Maryam Mirzakhani: Higher Dimensional Origins

news of your death at 40
cracked the community
before i comprehended your life

you painted paper with doodles
proved the unknown
& became the lone woman to win the Fields
mightiest of math medals

the same age we were
yet you wandered ahead
traveling curved surfaces
hyperbolic & complex —
& moduli spaces

you joined
geometry with dynamics
shapes with motions —
trajectories that don’t terminate with you
but only just originate


A Dialogue on Reading Clifford Johnson’s The Dialogues


Note: May contain spoilers.

Higgsino: Honey, I can’t follow Star Wars. I’m sure it’s good, but in twenty minutes they’ve introduced 10 characters, and I can’t follow the narrative. I keep thinking about how I’d rather be reading The Dialogues. Can we leave the theatre?

Higgs: Okay, if you need to. These action movies today are all about the action. They don’t have much plot.

A little later

Higgsino: My brain…isn’t functioning. It’s not working. Can’t think. Feel confused.

Higgs: Honey, you’re just having a hard day. Maybe we should call someone for a chat?

Higgsino: Let’s read The Dialogues and listen to Yo-Yo Ma.

Higgs: Okay.

Higgsino: Let’s read them out loud, like a dialogue.

Higgs: Haha.

Reads from introduction by physics Nobel Prize winner and luminary Frank Wilczek

Higgsino: Hey, The Dialogues follows in the same tradition. Plato, Galileo, Johnson…

Higgs: And he talks about “show, don’t tell” like what all the writers instruct.

Higgsino: It’s like a guidebook. And it’s like physics which includes language, equations, even cartoons which are based on the language of math, and visuals. It’s multi-dimensional.

Reading Dialogue I

Higgsino: It’s a really funny and lighthearted discussion. It’s even a meta-graphic novel at times, talking about science comic books.

Higgs: I never thought about how because of science, we all have access to superpowers. Even simple objects like the optics in the glasses we wear are tools that give us better vision.

Higgsino: Yeah! I love how the characters connect over scientific discussion. So romantic…

Higgs: Why isn’t that how people meet in rom-coms more often?

Higgsino: I don’t know. It should. This book makes a contribution by introducing science as fun, significant, provocative, and accessible in an analogous way as science improves society.

Higgs: And you’re smiling. I like that.

Higgsino: And it really does demonstrate that within math and equations is a beauty that can rival van Gogh that I dare anyone to refute.

Higgs: You won’t get an argument from me!

Reading Dialogue II

Higgs: This one is sweet, cute, comedic, and playful!

Higgsino: That’s how science should be done, and life lived, not this stressed-out mode of publish or perish!

Higgs: I love how the kids conduct an experiment and test their hypothesis!

Higgsino: Exactly. And their curiosity about food. Food and coffee play a major role in this book. It’s like the science and playful repartee between the characters nourish us just as the food and ideas do for the characters.

Higgs: I like how The Dialogues explains pragmatic phenomena as well as presents more sophisticated theories that will appeal to a wide audience.

Higgsino: The point is that science is not just a rarefied field for elite scientists to develop. It’s the world we live in, and we can all be curious about it and participate in one way or another. Even when we’re thinking about daily activities, like cooking.

Higgs: Yeah, cooking doesn’t have to be a chore! It can be a chemistry experiment!

Higgsino: These dialogues show how wonder about science enriches everyone’s experience of day-to-day life and is as fun as playing games.

Higgs: Isn’t that what science is all about? Solving riddles and mysteries? This book definitely shows how fun it is!

Reading Dialogue III

Higgs: Hey, those sequence of pictures are in time, like a diagram would be in a physics book.

Higgsino: What I like about this conversation is the brilliant presentation of the multiverse and anthropic principle. I never thought about it this way, but Johnson’s thoughtful analogies with history and other fields of physics is ingenious!

Higgs: The optimism about the state of physics is great too! I’ve heard from some physicists that the field will die unless something new is discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. But Johnson shows there will be an endless supply of questions and theories.

Higgsino: It’s definitely an uplifting read. The discussion of the “controversy” of string theory is accurate and gently teaches the readers that sometimes the media misrepresents the state of things. We all need to be scientists and detectives to discern the validity of press releases which might sometimes be sensationalized to attract an audience.

Higgs: Yes, it’s valuable for teaching readers to check their sources and provides comprehensive ones for further exploration at the end of each chapter. It’s an important part of doing science not to treat every statement as fact but to see how it’s motivated or backed up or to question where the fact comes from.

Higgsino: There’s just one thing I can’t find easily.

Higgs: What’s that?

Higgsino: These images are gorgeous. I wonder where I could find out all the locations for the visuals?

Reading Dialogue IV

Higgs: This dialogue continues from the first one. It’s about how beauty sometimes lies in the imperfections, both in art and physics.

Higgsino: Yeah, this dialogue illustrates that art and physics aren’t as different as people think, since both have symmetry as underlying principles.

Higgs: And that both get messy which can be beautiful too.

Higgsino: All the characters in this book are smart, diverse, and really witty. I wish I could know these characters; they’d make great friends!

Higgs: Just open the book when you get lonely.

Higgsino: I wish each dialogue were longer though.

Higgs: Each dialogue presents an idea, like how theories originate in each period in history. It’s like our lives. We’re each on a segment of the time-line. But there isn’t always a nicely tied up resolution.

Higgsino: The book mimics a Feynman diagram in physics where instead of particles interacting, exchanging particles, and then going off in their own directions, the people do and exchange conversations about science – the spark of light is the dialogue in each scenario.

Higgs: Yeah, it’s kind of like life. We’re all just passing through, in each other’s lives and in the universe.

Reading Dialogue V

Higgs: Platonic ideals, religious debates, and making peace about human mortality! These are things we all grapple with!

Higgsino: This one’s in the middle of the book, a keystone that offers how science can solve pragmatic issues that plague humans on a philosophical level.

Higgs: It also has an in-joke reference to Johnson’s blog.

Higgsino: Yeah, this book really balances profound insight into science, and people’s search for understanding, with lightheartedness.

Reading Dialogue VI

Higgs: This one’s my favourite!

Higgsino: Why?

Higgs: It gives one of the best explanations I’ve seen about the stretching of spacetime and debunking the myth that space travels faster than the speed of light during inflation.

Higgsino: I also love the analogies. Is it true that the strings in string theory are part of space-time?

Higgs: Well, a graviton is a massless state of a string. But in relativity it’s a quantum ripple in space-time.

Higgsino: This book will spark a lot of dialogues; it’s a launchpad for physics discussions among lay people and physicists alike. Especially since the different areas of physics can be so specialized.

Higgs: But it also brings abstract concepts down to earth with concrete analogies. Love the sport and cooking analogies.

Higgsino: Yeah, but it’s making me hungry for stew.

Reading Dialogue VII

Higgsino: The ideas in The Dialogues are completely distracting me from the daily toils of life.

Higgs: Yeah, I think that’s the point and at the heart of the book. You can lose yourself in the fireworks of scientific dialogues.

Higgsino: It’s got everything: black holes, the Big Bang, beginnings, endings, general relativity, special relativity…

Higgs: It’s true. This book is proof that thinking about science melts away anxieties of the human condition and elevates us through telling the story of the universe. What could make a better story than the history of the universe and the attempt to understand it?

Reading Dialogue VIII

Higgsino: Hahaha, it’s funny how Johnson introduces Feynman diagrams which are pictures used to calculate many phenomena such as particle interactions and then mentions the power of cartoons, since the book is a graphic novel.

Higgs: Yeah, the book is really funny at times. I love how the visuals reflect the discussion and often include relevant math. As a character mentioned in an earlier dialogue, anyone can appreciate the beauty of the math, like a work of art, and Johnson often breaks them down for clarity.

Higgsino: This dialogue really explores the nature of how science is done.

Higgs: And makes quantum electrodynamics accessible and leads you into deeper ideas.

Higgsino: The Dialogues covers so many major areas of cutting-edge modern physics and more subtle points usually reserved for rarefied academics. But it makes science exciting and accessible.

Higgs: Like translating a book from Latin to English for English speakers.

Higgsino: This chapter even makes me want to review quantum field theory. I forgot how fun it is and haven’t thought about it in so long!

Higgs: Advancing science is one of humanity’s finer feats. I think this book celebrates the wonder and delight we can all share in physics and offers light in bleak hours, just as Maxwell’s equations describe light.

Reading Dialogue IX

Higgsino: This chapter really hones in the idea that all scientific research might be useful, even mistakes along the way.

Higgs: What do you mean?

Higgsino: Sometimes I have philosophical crises about research since there are so many models to hope to understand or learn about some phenomena, but most of them are wrong. The point is not whether your contribution is right or wrong because it’s all useful in the journey.

Higgs: I really like the idea of the fluidity of dimensions. And the conceptual and technical aspects captured in the visuals.

Higgsino: Yeah, the beauty of ideas is paralleled by the stunning visuals. I’ll have to reread the book to absorb all the artistry and the notes and references at the end of each chapter. I kept wanting to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Reading Dialogue X

Higgsino: This chapter introduces really current areas of research.

Higgs: A lot of the chapters do, but the multiverse controversy and quest for a satisfactory resolution make it particularly germane.

Higgsino: It all comes together as characters appear in more than one dialogue and interact with the different characters, converging all the dialogues. And a lot of the ideas build on each other too and return.

Reading Dialogue XI

Higgsino: This one made me want to cry.

Higgs: Why?

Higgsino: It talks about how anyone interested in science should explore it. I wish I hadn’t been so discouraged in life to pursue a life in physics.

Higgs: Well, let the characters encourage you now. It’s never too late. And anyone who wants to learn can. Even just by taking the first step and reading this book. It’s not like a secret club with people with special brains, as Johnson writes.

Higgsino: Yes, and to quote the last words of the last dialogue, “Thanks for the story.”

The Dialogues is a hip, multidimensional, stunning tour de force where science meets art, and, like good art and science, medicine for the mind, heart, and soul.

RIP Stephen Hawking

RIP Stephen Hawking.

I was a struggling PhD student the first time I saw you, like really saw you. It changed my life more than the seminar on ghosts I saw you give at UCSB.  It was Strings 2002 in Cambridge, and I saw your nurse feed you a cup of tea. It reminded me that it’s not a sin to be dependent, despite that I had always wanted my independence. It made me realize that we all need help and others to help us in different capacities.

I still struggle with dependence a lot, but when I think of you, I think of the epiphany I had. To do the things I can and realize my dreams despite impediments and accept the dependence I have on others too, that maybe it’s okay.

And I remember how I watched you featured on the PBS show The Astronomers at home while my classmates were at the prom in high school. Never did I dare dream I’d be in your presence so much back then and see you give a seminar.

And I remember as your health declined in my last years in California when you came to CalTech. So many of us think perhaps that things will be okay when we reach such and such an age and hope our issues improve rather than decline. But you staunchly gave technical talks and did not give up despite the deterioration of your health. You were a personal inspiration and gave much to me in my youth and lessons I need to remember now.

And now I study Quantum Information Theory, something I never imagined I’d be involved in. Thank you.  You will radiate forever out of blackness.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy: A Light Still in the City

Maggie Hope is a special agent for World War II Britain dropped in France in Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy. Her mission is twofold: 1) to unravel the mystery of a potentially compromised fellow agent and 2) to uncover her sister’s whereabouts and to bring her safely home. As I read the book I noted the themes of Sleeping Beauty and clocks, the pressure of time, threading throughout. Danger and threat hover ominously from even the beginning pages, leading the reader on a tense, heightened journey that the word page turner does not do full justice; it is a novel meant to be binge read.

Superficially perhaps the novel is about revealing a double agent, finding a sister, and completing a mission. The novel is really about courage. Most obviously, it’s about the strength and the lengths people will go and what they will sacrifice to fight against those who don’t value religious minorities and the mentally or physically disabled. The courage to fight against fascism and those who don’t value everyone’s right to exist and with equal rights. I championed Maggie and her friends for fighting for their principles and all of those resisting the oppressive, censoring, intolerant, horrific, and truly inhumane Nazi culture. I relished the line in which “Resistance comes in all forms,” referencing how art can be a form of resistance, even the ballet and the colours worn on the dancers’ costumes. Resistance to immoral forces can be subtle or overt, just as strength can be. Very timely motifs.

I enjoyed Maggie’s realistic use of mathematical games, such as reciting the digits of Pi or calculating the Fibonacci sequence to calm herself. Like Maggie, I find math to be comforting, a safe place to go in my mind. For me I use the game 24 to relax. 24 is where you use the four basic operations of arithmetic to form the number twenty-four from four numbers between 1 and 13 (for example, if your numbers are 3,5,7,11 you can take 7 minus 3 to get 4, then take 11 minus 5 to get 6, and then multiply 6 times 4 to get 24; it’s extremely soothing and addictive). I loved how Maggie described the meditative nature of math, how almost prayer-like it is, an experience of divine proportions. Even with math we can quiet our minds to defeat the foes who try to suppress us. In a sense, math can be a form of resistance as a way not to allow others to trample our minds and spirits.

But what I think The Paris Spy is really about is Sleeping Beauty and love. Like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Maggie and her friends wake up to what’s really important, which is love. Again and again through the Maggie Hope series, Maggie and her friends learn the depth of a love of country, love of freedom from fascism and extreme intolerance, love of peace, and a love for the bonds that connect her coterie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Maggie where she wakes up to who she and her sister are meant to be, even if she might despise the moral dilemmas she encounters. In the book, circumstances push her and her friends to their limits which test their characters, and Maggie, in particular, wakes up to the most fundamental meaning of duty and learns where hers lies. I cannot help but be reminded of the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching us to follow our duty, what we are meant to do in our lives. Through the course of The Paris Spy, Maggie learns who are her allies, who are not, and she grows up to witness the horrors of a game which is not as black and white as chess.

There is a line in the book, “Love is what matters.” As I journey through reading the Maggie Hope books, I see that they really form an unconventional epic love story. It’s not the romances that occasionally pepper the books that form the love story, but a more encompassing love, one of true fidelity to friendship and sisterhood and one to the very purity of mathematics that governs our world. As I myself age, I realize how I wish all of life could be as simple as math. I think Maggie must agree with me.

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Backstage Tour at the Manitoba Opera

When I found out I was moving to Winnipeg, my piano teacher in Montreal told me the city was known for the arts. Although I’m used to a peripatetic lifestyle and was excited by the move, it was news to me, since all I knew about Winnipeg was that 1) it was cold, 2) it was home to a world-renowned ballet company, and 3) there weren’t any current nearby cosmologists or string theorists (until Andrew and I came here).

I’ve discovered that with proper clothing even on the coldest days, the weather in Winnipeg really is tolerable, and I walk or bus everywhere, so I’m out a lot even on the most frigid days. In fact, anyone who knows me has heard the story far too many times how the coldest period of my life was living in an unheated, LA apartment as a UCLA graduate student where the windows didn’t close as the weather plummeted to freezing; my only consolation as I shivered in my winter coat in bed at night was reading the biography of a freezing Marie Curie in Paris.

However, the reputation that preceded Winnipeg as an arts city, I’m discovering, is not unfounded. Where else have I been able to find high caliber music teachers, tickets to the symphony, opera, ballet, or plays (in venues small enough that even in the worst seats you don’t need your binoculars) that are accessible and affordable? And where else can you spend a Sunday afternoon free at the concert hall for a backstage tour of the opera?

I didn’t know what to expect. Since the tour started every twenty minutes, I thought it would be a twenty minute lecture on the stage. However, the tour was comprehensive, starting in the orchestra pit where we were privy to view not only the concert hall from below but also the celesta (a keyboard instrument) used in the Manitoba Opera’s last production Of Mice and Men, composed by American composer, Carlisle Floyd, and based on the John Steinbeck novel. I believe it was the executive board member, Robert Vineberg, who explained the relationship of the conductor to the music (where the conductor studies each note weeks before rehearsals and how the orchestra is blind to the performance on stage, only the conductor can see the singers).

At this point in the tour, we were conscious of the obvious talent behind the production, the musicians and singers on stage. It was only later in the tour where the full magnitude of how many talents behind the scenes are required for a three-day-run of an opera. For example, we see the orchestra members, but how often do we think of the simplest of matters in a production, such as the procurement of the copies of the orchestral scores?

The second stop was in a rehearsal room with the CEO and Director of the Opera, Larry Desrochers whose photo I pass often at the University Winnipeg where he won a Distinguished Alumni Award.  The first point of note was how humble and passionate all of the speakers at the backstage tour were. How Desrochers expressed his wish to make opera accessible to everyone (and so he encouraged people to phone legislators to provide the necessary funding). He demonstrated how a score is marked, one page of music, the other with blocking that would match the spike marks (tape on the floor designating the performers’ marks, which seems similar to film). His gracious talk to us on the tour emphasized how little the ticket sales cover expense of an opera and how critical opera accessibility is to the vitality of a community.

Third was the make-up artist. Again, I was impressed by his passion for stage make-up and happy with his response to my question about how he maintains sanitary conditions with make-up (alcohol sprays on the make-up, disposable applicators, brush cleanings between applications to different performers). Next was hair, where we were treated to the behind the scenes work of the hair dresser and wig maker. From the wardrobe manager, we learned that, like the rented sets, the costumes are rented, though the performers could use their own shoes. I also found this interesting since I would fathom using unknown shoes could make it difficult to perform optimally. Would it?

We also saw the director of production, Sheldon Johnson, who emphasized that even a relatively small production, such as Of Mice and Men, which features a cast of eight principals and twelve chorus members, requires sixty orchestra members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 107 people backstage not including ushers, the box office, the bartenders, etc. The first thing he said is that productions require 1) lots of people and 2) lots of stuff. He mentioned how the scores must be rented, customs attended to, props, tape (for the marks), piano movers for rehearsals, piano tuners, rehearsal props, sets etc. all must be organized. There are 150 lamps alone above the stage which each must be focused for this production. I must admit, I became lost when he started talking about the machinery (chain motors?) needed to keep the 2600 pounds of bunk beds above the stage (in the fly) or the barn set.

The next stop was with the Stage Manager, Robert Pel, who came to Winnipeg specifically for five weeks to work on this production. One aspect of his job was to plot out (in twelve hours over two days) the 120 looks needed for this production with the lighting designer and director. He arrived one week before the artists, there were two weeks of rehearsals, one week when the set had arrived during which it was unpacked and set up by Monday night, Tuesday the orchestra and singers rehearsed, Wednesday costume, make-up, hair were done with a rehearsal accompanied by the piano (no orchestra), Thursday a final dress rehearsal with orchestra and an audience of students, Friday off, and performance on Saturday. From his location in the wings, the stage manager watches monitors of the performance, which are also available to the performing artists to watch, whom he calls to the wings 5 minutes before their entrance. They prepare two minutes before they go onstage from the wings. It is also the stage manager who takes care of the extensive safety precautions needed when props include firearms (hearing protection for the actors, permits, making sure it is clean and without bullets, overseeing that two people watch the firearm at all times before it goes on stage, etc).

The final treat of the tour that we attended (we opted to skip the last stop, which was the lighting booth in the back of the theatre) was conducted by Lara Ciekiewicz, whom I have enjoyed watching from the audience as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Turandot. As with all the other talent who spoke on the backstage tour, Ciekiewicz was humble and modest, though possessed a confidence which I admire. She even demonstrated for us by singing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. She truly embodied an artist, as all the backstage talent did as well, communicating that the stage is her office, that she envisions the 2200 member audience (who bring their own stories to the theatre) as surrounding a campfire on the stage where the artists connect to each other and the audience in the conveyance of a story. She discussed how important it is for her to warm up her body as well as her voice before performing, that an opera is, in a way, akin to a vocal marathon. And, as she relayed to us, she feels as though the performing artists are the tip of the iceberg of backstage talent that supports the performance. She discussed Mozart’s emotional as well as musical intelligence, which is evidenced by anyone who has ever played one of his sonatas on the piano, sung one of his art songs or arias, or read his letters.

I enjoyed listening to Ciekiewicz’s enjoyment of singing in choirs, loved her statement of “phlegm begone” (as my throat is often phlegmy when I sing), and her discussion of the flawed perception a singer has of her own voice as she sings. I have hence recently learned to rely on the feeling of my body (or my teacher) and to not worry about the sound, and, as Lara so eloquently said, it’s not about you. It’s about the text and the music.

And with that, I thank the Manitoba Opera for all you give to our community and look forward to the season in Winnipeg!

Review and Scientific Discussion of Theatre by the River’s Production of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Do you engage with him in banter or do you discuss the weather? Do you talk or do you listen? Do you invite him to stay the night or ask him to leave? Do you take care of her or betray her? Do you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you or not? Do you take that last chance to connect or do you let him go? Do you brave an illness or do you choose death?

And is there another you in another universe of the multiverse landscape confronted with the same questions but making different choices? Are there an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of copies of you living out different variations of your life? This is the premise of Nick Payne’s stimulating play, Constellations, performing this week at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film by Theatre by the River featuring Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts. Together with Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar and Andrew Frey, I have the great honor to participate in the Talk Back sessions after two of the performances to share my thoughts about the play’s scientific content.

The play consists of a series of scenes each of which represents a different interaction of the protagonists, Marianne and Roland, in various contrasting scenarios that could be playing out in different universes of the multiverse. The notion of a multiverse is based on a theory that there is a landscape which contains an infinite number of universes. The scenes alternate between witty and poignant, frivolous and weighted. Both the scientific allusions as well as the ethical decisions the characters encounter are relevant and provocative. The actors, Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts, authentically vary their portrayals to accommodate the ever shifting ambiance from scene to scene, from lighthearted to grave, from awkward to intimate, from warm to aloof, from casual to intense. Although the play follows only two individuals through the possible situations they could share, the pair draws you into their stories which we can relate to with the different relationships in our lives and the different roles we play with the people who populate our life. Using a clever device of parallel universes, the play paints a mosaic of nuanced experiences we all share on our own life adventures.

What is the scientific idea behind the multiverse, and could we ever experimentally detect it? A popular theory within the framework of string theory (the mathematically self-consistent theory that unifies all four forces by postulating the most elementary constituents are one-dimensional strings, as opposed to point particles) is the landscape. The landscape gives a physical framework in which the anthropic principle could be valid. This provides a possible solution for why there is a small non-vanishing cosmological constant (the parameter in the universe responsible for the universe’s observed accelerated expansion, a sort of negative pressure). The anthropic principle considers why the state of the universe is such that life can exist. The landscape argument suggests that there is a landscape of universes within a multiverse, and since we observe life in our universe, we happen to occupy one of the domains which supports life. However, there could be other universes with different flavors of string theory (with different degrees of symmetries) and hence physical laws which don’t support life. You can imagine these universes as expanding bubbles within the multiverse.

Is there a way we could detect whether we live in a multiverse? Stephen Feeney, Matt Johnson, Daniel Mortlock, and Hiranya Peiris asked just that in 2010 (see their initial papers on the arXiv, arXiv:1012.1995 and their longer paper, arXiv:1012.3667). The cosmic microwave background (CMB) (in one scene this is the subject that the character Marianne studies) is the relic radiation from the Big Bang. At the origin of the universe, space was small and radiation was very hot. As space expands, the Big Bang’s relic photons’ wavelengths stretch out, decreasing their energy. Today the CMB has stretched to millimeter wavelength and a temperature of 2.73 above absolute zero. The universe is bathed in this radiation; it is everywhere and can even interfere as noise to electronic signals (remember the static on old TVs? Some of that was due to the CMB). Feeney et al postulated that when the bubbles containing eternally inflating universes collide, they will produce edges or discontinuities in the temperature maps of the CMB. At the Perimeter Institute, I was talking to Matt Johnson and mentioned I had used the Canny algorithm as an edge detection algorithm for my research with identifying cosmic string signals in the CMB. My application of the Canny algorithm was simpler, since I could assume a flat two-dimensional sky, and his team adapted a more sophisticated Canny algorithm for their models as part of their search for the edges produced by colliding universe bubbles in the CMB. Although they have not detected evidence of bubble collisions yet, their approach could provide a promising means of searching for evidence of the multiverse in CMB data.

Another scientific concept in the play is that of the many worlds interpretation in quantum mechanics. This can be illustrated by the Schroedinger cat thought experiment. Traditionally, we think of the wavefunction (the function which describes the state) of the cat as being a superposition of the two states, alive and dead, at the same time. If you peek in the box, the act of observing the cat collapses the wavefunction to a single state, that of the cat either being alive or dead. In the many worlds interpretation, after you observe the cat, there is part of your wavefunction where you observe the cat to be alive and part of your wavefunction where you see her to be dead. So in the many worlds version, the observer’s wavefunction splits as well and becomes entangled with the cat’s. Marianne deftly integrates these quantum ideas into her dialogue, relating her experience through the lens of physics which shapes her thoughts.

The character of Marianne in Constellations is a young engaging woman, who happens to be a theoretical cosmologist. She deconstructs the stereotype of scientists being either older men or dowdy women. We need more fictional portrayals of hip women in STEM to provide role models! Women like Marianne who are young, brilliant, and sophisticated, much like the real-life London-based cosmologist, Hiranya Peiris. Cosmology is sexy, and it’s refreshing to see a fictional woman physicist who not only advances science but also defies the preconceived notions society has defined for women in science. Women in science can have lives outside their work and can be intriguing and vivacious.

The idea of the multiverse builds the structure for the play, Constellations, but its underpinnings are grounded in philosophy and are far from alienating. Instead of feeling removed from these characters and their journey, we are left feeling connected to them and their stories while recognizing the common elements that weave through our own narratives. In a sense, the play provides a microcosm through which we can examine our own encounters with other people and our own evolving selves. As Roland states in the play, honey bees enjoy a fleeting existence. And during their ephemeral lives, they live with intention and purpose, either to mate with the queen bee or to work. Compared to the time scale of the universe, our lives are on the scale of nanoseconds. But we are here. And we do have the purpose to explore. The universe. Art. Philosophy. Ourselves and our connections with others. And love.