- "Nature Exposed to Our Line of Questioning":Tomorrow's Child as Quantum Theatre
"Imagine a warm sea breeze passing over you," Dr. Wolcott tells Polly in Ghost River Theatre's Tomorrow's Child. "We'll have that baby in your arms in a jiff."1 Every day, we imagine objects that are not available to our immediate senses. Each act of imagination requires interpretation: Polly, you, and I imagine different beaches, breezes, and bodily sensations. The play, based on Ray Bradbury's short story, asks us to imagine an incomprehensible accident: Polly's baby is delivered into a fourth spatial dimension. Human sense organs, tethered to three-dimensional space, struggle to capture the baby. Our minds integrate him into our perceptions by interpreting his presence as a three-dimensional object. Strangely, he appears as a blue, tentacled pyramid. Polly bemoans the impossibility of seeing her baby, Py, "as he really is" from her limited perspective. Likewise, from his own dimension Py sees his parents "in strange shapes." Onstage, no one carries a pyramidal prop. In fact, the performance lacks live actors entirely. Instead, the spectators spend the performance blindfolded, seated on swivel chairs, encircled by ten loudspeakers. A persistent soundscape steers our imaginations: Polly breathes with the regularity of ocean waves, but Py cries with the stochastic tittering of electric currents. They sound inescapably different, and each spectator interprets the reality of that difference individually. As with Py and Polly, the production questions our ability to meaningfully share in any underlying reality "as it really is." In an era of alternative facts, do shows like Tomorrow's Child enshrine an unbridgeable, experiential relativism at the heart of human experience?
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To the contrary, Tomorrow's Child explores the function of subjectivity without absconding from a world of facts. In doing so, it demonstrates an approach to reality that resonates with the interpretive lessons of quantum mechanics. Since Donald Trump's presidential campaign, the notion of post-reality has infiltrated popular culture.2 'Post-reality' refers to the process of contesting evidence by completely rejecting the value of facticity. For example, Kellyanne Conway did not rebut the unpeopled photographs that demonstrate poor attendance at Trump's inauguration. Instead, she famously refuted the value of such evidence entirely by defending "alternative facts" based in subjective feelings. If one feels that the inauguration was well attended, then it was. She renders reality irrelevant. This may seem like a contemporary problem, but quantum theorists faced a similar quandary a century ago. Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others formalized the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Their framework makes sense of atomic situations in which [End Page 13] different frames of reference offer incompatible pieces of information. The experiential distance between Py and Polly begs for such sense-making. Some commentators opine that this feature of quantum theory heralded postmodernism: In some hands, the new science naturalized uncertainty and dethroned independent reality's primacy (Carlson). Recent articles, in turn, blame postmodernism for the recent deluge of post-truth discourse. Jeet Heer plumbs the ethos of "America's First Postmodern President" in a New Republic article of the same name, and Kurt Andersen proposes a genealogy from postmodernism to President Trump in his recent Atlantic feature. In a Quartz piece, Parag Khanna forges the connection explicitly: "Want to understand how Trump happened? Study quantum physics." Khanna's blithe comment provokes but needs revision: "Study the interpretations of quantum physics."
Alternative facts and their advocates misinterpret the pragmatics of contemporary science. Yes, we always interpret our surroundings; but the fact of interpretation does not render the fact of reality invalid. Polly interprets Py's state as if it meant that "he hasn't been born yet. We're still waiting for him to show up." Py interprets a swirl of anemic shapes as helpful beings. Both extrapolate from sense data to form a mental picture of the...