Ideas

The 'I' in Physics: how our experiences shape the study of physical phenomena

Science isn’t just facts and theories about the universe. As Aaron Collier’s one-person play, Frequencies, shows, science is also experienced on an intimately personal level through our senses. He uses the rhythms and frequencies of life and his own family’s story as inspiration for the play.

The universe doesn’t care who you are — and that’s a good thing, says quantum physicist

The National Arts Centre staged Frequencies as part of its Theatre and Physics Symposium in November 2021. (Submitted by National Arts Centre)

Physics can be daunting to many people. It may conjure up incomprehensible scientific theories and absurdly complicated equations. 

But as Aaron Collier's one-person play called Frequencies, shows, we all experience physics every moment of our lives, whether through the gravity that keeps us firmly grounded, or the waves and particles we perceive as sound or light. These everyday occurrences make physics an intimate and highly subjective experience. 

Frequencies is haunted by the absence of Aaron's brother, David, who died in an accident some years before Aaron was born. It oscillates between Aaron's attempts to come to terms with the death of his brother — and contemplations of the dizzying abundance of life, energy, waves and matter in the universe.

Aaron Collier is the co-writer, performer and composer of Frequencies. (Stevey Hunter)

The title of Frequencies is, of course, a play on many different kinds of frequencies — frequencies of light and sound that we see and hear, as well as the passage of the seasons, how long it takes for a planet to orbit the sun, and the rhythms of human life from birth to death.

Those frequencies, rhythms and patterns are translated into the techno music at the heart of the play — turning planetary orbits into a musical chord of the solar system or translating the frequencies of different colours into sound. 

The National Arts Centre in Ottawa staged Frequencies as part of its Theatre and Physics Symposium last November. A panel moderated by IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed followed with a discussion of the relationships between individuals and physics, at the levels of perception, identity and the study of physical phenomena. 

In the panel, Collier explained the inspiration behind one of the most intriguing passages of the play — a meditation on the sound of colours as leaves change in the fall and how the range of sound frequencies we hear is much greater than the range of frequencies of light we can see.

"Ostensibly, the frequencies of these leaves are going down," Collier said. 

"Green is a higher frequency than is yellow, than is orange, than is red. I can hear all these octaves of sound. But I started to recognize that the visual world, the light that enters my eyes — it's all the same thing, but less of it. We can only see, well, one octave of [light]. Our experience of the world is really limited to these little confines of what we see or hear or feel." 

The panel also explored other themes that arose from Frequencies, such as the importance of the unique perspectives of individuals in the study of science. Historically, those perspectives have not included many women or members of racialized groups. 

"The universe doesn't care [who you are]", said Dr. Shohini Ghose, a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University.
"The law of gravity doesn't care who we are or who's doing the physics or not. So that is, to me, an ultimate sense of belonging. You know, that connection with the universe is not filtered through any systems made up by any human beings. Those laws are the same.

"It means that I can be whoever I am, and the universe will not say, 'well, that part of you, because you're a woman, is somehow less relevant to your perspective on the universe.' So what I bring to studying the universe is just as valid as anybody else."

Guests in this episode:

Aaron Collier is the performer, composer and co-writer of Frequencies and the co-founder and technical director of Halifax-based live art company HEIST

Shohini Ghose is a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University and the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering.
                             
Kevin Hewitt is a molecular imaging physicist at Dalhousie University and the founder of a STEM outreach program for Black students called the Imhoteps Legacy Academy.

Music for Frequencies was composed, produced and mixed by Aaron Collier.
Additional production by Matt Miller
Mastered by Ron Anonsen.
The play's score is available to stream or buy at www.liveheist.com

*This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.

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