Two friends journey through the quantum world
In Quantum Voyages, Terra and Akash (played by my friends and fellow physicists Gloria and Michael) meet a mythical figure named Sapienza – the spirit of knowledge – and together travel through various worlds that comprise the quantum world. First, they meet a literal crew of photons. A physics professor steps in from the audience to explain the nature of light in nothing short of iambic pentameter. Her stunning cameo foreshadows a series of guest-roles taken up by faculty members from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Department of Physics.
Next, a German-speaking detective, possibly the forefather of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrodinger himself, gives up on explaining the famous dead-and-alive cat thought experiment and tries to solve a non-deterministic murder instead. This makes for an unforgettable game of Clue, though no-one really knows who the murderer was at the end. Wide-eyed and slightly out of breath, Terra and Akash realize that the nature of reality is much more complicated than it seems.
Then, they surf the collection of highly energetic electrons in a metal that make up the so-called Fermi sea. It gets a bit rough and wavy, but our heroes make it out with just enough focus to start to argue. Their dispute? The common dilemma of whether one should try and understand the world by examining each of its little parts with the cold logic of a scientist or take it all in holistically, with the open heart and whimsy of an artist.
Bothered by having to choose, Terra wanders off and picks up an odd synchronized dance with some nearby atoms. She falls into a trance and collapses. Worried, Akash makes sure she gets all the medical support she needs, including getting her to an MRI. While she is unconscious inside the machine, he delivers a moving speech that highlights both how the MRI works and how much he misses her company.
Quantum Voyages technically concludes after Terra recovers and reconnects with her travel companion. However, their voyage really does not seem to end at all. In the last scene of the show, both characters have even more questions for Sapienza than they had at the beginning of their adventure. To everyone in the audience that first night, physicists and non-experts alike, it was clear that curiosity will take the two to many more worlds. Once Akash and Terra are done with whatever future physics adventure awaits, Dante will look like just a casual stroll enthusiast in comparison.
The journey makes an impression
I attended many rehearsals for Quantum Voyages. I helped design the props and I worked individually with the crew of physics and art, graduate and undergraduate, students that made the show happen. Naively, I thought I knew what to expect from it. When Terra, wearing sunglasses I had lent her and reclining on a chair I had personally carried across campus and onto the stage, uttered the first “What does it mean to see?” I mouthed it with her. I knew photons will enter next, my friend Daniel being one of them, my neighbor Tianhe another.
Almost unconsciously I kept track of overlaps between lessons in classes I have taught or taken and the plot of the play. I learned that two fermions “don’t like each other” i.e. cannot occupy the same quantum state in college; Akash and Terra learn it by fighting each other after almost drowning in a sea of them. I co-authored research papers concerning specific kinds of Bose-Einstein condensation; Terra took similar insights in through choreography. I wondered how someone who had not committed years of their life to studying physics like I had perceived all these adventures.
“It was almost like children’s theater”, a colleague told me when the show hit the road and saw a repeat performance at the American Physical Society March Meeting in Boston the following year. I couldn’t disagree with them. This was an adventure tale a child might find exhilarating much more than a traditional physics lesson. In many ways, this is why Quantum Voyages was so effective, and special, as a science communication project.