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Science Heroes and 'QED'

07/10/02 12:00AM By Dan Rockmore
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(Host) Commentator Dan Rockmore went to the theater recently, where he found himself doing a little time traveling.

(Rockmore) Among my favorite childhood outings were visits to my Dad's office. It was in one of those 1960's science buildings, all cinderblock and charmless, unconscious irony reflecting the bunkers and fallout shelters their physics had helped make necessary. Within these blunt facades, seemingly endless hallways were lined with pictures of Rube Goldbergesque machinery, charts, diagrams, and announcements of conferences with impenetrable titles, for meetings in exotic places.

I'd race down the slippery tiled floor, past the dimly lit, cable-lined ``computer room", which was filled with screens blinking lime green and white on black. I'd burst into his office to rifle his desk for postcards and letters from strange faraway lands and, joy of joys, mystery of mysteries, try my hand at replicating the ideographs on the glyph-filled blackboard. I vowed that one day I'd also stare out the window at the blooming cherry blossoms and think big thoughts. One day I'd be a scientist too, like my Dad, a real-life physicist.

But I had two science heros growing up. The second one was Alan Alda. Well, Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce on TV's MASH. Alan Alda was Captain Benjamin (Hawkeye) Pierce: One part Albert Schweitzer, one part Dr. Christian Bernard and one part Groucho Marx. Brilliant scientist and keystone cop. I would be a science Hawkeye.

I didn't know it at the time, but I had already been beaten to the punch. As Hawkeye Pierce was to surgery, so was Professor Richard Feynman to physics. All this came together for me recently at New York's Lincoln Center, where Alan Alda was just finishing a magnificent performance as Richard Feynman in ``QED", a play by frequent Dartmouth visitor Peter Parnell.

``QED" takes its title from the self-same acronym for quantum electrodynamics. In terms of predictive power, it is perhaps one of the most successful of physical theories, and accounts for most of our understanding of nuclear and molecular interactions. Feynman received a Nobel Prize for the creation of the mathematical tools that made QED a reality.

Quantum theory tells us that light acts as both particle and wave, and this duality is Parnell's chief metaphor as the play careens back forth across Feynman's life and career. We revisit his Nobel Prize and his work on the Challenger disaster. We are reminded of his penchant for strip joints and the years of safecracking and bomb-building in Los Alamos while caring for the one great love of his life, Arline Greenberg, who was dying of tuberculosis in a sanitarium.

All the world's a stage, but every stage can also be a world. And as the lights faded on the perfectly conceived office set, as that "Hawkeye" voice retreated off-stage, I slowly returned from my boyhood memories. In the alchemy of theatre, the badinage, blackboards, books, and cinderblocks had worked their magic on me once again.

From Hanover, New Hampshire, this is Dan Rockmore.

Dan Rockmore is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth College.
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