Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions: A Hilarious Glimpse into New York Prep School Admissions

Amy Poeppel’s debut novel, Small Admissions, should not be read while eating or drinking. Because you’ll likely choke as you laugh throughout this hilarious story. As the parental figures say at the end of the book, some people are flat, and some are bubbly. This goes for books too. And Small Admissions definitely fits in the sparkling variety.

Young Wellesley alum Kate Pearson ditches her anthropology graduate school plans to follow her sexy almost-fiancé, Robert, to Paris. Where he promptly dumps her. What follows is her return to her bosom (and meddling) friends and sister in New York City and her subsequent downward spiral spent mostly on the couch in her fifth floor walk-up sublet. She works as a disastrously ill-equipped dog walker, seemingly dragged through her depression as much by the dogs as by her heartbreak. Her drunken evenings and inability to function last until Kate’s sister, Angela, fortuitously meets Henry Bigley, the desperate admissions director at the elite private institution, Hudson Day School. The ensuing novel is a comedic patchwork of interwoven plot lines from multiple character perspectives that all converge beautifully. The novel offers glimpses into the bizarre worlds of New York City admissions, academic culture, unconventional families, close-knit friends, socialites, online dating for friends, and one very charming Parisian playboy.

Small Admissions abounds in laugh-out-loud scenarios, wisdom issuing from unlikely sources, a commentary on contemporary friendships and family, and likeable characters. In fact, the novel is so comedic, I could barely contain myself during many of the scenes. For example, during Kate’s job interview, she rambles at great length about many inappropriate topics – including nudity – in response to Henry Bigley’s prompt, “So tell me about yourself.”

After she lands the job, Kate exemplifies an independent woman who doesn’t need her friends for a makeover (despite their best efforts) but does it herself in keeping with a Wellesley graduate fashion – by doing her homework. In fact, her ascent out of her depression is practically an instructional self-help guide for anyone who might be stagnated in a funk. Kate’s viral energy inspires the reader as she transforms herself from a pajama-wearing depressive on the couch to a young organized professional entering the workforce for her new job. Although she soon discovers she’s overwhelmed, she veers into unknown duties and situations and grows to overcome her impostor syndrome with the support of her boss.

Kate is surrounded by a supportive family and well-meaning friends, but, as a psychiatrist character in the novel brilliantly points out, their efforts to help her as their project might very well result from their own egotism and personalities. Who among us is guiltless from trying to fix someone who might not desire our aid or wish us to meddle in their romantic affairs? Wisdom emanates from such quirky places as the liquor lady (who advises Kate to turn herself into the kind of person her job requires quickly) and her interviewees (with whom she discusses her relationship problems as hypothetical problems for the children to solve). Even the French playboy, Robert, has an uncannily insightful perspective. For example, in one instance he suggests that what we all need is a nice dinner with friends to defuse a tense or difficult situation, a simple, yet likely solution to most problems. And then at another time he says, “Life happens ze way life happens,” echoing not only European laid-back sensibilities but wisdom worthy of a philosopher. Poeppel portrays her characters as so likeable, she even manages to pull off making Robert lovable.

The way Poeppel unfolds the novel by allowing the reader to discover the bread crumbs of the characters and story is an exact demonstration of masterful writing and “showing” and not “telling.” One critique is the narrative was a little disjointed with the multiple character perspective and different plot lines leading me to some confusion in the beginning. However, the novel quickly becomes a page turner, and the narratives meld together in a brilliantly planned storyline. All of the players populating the book stay in character throughout. For example, Kate continually writes wickedly sarcastic notes on the interviewees, mirroring her spunky personality. Kate’s sister Angela seems to be on a mission to transform Kate into who Angela envisions Kate should be. Kate’s friends’ agendas remain true to their characters as well. My only wish for the book was that the characters’ alternate imaginary scenarios and inner fantasy worlds in early chapters continued throughout the novel.

If you need to get out of a reading rut and interact with flawed yet lovable characters who will take you to a world of young New York City professionals or just need some comic relief from a smart, engaging book, I highly recommend Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions. The continual laughs the novel engenders seal the deal for me that we should all have more fun in life and not take everything (or ourselves) so seriously. Reading Small Admissions is definitely one step in that direction.

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Meditations from Manitoba Opera’s Madama Butterfly

There is nothing like attending a live musical performance. You can sit at home and listen to the music over and over for years, yet do you really hear it? Last night I think I heard Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the first time. Sitting in a theatre, your concentration is entirely on the music, on the performance, stirring and touching you, stimulating a meditation on how the performance connects to you and your life.

The story of Madama Butterfly is simple. Military officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton marries Japanese geisha Butterfly with the preconceived plan of deserting her once he tires of the marriage. And he does. He dissolves his marriage without ceremony or even her notification. He leaves Japan with her under the impression he will return. She patiently awaits his return, and, when he does three years later, it’s with a new wife in tow and the intent of removing their child to the US. Pinkerton betrays his faithful wife. The Manitoba Opera, as well as the singer David Pomeroy who portrayed Pinkerton, encouraged us to boo him after our ovation for his dramatically compelling performance.

The composer, Puccini, weaves the American national anthem into his score to accompany Pinkterton’s appearances. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Star-Spangled Banner, though it accompanied my childhood attending (and even singing in a choir at) sports events in Philadelphia. Although my personal anthem is more aligned with Bruce Springsteen, the melody played in this context moved me. Pinkerton followed the stereotype of the American taking what he wants without regard to others. A parallel occurs in the role of the US president in the film Love Actually (played by Billy Bob Thornton) opposite the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant. We must strive to evade the fate of becoming this stereotype by being faithful and kind to our family and friends, upholding principles, being generous, and not stereotyping others based on their origins.

Too often I find myself just trying to get through another day while searching for the elusive purpose and meaning to this existence I share with others on earth. Often I get cranky, I’ll admit, as I saw on a recent blog post I made, since I work and have worked very hard in my life without any or much compensation. Maybe this is in part how I conform to the stereotype of the culture I was born to. I do feel immensely grateful for everything I have, and I mean everything, including being able to walk and to type right now and for any moment not in some kind of severe discomfort. But perhaps there is still a selfishness to my attitude. Even in just wanting to feel satisfied there is meaning to existence. Because, as I learned from the Gita, it’s not about what we want to do with our life. It’s about pursuing our duty. And not enjoying the fruits of our labour. There is honour in serving our duty. I admit I don’t entirely know the full breadth and depth of my duty, but I have a sense of it. And in serving our duty we have honour.

Madama Butterfly, sung by Hiromi Omura, was a woman of honour. Omura portrayed Butterfly with grace, honesty, authenticity, and honour. Her aria, Un bel di vedremo, was powerful. I saw in Omura’s Butterfly more puissance and strength than fragility, yet it suited the character’s sense of honour. I briefly discussed the opera with a Japanese woman this morning who, like me, also enjoyed Manitoba Opera’s production, this her inaugural experience as a member of an opera audience. I can only hope that in my novels where I portray characters of backgrounds different from my own, with the intent of honouring these cultures I so admire, my readers will respond positively to my treatment, like this woman did to the Manitoba Opera’s portrayal of her culture. I struggle greatly with concerns of accidental cultural appropriation, as opposed to cultural appreciation, so I do my homework, consult with others, and ask their permission. Yet do I succeed in my goal?

With every breath we might aim to follow our duty and to live a life of authenticity and honour. To give to others rather than to follow the stereotype of greed that might plague us from our origins. I remember a piano teacher telling me that music is about giving. Every time we sit at the piano to practice we must give to the music and to the piano, even if no one is listening. I’m learning that music is part of my duty, even if others are more talented than I am or more skilled. Because through the practice of music we develop both as practitioners, as audience members, and as people. It’s the local Winnipeg arts organizations like the Manitoba Opera that give so much to us; they give us high calibre music, an experience, a spectacle even, and a moment of reflection about our place in our communities and the world.

 

 

WSO Concert: Transformative. Enlightening. Redemptive. Awakening

Last night I attended the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert featuring pianist Natasha Paremski, soprano Nathalie Paulin, and conductor Daniel Raiskin.

The concert opened with Nimrod by Edward Elgar in memory of a symphony violist who had passed away.  A yellow rose was placed on the chair where she would have played, and the piece was meant to express with music what words cannot, as she would have desired.  The tribute and moment of silence moved me to tears, as did the music, ethereal and somber, sensitive and sweet.  The violist’s symphonic family expressed their love for her through music and silence, through a rose.

Beethoven’s Overture for The Creatures of Prometheus followed in the program.  The string instruments hummed, reminiscent to me of insect wings.  This piece, new to me, was lively and invigorating.  Despite a comprehensive collection of CD’s at home, I am always delighted by the WSO program which introduces work unknown to me.

Natasha Paremski played the piano in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor next.  The opening bars transported the audience in time to another era.  The orchestra and Paremski conjured Romanticism and Chopin, as the music rang through the auditorium.  Paremski’s performance leaves me at a loss for words, the experience indescribable; Chopin lived through Paremski’s conjuring of his music, his presence palpable.  It captivated.  It enchanted.  It enthralled.  Paremski channelled the very essence of Chopin in a transformative way.

The final piece was Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 Op 36, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” featuring soprano Nathalie Paulin.  The inspiration for the symphony was Gorecki’s experience of witnessing the horrors of Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  The music captured the horrors of the unthinkable as well as the fragile hope and beauty which might be humanity’s only redemption.  Conductor Daniel Raiskin delivered a pre-concert discussion before the symphony.  He conveyed Gorecki’s belief in spiritual beginnings and the human innocence at birth before corruption. Raiskin urged the audience to use the piece as a means of self-reflection and meditation.  He discussed the present situation where people don’t know where to go and keep running and Dostoevsky’s quote about how “beauty will save the world.”  The music was relevant both for the world stage and its players as well as for the individual, for the macrocosm as well as the microcosm.  I think as individuals we are often running as well.  Running away from the inevitable pain of being human and not knowing where to find solace.

Perhaps the answer is in the spirituality and beauty of music, a language more universal and more comprehensible than the feeble words we use to try to capture an emotion.  The night was unexpected.  It transported us not to the moon or to Mars, but to our own spiritual beginnings.  It awakened in us a hope that we, too, might be able to find the music to comfort our wounds, enlighten us, and fill us with the spirituality and meaning without which we might be empty.

Thank you to the WSO and all the performers.

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.

Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

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!

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.