I read parts of Dante’s Inferno in high school, I have seen bits and pieces of the Nutcracker during most holiday seasons, and I spent a lot of time reading quantum mechanics textbooks throughout my education.

Before the spring of 2018, I never thought that those three things could be combined. Yet, I spent most of that February and March thinking exactly about this unlikely combination! Week after week, I watched an art piece develop from a bold idea shared by two inter-disciplinary creatives, into a full-fledged theatre production. In the end, it involved a cast of actors, physicists, theater students and at least one Nobel laureate.

An unusual performance

This production, a multi-media performance piece called Quantum Voyages, told the story of multiple quantum physics phenomena and explored some of most famous systems from the field of condensed matter physics.

A cast of photons and Sapienza

The piece touched on more than one philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, introduced the idea of a photon as a particle-like packet of light, explored fundamental differences between particles that are classified as fermions and those classified as bosons, explained one of the physical mechanisms that can lead to perfect electrical conductivity, and gave a recipe for creating superfluids of ultracold atoms. Simultaneously it was a story about friendship, about following your curiosity and hanging out with mysterious strangers, about one fairly intense dance, and one really wild game of Clue.

When I agreed to be the Production Manager for Quantum Voyages, I knew that it would be a very different experience compared to research projects that made up my doctoral degree in theoretical physics. I didn’t know how rich and powerful it would be.

I watched Quantum Voyages premier sitting between its lighting and sound designers. I had just wished a happy eightieth to the famous physicist Sir Anthony J. Leggett. My thesis advisor, Prof. Smitha Vishveshwara, took the small stage in the center of a packed hotel ballroom and introduced the night’s narrative alongside her collaborator and devised theater maker Latrelle Bright. Physicists had flown-in from all parts of the country to celebrate Prof. Leggett by holding a conference, and now they were about to experience a very different celebration of some of the physics they shared. The play’s two protagonists, Terra (Earth) and Akash (Sky), stepped onto the stage and their journey started to unravel fast, with lots of colors and flashing lights.

Detective Erwin during a game of Clue

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.