"Ask a Physicist" Panel at QED in Springfield, Illinois

Professors John Martin, Joanne Budzien, and Brian Carrigan

Dynamic Patterns Theatre recently launched their first production in the new Science at the Theatre SeriesQED: A Play. This funny, touching, and educational show featuring a day in the of life Nobel Laureate Prof. Richard Feynman is written by Peter Parnell and stars central Illinois actor Al Scheider.

With their combined background of art, literature, and physics, Matthew and Michelle Dearing have wanted to develop a unique and interesting theatrical experience that merges quality live entertainment with an element of informal education that is primed for a broad public audience. Interestingly, there is a significant library of great theatre that revolves around scientific themes and ideas, and dynamic patterns theatre explores this genre in its new “Science at the Theatre” Series.

“I believe it is critical for a broader public in our culture to have an increased general appreciation for science. By using creative venues for informal education opportunities, which is currently a major goal of the National Science Foundation, we can reach out to audiences searching for quality and memorable theatrical entertainment, while exposing them to inspiring and exciting ideas from science,” said Matthew T. Dearing, co-producer of dynamic patterns theatre and director of QED: A Play.

Al Scheider stars as Richard Feynman

Al Scheider stars as Richard Feynman

In the show QED, which stands for quantum electrodynamics, the physics model that describes how light and matter interact for which Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, the script weaves Feynman’s professional biography, including the Manhattan Project and the Challenger inquiry, and provides a window into many of his personal emotions and challenges. All the while, the story integrates several great discussions of physics ideas presented for a general audience.

Through a collaboration with local physicists and teachers from regional academic institutions, dynamic patterns theatre developed a new educational and entertainment outreach program. Patrons experienced an informal forum highlighting aspects of Feynman’s life, career and featured science topics discussed during the play. The forum was directed toward a general audience and the panel facilitated informal science interactions with the goal of increasing patrons’ appreciation for science and how the Universe works, if only just a bit.

University of Illinois at Springfield

Illinois College

Glenwood High SchoolThe panelists included Dr. John Martin, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Illinois – Springfield, Dr. Brian Carrigan, Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Benedictine University, Dr. Joanne Budzien, Assistant Professor of Physics and MacMurray College, Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, Associate Professor and Chair of Physics at Illinois College, and Laurie O’Brien, physics teacher at Glenwood High School.

MacMurray College Benedictine University

“My academic background is in physics, so I am personally excited to merge my theatre and science interests into a new cultural event that has not been attempted before in Central Illinois”, said Mr. Dearing.

During the opening weekend of the show at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois, the live panel of regional physicists responded to outstanding questions posed by patrons. With two full-houses in attendance, inquiries from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small were interactively discussed, and geared toward an informal and non-technical audience.

Supporting role, Miriam Field, portrayed by Lynexia Dawn Chigges

Supporting role, Miriam Field, portrayed by Lynexia Dawn Chigges

Over twenty-six questions in all were sorted through on the spot and selected to feature during each performance. From “how many galaxies are in the known universe?” to “why does warm air rise?” and “how is Voyager 1 able to communicate from outside the solar system?”, the panel was energized and tackled each question with their combined years of experience studying the field. Several questions even tested the limits of our current understanding in physics, such as “why is there more matter than anti-matter?” with the only response being: “if you could answer that one, then you’d have the Nobel Prize!” We aptly completed the discussion on Saturday night with an extended explanation on the many options to “how does the Universe end?”

Mr. Dearing said, “This experiment in merging informal science education with live theatrical entertainment has been so interesting to develop, and the lively interactions between the patrons and the panel was exciting to witness. People were truly inspired to dive right in and ask about our universe and wonder about it what it can reveal.”

Additional questions provided by the audiences during the opening weekend are listed below, and we invite you to respond by commenting after this article as to what you think about this experience as an informal educational opportunity.

 … …

“Why does the tail of a comet not end? How does it stay ‘alive'”?

“What is the physical difference between a living creature and the same creature when it is dead?”

“Is there any dark matter in the solar system? If not, then how likely is it that there is a huge quantity in the galaxy?”

“How is God in the ‘god’ particle?”

“Can you explain the new age theory that everything comes from nothing as made famous by Dr. Lawrence Krauss?”

“What is the ‘friendliest’ sub-atomic particle?”

“How many fundamental forces are there at last count?”

“Do atoms that are part of a living organism behave differently than those that are part of, say, a rock or a pool of liquid steel?”

“Please discuss the concept of a continually expanding infinite universe. How can something infinity small (the universe at the moment of creation) be uniform in extent? What does it mean to expand infinitely?”

“Did Feynman write a popular text book?”

“What are some of the great discoveries by physicists?”

“Politics and ‘public policy’ aside, what is the reality of global warming: is it real? If so, is modern man to blame?”

“Have there been any major errors discovered in Feynman’s work?”

“Space and time may not be fundamental… comments?”

“Is it true that slide rules are coming back?”

“If all living individuals are a pile of atoms, then how do we define life from non-living things?”

 … …

These are some rather impressive questions, and dynamic patterns theatre is honored to have been the first to bring such an IN-TER-ES-TING and unique experience to a general audience in Central Illinois.

QED: A Play from Dynamic Patterns Theatre

In QED: A Play from dynamic patterns theatre, Richard Feynman was portrayed by Al Scheider, a long-time regional actor from Decatur who has performed in over sixty community theatre productions in thirty-seven years, and has directed theater for twelve years. The supporting role of Miriam Field, a young Caltech student, is played by Lynexia Dawn Chigges, who is a LPN with Memorial Physician Services, and has performed on stages from San Diego to Springfield, Illinois. The show was directed by Matthew T. Dearing.


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