Into the Antiworld
May 4, 2001
Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 2 May 2001
The awe felt by Paul Dirac upon his earth-shattering realisation that the universe is built from antimatter - as well as ordinary matter - was brought to life this week at Into the Antiworld, a physical theatre show combining mime, dance and music.
Anne Gaud McKee and Markus Schmid established the Mimescope theatre company in 1997 to convey the wonder and excitement of scientific discovery to non-scientists and scientists alike. A molecular biologist by training, McKee's passion for drama inspired her to join forces with her college friend Schmid, who learned the art of mime from Marcel Marceau.
Paul Dirac is played by the hyper-expressive Schmid. He wrestles with the equations of quantum mechanics and relativity, and his succession of triumphs and deadlocks are played out as a narrated - but fictional - letter to Werner Heisenberg. The rollercoaster ride of Dirac's train of thought is reflected by the elaborate acrobatics of Yasmina Krim, entwined in a swathe of fabric high above the stage.
When he finally accepts that the equations point to the existence of antimatter, Dirac, in a half-dreaming state, sees in his mind's eye the parallel states of antimatter and matter. Excerpts of the letter to Heisenberg keep us up to date with Dirac's musings, and the contrasting worlds are interpreted by a dance sequence in which two dancers - depicted as darkness and light - mirror each other on opposite sides of the stage. Dirac's galloping imagination conjures up the explosive recombination of matter and antimatter that we now know as annihilation. Choreographed whirlpools of coloured torches mimic the trails created by clashing particles inside beam colliders.
Dirac realises that the signature of antimatter should be apparent in astronomical observations if his theory is correct. His futile search of the astronomical archives is illustrated by enchanting aerial gymnastics against a backdrop of the night sky. Dirac's despondence is lifted when he stumbles upon a quirk of the equations that allows for a small imbalance between the quantities of matter and antimatter, explaining the lack of celestial evidence. Dirac concludes the make-believe letter to Heisenberg by proclaiming that the quest for knowledge brings meaning to his life.
Into the Antiworld was originally staged at CERN inside the underground cavern that houses the Delphi experiment, in which collisions between electrons and their antiparticles - positrons - are studied. That setting must have been awe-inspiring, particularly as the show closed. The audience would have been whisked from the wonder and novelty of Dirac's theory over 70 years ago to the sophisticated particle physics experiments of today that the discovery inspired. At CERN, the curtain behind the stage ripped apart to reveal the Delphi detector the performance ended - but the gigantic photograph of the Delphi experiment that concluded the show at the Bloomsbury worked surprisingly well.
McKee says that the reaction of the audience is very important to her, and she hopes that Mimescope's productions trigger an interest in science by imparting the thrill of scientific discovery. The company's previous works have explored genetic engineering and the possibility that life on Earth originates from comets. "We can't explain everything about a subject", McKee told PhysicsWeb, "but we do hope that we inspire people to go away and find out about it for themselves". Into the Antiworld doesn't attempt a rigorous explanation of antimatter and its implications, but the areas it does include are covered well. James Gillies, a science writer who trained as a particle physicist, advised the company on the scientific content of the production.
The show included phenomena like the annihilation of particles and antiparticles in bursts of energy, but I am not sure how meaningful this would have been to people without a physics background. Two teachers I met in the audience said they would have brought a party of A-level students had the show not been so close to their exams. They thought that the students would have enjoyed it although some of the concepts might have been beyond their experience. I also wonder how many non-scientists would be attracted to a physics-inspired performance in the first place. It would be a shame for Into the Antiworld to 'preach only to the converted'.
Into the Antiworld runs at the Bloomsbury Theatre until Saturday 5 May, but you may get another chance to see the show next year as part of the centenary celebrations of Paul Dirac's birth.
Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1H 0AH Box Office 020 7388 8822 firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
Katie Pennicott is Editor of PhysicsWeb