Einstein, Higgs and Feynman provide the scientific basis for Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013 shows

This article is from 2013

Quantum Leap

Jan van den Berg / credit: © Photography DigiDaan

Andrea Brunello, Jan van den Berg and John Hinto adapt their physics heroes for the stage

For Rob Drummond, award-winning playwright of Quiz Show and the chair of Big Bang Theatre – a panel discussion on the relationship between science and theatre – the connection between the two is simple. 'Both theatre and science are concerned with the quest for truth,' he says. His plays are littered with scientific detail, and his sense of awe at the universe is clear throughout his scripts. But Drummond's fascination is not rare: the Fringe is increasingly occupied by performances that take their cues from physics and beyond.

Andrea Brunello is a PhD physicist, and The Principle of Uncertainty arose from his admiration for quantum mastermind Richard Feynman, as well as a personal crisis. 'The idea came to me when my son was very sick,' he says. 'I found myself thinking – if he goes, I go too. But where do I go? So I started to think about parallel universes: what would be the probability of ending up in the same new world with him? Inevitably my thoughts went to the principle that is at the basis of it all, the Uncertainty Principle.'

Jan van den Berg's lecture performance Higgs, about the search for the elusive particle, also came from a personal journey, although perhaps one less dramatic. 'Fifteen years ago, I realised how little I knew about the most important developments of the last century – and how they were mainly based on physics,' he admits. 'It made me feel sort of ashamed. I then renewed my artistic practice under the motto: the beauty and consolation of not knowing, and started visiting physics experiments all over the world. I tend to regard those visits as my discovery voyages into unknown worlds.'

From Brunello's enthusiasm for Feynman and van den Berg's for Peter Higgs, physics provides larger than life characters alongside the big ideas. 'Feynman represents the new renaissance man,' says Brunello. 'He was curious, clever, optimistic, courageous, deep, offbeat. He loved physics but he loved everything about our world: nature, sex, art, music.'

And there's no bigger character in science than Albert Einstein, whose life and work has inspired writer-performer John Hinton to create his musical show Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking. As Hinton makes clear, Einstein is a public icon. 'We all know what he looked and sounded like: transferring him to the stage was a delicate process.'

Fortunately, Hinton was not so delicate that he couldn't flip Einstein's baseball cap on backwards and turn him, almost inevitably, into rapper MC Squared. And in focusing on the life of a man who tried to reject the implications of his research – even being told by fellow physicist Niels Bohr to 'stop telling God what to do,' Hinton's musical covers some of the moral implications of scientific discovery.

'The show is about the atomic bomb and whether the moral responsibility lies with the scientists,' Hinton elaborates. If science is about the search for truth, that truth can have unfortunate consequences. 'After Einstein came up with E=MC2, that equation goes on to kill 200,000 people in Japan. This was something that troubled him.'

Hinton, van den Berg and Brunello may share a field of inspiration, but their responses are radically different, thanks to their respective backgrounds. Hinton was 'writing comic songs long before I made theatre'; van den Berg makes documentary theatre and Brunello is an academic physicist. Although science deals in hard facts, artists are free to interpret information to suit their personal intentions.

And quantum physics, a difficult and speculative subject, is well suited to these personal journeys of discovery. Hinton finds in Einstein's anxieties the challenge: 'is science neutral – until it gets put to a use? Or is good science always good?' The uncertainty principle provokes questions about the very nature of reality, and the Higgs particle, according to van den Berg, 'is likely to be the passageway to an exotic new chapter about what's coming up next, beyond everything we know so far!'

Far from presenting a monolithic truth, quantum physics offers a more unpredictable model of the universe. As Brunello concludes, it is in stark contrast to the deterministic model that explains everything. 'Uncertainty is wonderful because it makes things a bit "fuzzy", not predictable: it prevents the universe from becoming pointless.'

The Principle of Uncertainty, Summerhall, 0845 874 3001, 2–25 Aug, 6.15pm, £10 (£8).
Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 3–26 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), 2.25pm, £7.50–£9.50 (£6–£8). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £6.
Higgs, Summerhall, 0845 874 3001, 2–17 Aug (not 5, 12), 8.20pm, £10 (£8).

Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking

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Higgs is a lecture performance, by Jan van den Berg, about the many years’ hunt for the Higgs particle. A theatrical voyage of discovery with exclusive background stories, unique film footage, live music and live discussions with experts. 'The best kind of thinking: … juggling with facts and fiction.' 'Theatre for science…

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