What quantum physics can teach us about human relationships

Last November, the National Arts Centre staged its Theatre and Physics Symposium; it featured plays about some of the principles and towering figures of theoretical physics to show how quantum science can shed light on the equally mysterious world of human relationships.

Uncertainty and complementarity are core principles of the subatomic world — and maybe in ours as well

Rick Roberts (L) as Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Allegra Fulton as Margarethe Bohr, collaborator and editor for her husband, and Jesse LaVercombe (R) as German physicist Werner Heisenberg in the National Arts Centre production of Copenhagen. (Andrew Alexander)

The interactions of unimaginably small subatomic particles seem to be the stuff of science fiction — so bizarre and counterintuitive that even the world's leading quantum physicists struggle to make sense of them. They would seem to have little to say about the interactions between humans. 

But in November 2021, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa mounted an ambitious project to explore the connections between quantum physics and human interactions. The Theatre and Physics Symposium  staged plays inspired by some of the towering figures of theoretical physics — and their fraught, complicated relationships. 

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed moderated three panels discussing the issues spinning out of each of the plays.

Part one of our series featuring these panels focuses on The Nature of Uncertainty, inspired by Michael Frayn's Tony Award-Winning play, Copenhagen, and Mind and Matter, based on Jacob Berkowitz's play, Entangled


Copenhagen reimagines the mysterious 1941 meeting between two of the giants of 20th-century science — German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr. 

Bohr had been Heisenberg's mentor in the 1920s. But now, they were on opposing sides in the Second World War — and both sides had taken an intense interest in quantum physics in their respective quests to build an atomic bomb. 

In the play, Heisenberg and Bohr re-enact their meeting at Bohr's home and try to understand why Heisenberg came to visit in the first place. 

Theoretical physicists Werner Heisenberg (L) received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932, and Niels Bohr (R) also won the Nobel Prize for Physics, earlier in 1922. (AFP/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Two foundations of quantum physics are at the core of Copenhagen. The first is Bohr's concept of complementarity — that a subatomic entity can be both a wave and a particle, but not at the same time. And the second is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle — that it's impossible to know both the position and speed of a particle, just one or the other. 

Copenhagen frames relationships "in a quantum mechanical way, really sort of determining how or if we can ever know something fundamentally about what somebody is thinking or their intentions," said one of the panelists, theoretical physicist Dr. Jason Holt. 

"It is kind of this unknowable thing. Just like in quantum mechanics, a system is completely unknowable until you actually bring it out and observe it. And in the end, all you really have is that observation that's kind of the heart of complementarity.

"It really gets to the heart of whether we can know what anybody else is thinking or what their intentions are and whether we can judge them because of that."


Entangled involves two other intellectual giants with an intense, often fraught friendship as they try to puzzle out what they really mean to each other — Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli. And Carl Jung, the pioneer of psychoanalysis renowned for his study of dreams and archetypes. 

Jung also happened to be Pauli's therapist, and used the dreams that tormented Pauli as the foundation for his own theories on dreams. 

The first description of a quantum is in a paper in 1900, which is the same year that Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.- Jacob Berkowitz,

The panel discussed the connections between the principles of quantum physics and psychology. The play's author, Canadian science writer Jacob Berkowitz, noted that quantum physics and psychoanalysis developed alongside each other.

David Frisch (L) as theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Rainville as psychoanalyst, Carl Jung in the National Arts Centre production of Entangled. (Jacob Berkowitz)

"The anatomical description is in 1890 and then the first description of a quantum is in a paper in 1900, which is the same year that Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams," said Berkowitz.

"And then the first major conference on both theoretical physics and psychoanalysis is in 1911. These are efforts to understand the world that are emerging in basically the same kind of place in Europe, from the same cultural milieu. You have this moment where scientists and psychologists are thinking about self and thinking about matter in new ways, and in both cases, they're having to use new tools."

The National Arts Centre's stage production of Copenhagen and radio production of Entangled will be available on the  NAC's website through Saturday, March 5.   

Guests in this episode:

Bernie Petit is an education coordinator of Indigenous Programs at the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon.

Dr. Jason Holt is a theoretical physicist at TRIUMF, Canada's National Particle Accelerator. 

Jillian Keiley is an artistic director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre and director of the NAC production of Copenhagen.

Dr. Monnica Williams is a clinical psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa. 

Dr. Bojana Stefanovic is a medical biophysicist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto and associate professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto.

Jacob Berkowitz is a science writer, playwright and author of Entangled.

*This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou

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