Preposterous Universe

Friday, March 25, 2005
Humble Boy

On Sunday I gave the Literary Lecture for the performance of Charlotte Jones' play Humble Boy at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. The acting and presentation are great, it's well worth seeing if you're in the area. One of the many relatively small-scale companies that make Chicago such a fantastic theater town.

My job was to chat a little about the science background of the play. The protagonist, Felix, is a theoretical physicist at Cambridge, trying to use string theory to unify gravity and quantum mechanics. (The author was inspired by hearing an interview with Brian Greene.) Felix is presented as rumpled, stuttering, socially awkward, tending to appeal to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in difficult situations -- pretty much your typical physicist. I talked a little about the use of scientific concepts as fertile source material for metaphors; in this case, the irreconcilable differences between gravitation and quantum mechanics are presented as analogous to the irreconcilable differences between Felix's mother and father.
Felix: It's like my mother was the big force -- gently warping everything around her. And my father was the little force, fizzing away quietly on a microscopic level. But I can't bring them together. I mean, I know the geography of it. It was outside the exam halls of the school of B-biology, London University. My father had just finished his Finals and he walked out and my mother was just p-passing. She'd p-paused to light a cigarette. She was on her way to sign up to a modeling agency. He went up to her and asked her if she'd dropped from the sky. She never got to the agency.

Rosie: That doesn't sound so extreme.

Felix: But that's not the physics! The physics of what attracted them and what kept them together.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the two forces came together outside the biology building. When I gave my talk at the Santa Barbara conference, I noticed that this was a consistent theme: writers seem to enjoy hinting that physicists would have an easier time unifying the forces of nature if only they would get out and have more sex. From the audience, Steve Girvin chimed in with "Wouldn't hurt to try."

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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