By Meghan McCoy, English, '18
What do Schrodinger’s Analogy, Bose-Einstein Condensate and photons all have in common?
Beyond being concepts in physics, they are major plot lines and characters in Professors Smitha Vishveshwara and Latrelle Bright’s fantastically out of bounds performance piece Quantum Voyages.
Depicting the quantum world in all its complexity and at times confounding nature, Quantum Voyages follows two travelers as they navigate various quantum worlds accompanied by photons.
Akash is played by first-year Physics PhD student Michael Highman. Terra is played by Graduate Research Assistant Gloria Lee. The two are guided by Sapienza, the spirit of knowledge, acted hilariously by soon-to-be UIUC student Kalan Benbow.
Terra and Akash discover what it means to be simultaneously dead and alive, what happens during Bose-Einstein condensates, and the fascinating unpredictability of the quantum world as they bump into a number of Quantum Sages, played by actual physicists who scripted their own monologues.
Bright and Vishveshwara, who began writing the script during the 2017 fall semester and sent out workshop invitations mid-December, were challenged to write a piece that was,“playful, yet deep; exploratory, yet rigorous,” Vishveshwara described.
Quantum physics may seem like an unlikely topic for a theater production; yet Vishveshwara learned how to bring the arts and sciences together from a very young age.
“I’ve always been steeped in the sciences and arts,” she explained. “My father was a black hole physicist who also became a planetarium director. I would watch him script shows, work with visual and performing artists, and bring the cosmos to life,” she said.
As someone who has also been involved in theater since early high school, Highman relates playing Akash to “acting in a show where magic is involved.” For a world that many of us admittedly don’t understand, Highman perfectly captures how “the best thing about this production is its bringing to life the genuine reality of the small scale.”
Describing that her interest in physics began while taking a meteorology course during her undergraduate studies, Professor Bright remembers her professor at the time was “really just full of joy for clouds and how they formed. I got a C in the class, but it was one of the most fun and most challenging classes of my undergrad career.”
Bright explained the challenges she and Vishveshwara faced while imagining, drafting, and creating the production.
“Creating new work is always difficult,” Bright stated. “We want to make sure the physics is accurate, [so] how do you create a piece about quantum that isn’t a lecture?”
The answer to this question evolved from the writing and rehearsal processes. They became a give and take between the space where “we could take creative license and where we absolutely had to be true. There [were] a lot of things to consider and figure out but that [was] the joy of it,” she elaborated.
Bright indicated that the joy her meteorology professor had is similar to Vishveshwara’s love of physics, and what “keeps me going and makes this all worthwhile,” she said.
Vishveshwara, a professor at the University of Illinois since 2005, has an inspiring level of devotion to the promotion of the arts and sciences. In creating Quantum Voyages, she noted that the intent was to create the piece in collaboration with artists and scientists.
To make that happen, Vishveshwara and Bright worked with departments from across campus, including Krannert Center, Dance, and Physics. And like any beneficial work that brings a wide range of students, staff, and faculty together, Quantum Voyages reminds us “to be comfortable with what we can know and name [while] having faith in things not seen,” as Bright hopes.
So with an evening of Schrodinger’s Cat analogy explained through the game of CLUE, photons, electrons, and the freezing world of Bose-Einstein Condensate in store, just what should an audience member prepare for?
Well if it includes any of the “tremendous power” that comes from “having an organic approach that combines the arts, sciences, design, technology, and the humanities” as Vishveshwara believes, Quantum Voyages should be special all the way down to the molecular level.
Quantum Voyages opened March 30 at the I-Hotel and continues with a 7:30pm performance on April 4 at the Beckman Auditorium.
Cover photo: Quantum Landscape by Danielle Markovitch