Hard Science Through a Soft Lens

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In the 1940’s, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman shattered the stereotype of the bookworm scientist. He frequently traded his chalkboard for bongo drums and would scribble equations on napkins while at his favorite exotic dance club. However, his unorthodox lifestyle could not overshadow the brilliant mind that participated in monumental historical events, including the Manhattan Project and government investigation panel of the Challenger disaster. A master of quantum mechanics, Feynman was also the first person to popularize the concept of nanotechnology in his famous speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” at CalTech in 1959.

Northwestern University will bring the character of Feynman to the stage with the Chicago premier of the production QED, a play by Peter Parnell that sheds light on a day in the life of this eccentric, playful physicist.

QED is the third production in Northwestern’s annual ETOPiA (Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts) series, which uses theater as a medium for science communication. Matthew Grayson, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is the founding director and producer of ETOPiA. Chicago-based writer, director, and ensemble member of the Gift Theatre Company Maureen Payne-Hahner is directing the performance.

Matt Grayson Matt Grayson Where did the idea of ETOPiA come from?
(MG) When I first joined Northwestern, I proposed that we create an outreach event that used performance art to draw the public into [conversations about scientific research]. I wanted to find plays that showed researchers as actual human beings. Maureen and I were able to collaborate on a scientifically themed play called Copenhagen at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, where I ran a semiconductor research group. People liked it so much that we also performed it at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria and the University of Zagreb in Croatia. When I received my faculty appointment here, I wanted to integrate this idea of showcasing plays about science. Because we already worked out a lot of the kinks in Copenhagen, that was our first production on campus. Now ETOPiA is an annual event every fall, and it really breaks down the stereotype that there is a wall between science and technology on one hand and creativity on the other.

How do science and creativity go together?
(MG) It’s all creative. Engineers are creative. Actors are creative. Everyone’s creative. The fields would not survive if you just did everything that everyone had done before. You don’t see the same Shakespeare production over and over again, and you don’t invent the same transistor over and over again. So it’s all about creativity.

You mention your first 2008 ETOPiA production, Copenhagen. What was it about?
(MG) It’s a play about a German Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Werner Heisenberg who, at the start of World War II, is called upon by his colleagues and government to lead a research program that looks into the possibility of building a nuclear bomb for Adolf Hitler. His mentor, Neils Bohr, is also a Nobel Prize-winner and is living in Denmark, a country that is occupied by Germany. Heisenberg is in a dilemma as a philosopher and humanitarian. He doesn’t know whether he should be charge of the program, abandon it, or be in charge and try to derail it. He seeks advice from Bohr, and the play is about the conversation these two have. We had great audience feedback from this first production, so we decided to keep doing a different production under the ETOPiA banner each year.

Maureen Payne-HahnerMaureen Payne-HahnerWhy did you choose QED?
(MPH) It’s a very human and emotional play. It’s about science but also about spirituality, humor, passion, romance, and loss. Feynman talks about his passion for his work and the things that influenced it, such as his first true love, Arline. She died from tuberculosis very early in their marriage, and he never got over it, even though he married twice more. He was considered a maverick among physicists. He played bongos and was a ladies’ man. He went dancing. He was curious about everything. But at the end of the day, he was not able to solve something that could make the greatest difference to his life. He could solve anything. But he couldn’t solve how to save the life of the woman he loved.

(MG) There’s also this great Northwestern connection. The International Institute of Nanotechnology is one of the institutes supporting this production along with the Materials Research Center, and Richard Feynman is the patron saint of nanotechnology. We’re also supported by The Graduate School, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the National Science Foundation, as they recognize Feynman as a great educator and advocate of science and technology. And Feynman’s first PhD student when he was a professor at Cornell was Laurie Brown. Brown is a professor emeritus of physics here and wrote a book about Feynman. It’s really neat to have that resource, just right down the hall.

Rob Riley as Richard FeynmanRob Riley as Richard FeynmanWho did you cast as Feynman?
(MPH) When Matt brought me this play, I said we couldn’t do it because we’d never be able to find someone who could perform this complex role. You can’t just have anyone step in and do Richard Feynman. It would be really embarrassing. But we had two days of auditions, and Jeff Award-nominated actor Rob Riley was the second-to-last person. He was just a great match, and Matt knew instantly.

(MG) I feel really good about this play. You cast your lots and see what you get. Every production is always different. But every once in a while, you get one of these where you feel like you’re coming up aces.

Who plays the other character of Miriam Field?
(MPH) I’m an ensemble member of The Gift Theatre Company, and we have an improv show every Wednesday night. Jill Burfete is a regular performer, so I’ve been watching her for a while. She has talent, wit, and lots of natural ability. She just finished the summer intensive program at the School at Steppenwolf, so we’re very excited to have her.

Matt, you’re an engineer. Do you also have a background in theater?
(MG) I had an interest in acting in high school and college but mostly stayed behind the scenes. In graduate school, I needed a hobby for a release. Grad school is a very big process that takes many years, and sometimes you don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s nice to have projects that have a beginning and an end with a result you can actually see. Theater gave me that. During the summer, when I didn’t have teaching duties, I’d treat myself to a little acting in student productions.

What do you hope people gain from the ETOPiA series?
(MG) You don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and that’s why it’s fun. It’s like basic research. When you’re doing a basic research project, sometimes you have a specific goal. Other times, you just know that it’s hot. We want to create a hot spot, hit the nerve, inspire, and bring out an awareness of possibilities that people might not have thought about before. Maybe a high school kid who sees the show will decide to pursue science. Maybe citizens will decide to support a Congressperson who supports research. All because seeing this play made it click.

QED opens Sept. 23, running through Oct. 10 at Northwestern’s Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, Evanston. All performances are free. For more information or to reserve a ticket, visit www.etopia.northwestern.edu.

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