Author : Gordon Kane
In recent decades, age-old questions about the origins of our universe and the matter from which we are made have become research areas for physicists rather than just topics of speculative discussion. Reaching out to the edges of the observable universe and back to its beginning, we have made great progress in learning about the stages of development of our universe, and scientific theories about the beginning are being formulated.
Many people, perhaps most, want to gain insights into questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. As we have understood our universe better, we have recognized that it apparently does not provide a basis of meaning for our lives. It is not that physics does not tell us anything about meaning, but that the answer is not what we thought we wanted to hear. What we learn is that the meaning should arise from our relations to other people rather than from outside.
Once scientists understand something, they can generally explain it in words that are comprehensible to lots of people, but many people think and interpret the world differently—for example, more visually than verbally. Those people could learn more about what we understand about our world if it could be communicated via forms of art, including dance—if those forms could convey, in a rigorous way, the questions scientists have asked and the understandings gained. Science and art are similar, in that they strive to understand the world and require creative thinking. Their criteria for success are not the same, since science has to describe the actual natural world, while successful art must communicate to people. If art seeks to communicate about the implications of our understanding of our natural world, it has a constraint that art addressing other topics does not have: to represent the science correctly.
For me, that people can understand the origins and workings of the universe even though it does not have intrinsic meaning provides an immense source of dignity and delight. I hope that dignity and delight can be communicated to many people. When a mutual friend brought Liz Lerman and me together, knowing of our common interest in communicating science, we soon agreed that such an effort might be worth a try, and I think it was. The outcome is the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange program, The Matter of Origins.
Liz and I admitted to each other, over a glass of wine at the end of the first afternoon’s discussion, that each of us had originally thought it probably would not be fruitful to meet but that the time lost would be small. I’m happy our initial doubts were wrong.
Gordon Kane is the director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics.