It’s not often that the world of physics and opera combine, but they did so in the State Opera of South Australia’s production of Einstein on the Beach. The opera, if you can call it that, was composed by Philip Glass and consumes itself within Einstein’s world. Instead of being a biographical story, it focuses on aspects of Einstein’s life and, at four hours long consisting of no plot and no main characters, it’s certainly one intriguing ride.
As a scientist, I won’t comment on the artistic merits of the piece except for saying that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that all performers should be commended for their amazing display of physical endurance. 4 hours is a long time! What I instead wanted to reflect on was my own knowledge of the research journey and the parallels that exist with Einstein. While I don’t claim to intimately know the scientific genius, there exist definite commonalities between all pursuers of new knowledge.
One of the defining features of the opera was the chorus, whose repetitious and enduring chants of the numbers 1 through 8 (1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) served as a mathematical backdrop to the dancers on stage. As the choral chant continued, the punch of each number droned heavy in my brain and I was reminded of the moments of madness that research can stir, moments where your brain scrawls through pages and pages of seemingly meaningless data to try and discern some sort of pattern or meaning.
But at the same time, the dancers on stage provided a contrasting method to this madness. The genderless movement of the dancers take away any of the subjective and emotional attachment one should have in their scientific endeavours. And their movements across the stage, pulling out and pulling in, drifting apart and forced together, are like the ideas of time and space forged in the mind of the great genius.
It was moments like those that highlighted the erratic nature of research. Great eureka moments in science are only arrived at through a trialing rollercoaster of monumental ups and careening downs. Ideas you form can seem so promising, until they are torn apart by an overlooked variable, which are then rendered to life once more when a second overlooked variable is discovered. It’s madness and joy, it’s light and dark, it’s both wave and particle at the same time.
While the practical sides of Einstein’s research and influence are explored, the emotional and personal journey of Einstein was also showcased. When we lament great scientists in history, we don’t often pause to think about their personal lives and the sacrifices made during the course of discovery. Glass highlights this with Einstein’s wistful dreaming of the seaside, a place it seems he has forgotten. Does research consume us so much that we sometimes forget the pleasures we once had?
And what of the pleasures we currently have? There are moments in the opera where we learn of the apparent emptiness that Einstein felt, especially during the breakdown of his marriage. Obsession in science is not uncommon and when that obsession takes over, it’s easy to neglect your friends and family. For Einstein, was the love and admiration of the scientific community a suitable replacement for the loss of his marriage?
At the end of the 4 hour operatic marathon, I was left contemplating my own motivation for science. How much of research is about helping others when we can’t help ourselves?
Does ego motivate us more than altruism?
How far do we push research before research pushes us?
I guess those are questions that every researcher must attempt to answer as we try and balance our lives.