Theatre Critic and Journalist

This is Tomorrow – Day 1: Physics

This is Tomorrow – Day 1: Physics

The applause starts and, almost instantly, eight brains realise they’re exhausted. Oliver Sacks has been speaking – elegantly, wittily, earnestly – for an hour. Beforehand, there’d been a third-year university physics lecture and, before that, a series of meetings with research physicists during which fusion, fission, flocking and fracking swirled around in conversation for six hours. Phew doesn’t even come close.

They’re a tribe, physicists. They wear thick, baggy jumpers and colourful shirts. They have very hearty laughs and dishevelled hair. They all talk about their work – and, more specifically, the reasons for doing it – in near identical terms: beauty – more of which later – and necessity. The mentality is often – to use Sacks’ phrase about writing his first book – “Some bugger’s got to do it and I realised that bugger was me.”

But looking around Prof. Sandra Chapman’s lecture theatre, I realise that we’re a tribe too. We are six artists (Alecky Blythe, Chris Goode, Charlotte Vincent, Robin Rimbaud and Michelle Browne), two producers (Paul Warwick and Ed Collier of China Plate) and one critic (me). We stick out from the students: better kempt, more asymmetric and quite obviously baffled by the equation that stretches across some 25 metres of blackboard at the back of the stage. To us, the blackboard itself is rather pleasing; it glides up and down with a mechanical whir. Chalk clackers across its surface and familiar but alien symbols come to life, if not understanding.

Over the course of five days, the eight of us will meet between 40 and 50 academics across five departments. Monday – Day One – is physics. A baptism of fire. Not fire, actually; plasma. Or, as Chapman keeps saying, “these blobby things.” Is it shorthand or simplification? A bit of both, I suspect. She means solar flares. Or the energy that they give off, which her team are trying to replicate in the lab, away from the rather inconceivable gravity of the sun, by using electromagnets.

At the end of the day, Sacks’ lecture somehow sums up what we’re doing here. Sacks, for those who don’t know, is a renowned physician (not a physicist), whose books include The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings. The former was adapted for the stage by Peter Brook. The latter loosely inspired Harold Pinter’s play A Kind of Alaska. Today, he talks about the importance of (and, indeed, the art of) case histories in medicine. The jist is that data can’t rival biography. “Ask not what disease the person has,” he quotes William Osler, “but rather what person the disease has.” Freud apparently felt his case histories read like short stories. It’s not just that stories can communicate the ideas involved better, but that they actually deepen the understanding of them.

Against that, it’s interesting that one or two of the physicists start on a note of, not scepticism exactly, but perplexity. Chapman, a woman with the most wonderful crackle of a laugh, keeps saying she doesn’t know what we want. “We’re not sure what there is to want,” Chris Goode replies. Prof. George Rowlands, a nuclear physicist, who was, we later find out, temporarily exchanged with a Russian counterpart at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, sits down and immediately declares that he knows nothing about art. Prof. Richard Dendy, a specialist in laser and nuclear physics, enters the room and instantly turns it back on us: Given that Renaissance men practised both, when did art and science become so entirely distinct? It’s a question that catches us off-guard. The need for – and limitations of – specialism is mentioned. C.P. Snow, who pronounced them two separate cultures, crops us. Sacks is asked about Snow later: “There are too many scientists who are illiterate in the arts and vice versa,” he says. However, Dendy’s question feels designed to disarm, instantly shifting the dynamic of the room in his favour. He takes control and, 45 minutes later, escapes without having given too much of his own work away. It’s an entrance that would, one imagines, provide his colleagues in Psychology with a field day.

The point lies in the old mantra about spiders: they’re just as afraid of you as you are of them. Afraid is too strong, admittedly, but the initial puzzlement is absolutely mutual. However, as the day goes on, that distance disappears to a certain extent.

For starters, there’s this motivating factor of beauty. It’s not necessarily the same beauty: physicists tend to relish symmetry, where these artists, I suspect, rather enjoy contradiction. Both tribes seize on complexity – though the physicists’ version comes with a capital C. (Complexity theory explores the way systems alter the behaviour of individual objects.) Both deal with doubt as well. Rowlands expresses his frustration with a media that doesn’t understand the scientific method – the idea, at base, that certainty isn’t a remote possibility. Questions breed more questions in turn and there’s little possibility of saying something concrete without some qualification or other. Deep down, we all what they do simply because it interests us.

On occasion, we even speak the same language, albeit with very different words. Matthew Turner is telling us about his work on flocking, the complex governing principles that allow a flock of birds to move as a single unit, turning in time. As I understand it – and it’s amazing how something you grasp in the moment can evaporate overnight – the birds almost see in binary. If their field of vision is totally black, they must be in the middle of the flock; totally white and they’re out in front. Those on the edges have a split picture, black and white; a line that, in my own very simple (and therefore probably wrong) understanding, might function a little like a plane’s level gage.

The concept clicks with Charlotte Vincent. She’s a choreographer; the artistic director of Vincent Dance Theatre. She talks about dancing blindfolded, about an awareness of other bodies in a space. One understanding of ensemble movement mirrors another. Their two languages entwine and collide. His interest is pricked in turn and, for the first time, it moves from a relationship of relay and reception to the very beginnings of something resembling a conversation. Their words dance around each other; not quite on the same wavelength, but in proximity nonetheless. Her talk is circuitous, mysterious, of subconscious sensory perception, of having absolutely no control. His, by contrast, is fixed, definite: “I could write down a mathematical illustration of that.” He calls it a “social role.” “It’s a dance,” she says, “We’d call that improvisation.”

Language is an interesting question. How do we communicate – especially given the need for specialism? It is, says Stainforth, a question of time. This stuff can’t be reduced too far – as the media want – but it can be taken one step at a time, broken down and translated. But expertise changes not only the way you talk about the world, but also the way you see it. Physicists can talk to economists on certain matters – they share the language and the tools – but the see the world through different frames. A physicist’s rationality isn’t necessarily a philosopher’s rationality. Or, indeed, an artist’s rationality and it’s worth remembering, as the artist Chris Thorpe reminded me before this project started, that artists are experts in their own right.

You can conceivably build a computer out of two shoals of fish. Saturn’s rings are actually temporary. There are coalfields on fire, spewing out vast amounts of Carbon Dioxide, in India at this very moment and there’s nothing we can do about it. The equation for cancer is identical to the equations involved in an atom bomb.

It’s nuggets like these – baffling, surprising, pat, cheeky – that send the artists straight for their notebooks. The bluntness of such statements gives them a short, sharp impact.

But it’s the looser, elusive ideas – many of them at a meta-level, beyond content – that linger into the tea breaks. At dinner, one of the physicists – George Rowlands – describes his experience of watching theatre in Georgia. Without understanding the language, he says, quite rightly, you pick up on other things: physicality, group dynamic, tone. We have exactly the same experience early on. Goode explains that, for want of anything to grasp in the first session, he found himself tuning into the language used. As the day goes on, we start to cling to certain terms – flocking, in particular – that recur in different contexts and receive different explanations.

What’s particularly interesting about physics – especially for a first day – is that it knocks into so many other areas. Climate crops up again and again: the need to find an alternate energy source and, then again, the solutions that fracking, shale oil and melted arctic ice offer. “There’s tons of oil,” says Dave Stainforth, posing that the other solution is just to counter the climatological effects. There’s no such thing as good or bad science, of course, but can science be optimistic or pessimistic, idealistic or realistic? With climate, of course, comes politics. With nuclear energy come nuclear weapons.

There’s plenty on and around behavioural patterns. Chapman explains the probabilities and laws involved in segregation and flocking, whereby a tiny preference for your own kind entails a surprisingly large swing towards like siding with like. The bystander effect looms large, of people not acting on a problem that affects us all. The stock market crops up, as do people living in cities. Rowlands explains the best ways to protect yourself from radiation during sex. (In short, if it’s coming from below, as in Cornwall, you’re best on top.)

Back to that question of the two cultures. One of the things that recurs is a sense that the artists are seen, by some, as a potential solution to an image problem; a way of countering media narratives that have taken hold in spite of facts. On the other side, however, the artists express a frustration about art’s tendency to, in Goode’s words, “raid sciences dressing up box,” to resort to wishy-washy metaphor and find, for example, a scientific principle that’s a bit like love. You see it in art lightly dressed with string or chaos theory. “A superficial level,” says Richard Dendy, cutting to the chase.

Matthew Turner started with an aside. A big aside. A brilliant aside. “Truthful things tend to be beautiful,” he said. At first glance it looks the same as the physicist that finds an equation beautiful, but there’s another layer in there. It runs both ways – not in terms of formal logic, admittedly, but by implication. Beautiful things tend to be truthful. That, Rowlands explains over dinner, was Paul Dirac’s philosophy. Apparently he’d spend ages creating beautiful, elegant equations that, shortly afterwards, were dismissed out of hand. Down the line, however, compressed and compacted and turned inside out, they were proved correct. “God,” he said, “used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.”

Let’s end today with him, then. Something Dirac said to J.R. Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and so-called father of the bomb:

“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!”

One Comment

  1. Paragraph 6 there is a spelling error of ‘two’ instead of ‘too’ which, in the context of the sentence is either genius or a genuine Freudian slip…
    Lovely article and thank you for writing up the work like this. It our writing is really vivid and I feel I am participating. Best wishes


  1. This Is Tomorrow | Matt Trueman - [...] DAY ONE: Physics – A baptism of plasma Academics: Prof. Sandra Chapman, David Stainforth, Prof. George Rowlands, Prof. Mark…

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