These days, the phrase “technical difficulties” is met with oversized eye rolls and heavy sighs. The HealthCare.gov debacle has us all biting our nails waiting for a vintage cartoon with the caption, “We’ll be right back!” to appear on our laptop screens. I sometimes find myself at the checkout counter of CVS cursing at my smartphone for not pulling up my ExtraCare card quickly enough, embarrassed by the line of people behind me. Yesterday, while shooting comedy sketches with friends, the batteries for both the camera and the audio equipment died during the best take we’d had all afternoon.
When technology works, it’s amazing. When it doesn’t, we despair in ways that seem disproportionate to the problem at hand. Fifty years ago, most of this technology didn’t exist. We now demand instant gratification as proof of reality–if it can’t be pulled up on a tablet in a matter of seconds, then it must not exist.
Admittedly, when I found out that the video of my talk for TEDxAshburn had suffered a fatal audio glitch, I felt a bit forlorn. I flashed back to being about eight years old when my solo number at my dance recital was not properly captured by the live editing videographers. I remembered crawling under the camping mattress we used as a gymnastics crash pad and sobbing hysterically for about five minutes. After that I promptly forgot that this devastating event had ruined my childhood.
Tech happens. And we do what we can. Still, I have a desire to immortalize the incredible weekend I had at TEDxAshburn on the interwebs (an act which, obviously, makes everything official). Below is a transcript of my talk. It began with my singing E=mc2* accompanied by my steadfast musical collaborator, Charlie Barnett. Without seeing/hearing it, you’ll miss how wonderfully Charlie underscores my ideas and makes my jokes way funnier than on the page, so this other live performance version will have to suffice. Without further ado, I give you How to Fall in Love.
You just met Einstein’s Girl–my new show about love, music, and theoretical physics. Now, the first thing that people ask me when I tell them about the show is if I have a background in science, and the answer is an emphatic no. In the world of theoretical physics, I am merely a fantasy league player, and week by week my lineup changes with the greatest minds of the 21st century–people like Sean Carroll from CalTech, Brian Greene from Columbia University, Lisa Randall of Harvard, and University of Arizona’s Lawrence Krauss.
So about a year and a half ago, I was driving home one night when I caught an episode of Science Friday where Krauss was being interviewed about his latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. I’d been peripherally interested in science my whole life, but with people like Krauss and Sean Carroll and Neil deGrasse Tyson making their rounds on the late night talk shows, my palate had been whet once again. I was really starting to get fascinated by the mathematical and philosophical implications of where the universe came from. That same week I read an article in the New York Times about the rising number of Americans living by themselves. In 2012, one in every four households in the United States was occupied by a singleton–including now me.
I had just started traveling back and forth between LA and DC for acting work, and at that time I was a thousand miles from anyone I was related to. For the first time in almost 10 years I found myself living alone. And when you spend a lot of time by yourself, you start to ponder your own mortality and how we got here and why there is a universe.
And when you live alone, you can behave in ways that you would never behave in front of another human being. Ever. Because you don’t have to justify your actions to anyone. I mean, you can let your dishes pile up. No one can complain when you don’t close the door to the bathroom. And, thanks to the Internet, for the first time ever, in the history of mankind, you can spend the whole night, never leaving your home, with or without clothes, delving into a subject you’re curious about. And I was curious about physics.
So I started reading Krauss’s book and watching Brian Greene and Michio Kaku’s generous explanations of physics for the nonphysicist. I couldn’t get enough YouTube videos and Simons Foundation articles. I thought it was amazing that these scientists were attempting to describe the universe when most of us, myself included, have a difficult time describing our lost luggage at the airport, let alone 93 billion light years of planets, stars, galaxies, intergalactic space, and all matter and energy.
If you think about it, it’s pretty daunting. I mean, it’s big. It’s black. It’s got some silver… zippers, little wheels to help drag it behind you. But even more difficult than describing my soft sided Samsonite to the United baggage guy was for this wannabe theoretical physicist to trying and wrap her head around these big ideas.
For most of us, when we encounter new information, we have to find a way to make a personal connection to it. And for me that’s always been the narrative form. Even though I have a I have degree in screenwriting/playwriting, I took astronomy and physics in college, and I would study for chapter exams by writing short stories to help me remember the material covered.
One of the stories I wrote was about a recently divorced and very unhappy woman. She’d just left the doctor’s office having been told that she was infertile, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she got struck in the head by a meteorite. But in the story it turned out to be a good thing because it cured her anemia because of the iron content, and her co-workers started treating her like royalty because for millennia meteorites have been seen as gifts from the the gods.
In retrospect, I must have been reading a lot of magical realism because I managed to include those details but leave out the fact that she survived a direct hit in the cranium with hefty piece of metal moving at hundreds of miles an hour. Maybe it’s a good thing I never turned these in, unless my physics professor was as enamored with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as I was.
In any case, this was my first experiment in creating a fictional narrative from acquired scientific knowledge. People use stories to make sense of the universe they live in. Joseph Campbell once wrote about humans as meaning makers:
So here I was in LA, living by myself, woefully underemployed, with my dirty dishes piled up, and laundry not done for two-plus weeks, and my pages of notes sprawled out on the floor at four in the morning. Trying to make sense of the chaos before me.
Upon Campbell’s advice, I started turning everything I was reading about physics into a story about my life, making everything in my head tell me something about everything in my physical world. When I thought about the Big Bang, I thought about the first time I really fell in love. When I looked at research about entangled particles, and I saw two lovers whose bond superseded conditions of proximity. When I read about particles behaving as waves, I understood why in our most fundamental state of being when we find someone who understands us, we say we’re “on the same wave length.”
The more I read, the more I saw that the language of physics and the language of love had some interesting corollaries. So I started writing, and what emerged was a theatrical and musical exploration of physics as a metaphor for love. It became obvious pretty quickly that if I asked an audience to follow me on a journey to the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, past the theoretical writings of eminent physics thinkers, and deep inside my own experience as a woman seeking love in the 21st century, it better be funny or no one’s gonna stick around.
The creation of this show has been an adventure, but love is an adventure, perhaps the greatest one for humankind. And of all the things I’ve learned from reading physics, I’ve learned that that uncertainty is inherent in the nature of all things, not least of which is love. Says Shakespeare scholar Laurie Maguire,
Because I have no bona fides in science, I braced myself for a possible backlash from the actual science community for marrying these ideas in physics to an exploration of falling in love. And when I didn’t get any notes, let alone the 40 pages I expected, from Sean Carroll when he saw the show, I can’t tell you how relieved I was. Instead he and his wife science writer Jennifer Ouelette were energized and completely supportive that Einstein’s Girl could help bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences.
Just this Thursday I went to NASA Headquarters, thanks to my gracious host Bill Knopf, and the message I heard again and again from the program executives I spoke with was keep talking about this science, keep exploring and explaining and being creative in reaching out to new audiences.
Is there a scientific formula to love? Well, eHarmony seems to think so. For me, I discovered that in order to fall in love, I had be in love. Be in love with the wonder of the world around me. Be in love with ideas. Be in love with the excitement of the unknown and the potential for knowing. Love, like the universe itself, is not passive. Loving is creating and ever evolving.
When we seek to understand the world around us, we become partners in understanding the story of how we came to be right here, right now, this moment, hurling unnoticed by anyone, perhaps other than ourselves, through time and space on this tiny little rock we call home. Carl Sagan wrote,
So bask in that connection, and remember– you’re never alone in the wonder of what it means to be alive.
*** Thank you to EVERYONE involved with TEDxAshburn, especially Adina Popa, Charity Tilleman-Dick, and Yoni Doron!
*To hear the studio recording version of E=mc2, purchase Einstein’s Girl, The Album!