Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, August 25, 2000  |  Number 15
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Time Bending Love Story Comes Home to Fermilab

by Mike Perricone

Physicists.

now then again They walk, they talk, they chew gum--and all at once, with or without style points.

They fall in love, they agonize over commitment, they think about quantum mechanics--again, all at once; and as a bonus, with the identical potential for emotional dysfunction afflicting most non-physicists.

"They [physicists] are not that different from other people," asserts playwright Penny Penniston. "They are regular people who happen to be very bright. The difference lies in their being obsessed with science the way the rest of us are obsessed with other things that are important to our lives. I wanted to show how that passion for their work affects them in life, and love."

All the evidence indicates she has done just that, in award-winning style.

"now then again," a play about Fermilab physicists in love penned by Penniston and directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, won the Joseph Jefferson Award as the outstanding new work in Chicago theater for the 1999-2000 season. It added a second Jeff Award for Michael Rourke's lighting design, also earning a Jeff nomination for Joseph Fosco's original music.

The production opened in a 50-seat venue at the Bailiwick Repertory, but the response of theatergoers soon prompted a quantum leap to the 500-seat Ivanhoe Theater in the city's humming north side theater district. Chicago critics were duly impressed: "One of the biggest critical and popular hits of Chicago's theatrical year" (Tribune); "A deft little romantic screwball comedy with a very brainy twist" (Sun-Times).

Yet despite the accolades, Penniston and Wechsler are as nervous these days as physicists facing a peer review. Why? Because, in a sense, that's just what's happening to them.

On Saturday night, September 16, they're bringing "now then again" to 800-seat Ramsey Auditorium at 8 p.m., kicking off Fermilab's 2000-2001 arts series. In visiting the real-life setting of their time bending stage romance between outgoing graduate student Ginny (who also happens to be newly married) and introverted physicist Henry (who has social "stage fright"), Penniston and Wechsler are inviting the scrutiny of the very people they seek to portray: particle physicists to whom quantum mechanics is the sacred and profane stuff of their everyday lives.

"Trepidation? Absolutely," Penniston admits. "This is going to be a very tough audience, just as the toughest audience for ŽER' would be people who actually work in an emergency room."

While Penniston's goal was to stay as close as possible to the science involved, she characterizes the play as a simple love story against a backdrop of physics. She groans at memories of movie characters spouting nonsense science ("insulting" is her term for a description of cold fusion in "The Saint" a few years back), and admits to some "conceits" in the play. For example, as a student, Ginny would have to be "exceptionally brilliant" to participate at the level of research portrayed.

Wechsler has his own defense ready.

"If anyone has any issues with the play," he declares, "they can blame Morris Binkley."

Binkley, a lanky, mild-mannered physicist at CDF and an inveterate theatergoer in Chicago and beyond (he and his wife attended "Copenhagen" in London), answered a general e-mail call for help issued by Fermilab's head of Public Affairs, Judy Jackson, who was in turn responding to a plea from Penniston, who felt caught with an unvetted script when Bailiwick announced plans to go ahead with production of the play hinging on the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics--in a hurry.

"The transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics is a subject which most physicists are interested in, but it's not really crucial in our day-to-day physics," Binkley explains. "Two particles interact and there is the possibility of going backwards in time. It doesn't violate causality, but it does say there's some fuzziness at the quantum level. It's something that troubled Einstein back in the 1920s and 30s, leading to his famous quote about God not playing dice."

Morris Binkley The collaboration involved an intense three-way storm of e-mail messages between Penniston, Binkley, and physicist John Cramer of the University of Washington. Penniston says once she saw the other two debating physics by e-mail, she figured she was in good shape. Cramer's introduction to John Gribbin's "Schroedinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality" sparked Penniston's creativity, with its concept of quantum waves traveling forward and backward in time.

Henry, the physicist, hides from Felix, the janitor "I envisioned a story that moves forward and backward in time, seeing moments in our lives as an interaction between future and past, not just as a series of things that lead us forward," Penniston recalls. "But what was the beginning moment, and what's the moment at the end that causes things to move backward? In the play, that moment is [Ginny's and Henry's] first kiss. In a story of how people meet, there can be a little insignificant thing, an event that doesn't get a second thought, but in hindsight becomes very important because of how the story ends."

Binkley added invaluable savvy to make the physics (and Fermilab) background credible. Penniston wanted to make a point that, viewed from the reference frame of a relativistically-accelerated particle, a stroll to the door might appear to take 10 years; Binkley did the math, found it would take only four days, then (at Penniston's urging) came up with a faster particle that would make the journey appear to take two years.

Penniston credits Binkley with "always wanting us to be more precise;" in turn, Binkley appreciated the author's self-taught but firm grasp of physics. Penniston uses the number "137" in her e-mail address, adapting the fine-structure constant as irreverently described in Leon Lederman's "The God Particle."

"The play is a light romantic comedy, but it has some interesting physics imbedded in it and the audience can get a little of the flavor of quantum mechanics," Binkley says. "Penny does not have an academic science background, but she clearly has read a lot and she knows her way around the subject and the lab. I'm happy for her because she worked very hard on this play."

Penniston and Wechsler will give a talk before the performance at Ramsey Auditorium, with an opportunity after the play for the audience to speak with physicists and with the performers. Special food and refreshments will be available, and prizes will include a season subscription as opening night is given the "red carpet" treatment with decorations, banners and--yes, an actual red carpet.

For Penniston, bringing the play to Fermilab brings added meaning to the play.

"In the areas of physics that people at Fermilab are studying, the universe is so complicated that it gives up only little tiny glimpses," she says. "That tiny little piece of the picture is very similar to life. Being human in the universe, the image is so complicated that we can't begin to understand it. We get little glimpses of a larger purpose, of a puzzle we fit together to learn our place in the universe. There is that kind of similarity in the complexity of the quest."

And the verdict is...

"A very provocative and surprising play about time, science fantasy, the portrayal of characters, and the eternals of love, chance, and humor. These concepts are interwoven with the kind of imagination and artfulness that is characteristic of research at Fermilab.

--Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate, Fermilab Director Emeritus, author of "The God Particle"

"An intricately woven tale, with hauntingly familiar personalities, situations and hot topics. It's a cleverly crafted history with dual outcomes--built upon the notions and uncertainties of quantum mechanics and broken symmetry. This leads me to consider the ŽGrande Dual Histoire du Monde'in which our heroes DON'T, THEN DO discover the WIMP. Intriguing!"

--Michael Tartaglia, Technical Division-Development and Test

"What's nice is that in this world, hindsight is 20-20, as what is discovered in the future can then be applied to the past. A very enjoyable intertangling of events!"

--Robin Erbacher, CDF

"The usual complications of a relationship between scientists (in this case HEP physicists) are further exacerbated by introducing the concept of forward and backward propagating probability waves at the macroscopic level. It can be a wild ride when future events are able to influence the past. I was almost convinced that I recognized several of my colleagues up on that stage."

--Fritz Bartlett, DZero

"A pleasant love story set at Fermilab (credible) in which, through the mysteries of quantum mechanics, the direction of time can change (credible) and in which one of Fermilab's favorite physicists is referred to by a grad student as `Dr.Binkley'(not credible)."

--Peter Mazur, Technical Division-Development and Test

"An intriguing parallel of physics and humanity. You don't really know what's going on until near the end of the play and then there's a wonderful sense of, `Ah, now I get it!' It doesn't require a physics background, but if you have some sense of the science you will get a few extra chuckles."

--Bruce Worthel, Beams Division-Accelerator Operations

"Even though it takes place at Fermilab, the play is a love story between two scientists that will appeal to a broad audience. This may have a strong tie to quantum mechanics, but a Ph.D. in high energy physics is not required to enjoy this play. It is witty, and funny in parts, and a very entertaining evening."

--Ralph Pasquinelli, Beams Division-RF & Instrumentation


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