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Quantum Darwinism

Thursday, December 17, 2009 Leave a Comment

In this blog post we're going to fly from quantum mechanics to Darwin to theatre as quickly as possible, using only links and the single engine plane of my mind, so hold on. Ready?

One of essential differences between classical and quantum physics is probability. At the incredibly small Planck level, particles are neither here nor there, but a probability wave of both, a superposition of states. When observed, this wavefunction collapses into the familiar one location/state of classical physics (perhaps you've heard of our hapless feline friend, Schrodinger's cat). But the probability wave is real, and the physics that surround it incredibly accurate and exceedingly strange, giving rise to quantum entanglement and theories of parallel worlds.

The process of wavefunction collapse, and the obscuring of the bizarre quantum world, happens through a process called decoherence, which I talked about in theatre terms here. The actual process of decoherence remains uncertain. But in this process lies the answer of how our observable classical here-not-there cause-and-effect lovely world emerges from the quantum weirdness.

Physicist Wojciech Zurek came up with a theory based in an unlikely source: Darwin's theory of evolution. The probability wave of the quantum world insists that a particle is both here and there until it is observed; Zurek believes that observation is a kind of selection, whereby the particles that interact with the probability wave select the location/state that is most useful to them, aka, the fittest; and then deliver the information of that state into the world; and though other particles may interact with the wave in a different location, they are overwhelmed by the process of selection that says this particle is most fit here, not there.

Two beautiful things about this idea: the first is that the probabilistic nature of the quantum world does not collapse, as if the superposition of states was some foreign magical universe; but rather we only see the fittest version, based on a process of selection below the Planck level. The second is that if correct, the framework that underpins all of life's astonishing diversity is theoretically connected to the way the universe moves from possibility into being.

Pretty enough, but what on earth does this have to do with theatre?

Recent posts have wrestled with my fear that Presence, the essential difference of theatre to other narrative communal arts, isn't an essential enough difference to make up for its shortcomings. But here, with quantum Darwinism as a model, we have a possible conceptual framework for why the live audience/actor experience matters.

In theatre, the actor is the probability wave, and the audience is the force that pressures each evolving moment into the fittest choice. No matter what a rehearsal process has been, a play will inevitably move towards what an audience wants; as many a despairing director returning to a long run discovers. An actor makes a choice, and if enough audience members connect viscerally with that choice, a current runs from house to stage and changes the way that actor plays; they hold longer for a laugh, or go further with a big choice, emboldened by that current of yes.

In this feedback loop, an audience is shaping the performance in a way that is fundamentally Darwinian; choices that fall flat, arcs that don't work, will quickly find extinction as the play evolves under the selective pressures of the audience. In The Empty Space, Peter Brook bemoans a production that played with beautiful detail in one country, only to becomes coarse and simplistic in another; but really, the production was doing exactly what a play should do - evolve to meet the present moment.

When we say a great actor has Presence, what do we mean? What do we mean when we say In The Moment?

I think we mean that a great actor's performance is like that probability wave of quantum mechanics: it is both here and there, a superposition of possible states; until, acted upon by the pressures of the audience's perception, that possibility crystalizes into a choice; and if that actor is very good, we keenly feel the the current of that feedback running through each moment we make together.

So in this way, theatre is more than the observation of a human moment; it is the practice of shaping it. In this framework, the audience is participatory in more than just passive terms; they are the essential pressure which gives the play life.

And in this way, theatre is linked not only to the evolution of life; but to each present moment crystalizing out of quantum possibility into the only world we know.

A play is possibility, then the pressure of perception making the present, then the past.


  • isaac butler said:  

    If I remember correctly, what Peter Brook is talking about is actually that if plays don't change to fit their new context, they end up becoming deadly. At least, that's what he talks about in The Open Door, which I've read more recently. SO either he eventually disagreed with himself, or that's not what he said in the Empty Space. Much of the Open Door revisits and contradicts the Empty Space (it is also, IMHO, a far superior book).

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    On pages 25-27 of The Empty Space, Peter Brook contrasts the reception of the RSC's tour of Lear in Moscow and Budapest to the response in America. He blames the audience for the production's diminished quality, though not the actors for adapting to the changed expectations, so I may need to tweak how I use that example here.

    Also, I was glad to see you exploring similar questions about the intrinsic value of the live experience in your Rethinking An Assumption post - hoping to get over there and comment. Adam's "Surviving the Dip" post on Fractured Atlas' blog also takes an interesting look at this question.

  • Matt A said:  

    These are really cool thoughts, Gus. There's a lot to discuss here.

    I think there is something to Attention. To me, sheer Attention, paid to a person or thing, has always been akin to praying. That means Attention is the prayer of the athiest!

    A play can draw Attention from an audience and put it on a theory, a cause, a problem, etc. But yes, there's something to giving Attention to human players.

    Attention, real conscious thought, changes things. I think that's what you bring up in the early part of your post. If my Attention can change an object to be the 'fittest,' and in this way better support my beliefs and values as defined by my perception of the world, then yeah...audiences can change performances.

    Not sure I agree with your definition of a 'great performance.'

    ...and an aside:

    When do we get to TALK about these things?? So many posts, so many conversations!