Benjamin Franklin (Hawkeye) Pierce, TV super-doctor. Week after week, my mom, dad, brother, and I would plop ourselves down, Simpsons-like, on the couch in our tiny den to spend a half-hour on Tuesday evenings with everyone's favorite Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. M*A*S*H was Sherman's march crossed with a frat party and ER, and at the center of that wacky and well-meaning bunch was Hawkeye. One part Albert Schweitzer, one part heart-transplant pioneer Christiaan Bernard, and one part Groucho Marx, he was the sort of scientist I wanted to be. Skirt chaser with a heart of gold, brilliant scientist, and Keystone Kop. I would be a science Hawkeye.


LITTLE DID I KNOW that I had already been beaten to the punch. As Hawkeye Pierce was to surgery, so Richard Feyaman was to physics. And it is a sign that there is something right in the universe that Alan Alda is Richard Feymnan in QED, Peter Parnell's wonderful new play now onstage at New York's Lincoln Center Theater.

It is less a mystery of the universe than of the zeitgeist that QED is the latest in a string of well-received mathematics and physics-inspired theater productions. David Auburn's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof is still packing them in on Broadway. But, like its predecessor Copenhagen, in QED we have yet another play partially structured by the mysteries and paradoxes of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is the physical theory that describes the strange world within the atom using the language of probability and statistics. This theory tells you not how and where an electron is, but the chance that it could be so, by representing the state of the electron as a cloudy amalgam of more and less likely possibilities, which become crystallized only at the moment of observation.

The implicit indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is neatly summarized in Heisenberg's infamous uncertainty principle, which, simply stated, means that it is impossible to know exactly both the location and the momentum of a charged particle. The legacy of quantum mechanics is both greater knowledge and the limits of what we can know.

QED takes its title from the abbreviation for quantum electrodynamics, the quantum-mechanical explanation of the interaction of charged particles, in particular electrons, and the electromagnetic field. In terms of predictive power, it is one of the most successful of physical theories, and accounts for most of our understanding of nuclear and molecular interactions. Feynman received his Nobel Prize for the creation of Feynman diagrams, the mathematical tools that make possible the probabilistic calculations that the theory of QED requires.

Quantum mechanics, science's current best explanation of the phenomenology of light that simultaneously behaves as particle and wave, is a milieu of duality that seems to have been a predestined playground for Feyoman, a physicist who was forever mixing the high and the low, working out the grand laws of nature on cocktail napkins under the low light of a topless bar, telling bawdy jokes to royalty, wrapping explanations of the universe in a raspy Dead End Kid vernacular.

In QED we visit with Feynman, in a spare set that is the pitch-perfect re-creation of a working theoretical physicist's office, as he is preparing a lecture titled "What We Know," to be given at a library dedication. QED shows Feynman as the charged particle that he was, with but scant interruptions by brief interactions with a different field, Miriam Field (played by Kellie Overbey), a student, indicating the magnetic attraction that Feynman held for the opposite sex. The play is a two-hour near-soliloquy that is not so much a stream but a waterfall of consciousness, a rush of explanation and memory that spills forth and tumbles over itself in a jumble and wash of emotion. Alda--son of Robert Alda, the man who brought to the Great White Way that gold-hearted crapshooter Sky Masterson, of Guys and Dolls--gives a bravura performance as the man whose dice-playing science is helping to make sense of the Milky Way.

THE PLAY OPENS with its own Big Bang, as Feynman explodes onto the stage in a cacophony of song and drums, a shaman-like scientist about to tell us the secrets of nature, resplendent in the robes of the chief of Bali Ha'i, his role in a local production of South Pacific. In the first three minutes, we see the fundamental threads (strings?) that will entwine to create the tapestry of Feynman's life.

This is a syncopated fugue comprising jazzy drumbeats and barroom ditty, women and science, truth and beauty, pedagogy and epistemology, mortality and morality. He dances around the office to collapse into his chair and play for us a recording of a Tuvan throat singer simultaneously singing in two voices at once--a physics throat singer marveling at a physical throat singer.

Parnell's script (inspired by Ralph Leighton's Feynman biography, Tuva or Bust!, and containing snippets of actual Feyaman lectures) has a bit of a "greatest hits" feel to it, using the device of Feyaman's lecture preparation as an excuse to touch on his seemingly bottomless pit of great achievements.

We careen up and down, from top to bottom, across the life and career of this strangely charming man. We are reminded of Feyaman's wartime years as a section leader at Los Alamos, spent cracking safes and building bombs, all the while caring for the one great love of his life, Arline Greenberg, who was then dying of tuberculosis in a sanitarium. We revisit the postwar rebirth of his love for physics and the winning of the Nobel Prize; his late career as a consultant to the Thinking Machines Corporation and the building of the first massively parallel computer, a neurally inspired wiring of tiny computers that, it had been hoped, would mimic the power of the human brain; and finally his work that revealed the truth behind the Challenger disaster. Those and other events are hung on an arc of worry over the cancer slowly enveloping him during preparations for what was his final unrealized dream--one last journey into the unknown, through a trip to the seemingly unreachable real-life Bali Ha'i that is Tuva.

It is almost too much information in too short a time. But as we wander with Feynman through his life, we see that perhaps this is the way it must be explained. Once again, we have the metaphor (and the only real pedagogy within the play) of Feyaman's great breakthrough, the quantum-mechanical explanation of the reflection of light. The seemingly direct path that light takes, a "principle of least action," is in fact light's taking not one path, but all possible paths at once, of which we are witness to only their probabilistic average.

This is Feynman's famous "sum over histories" interpretation, and indeed Parnell helps us to see Feynman's life in the same way, as an illuminating intelligence that explored every possible crazy path within his, and our, own physical constraints that make up the human condition, leaving us with a collection of adventures that are, in retrospect, ultimately seen as a single average path, dedicated to a revelation of truth in all its guises. Feynman as amateur artist rendering nudes, Feynman as scientist using all of his wiles to seduce Nature into shedding her clothes.

This one bit of staged pedagogy is but a nod to Feynman's great legacy as teacher and expositor. He was the Bard of physics, capable of revealing truths of nature, a modern-science twin of that original Bard, whose left-side genius illuminated the laws of human nature.

Indeed, Parnell's script has small Shakespearean echoes, from the Hamlet-like pondering of the efficacy of surgery (to cut or not to cut, that is the question . . .), to Parnell's play within a play, and Feynman's wry reflection and remembrance that for each of us bit players, "the best thing about a walk-on part is stealing the scene."

All the world's a stage, but every stage can be a world, and as the lights come up and Hawkeye's voice retreats offstage, I slowly return from my boyhood visits and vistas. In an alchemy of theater, the badinage, blackboards, books, and cinderblocks have, once again, worked their magic.

Daniel Rockmore is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth College.