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Can Dancing Teach You Quantum Physics?

I was being pushed back into the chair. The bass notes were so deep and came so fast it was like someone pounding on my chest. Visions of atoms, galaxies and pure data exploded on the stage as words and symbols, pulses across banks of HD screens.

When the sound and the fury ended I, like everyone else in the audience of Ryoji Ikeda's newest composition, Superposition, felt like we were coming back to our bodies having been exuded into another sensorium for an hour. Then, after a few more moments of silence, the concert hall exploded again — in applause.

Here's a clip, filmed at another performance:

I had the privilege of attending Superposition, by highly regarded "sound artist" Ikeda, last week. I was part of a live discussion with Ikeda and two other physicists the next morning, as part of a University Music Society program at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, on the quantum mechanical ideas behind the piece. Our conversation, however, ended up covering a remarkable range of territories that left me wondering how far art can go in helping us understand science.

"I wasn't trying to explain quantum physics to anyone. I'm a composer," Ikeda said in response to a question by moderator Fred Adams, (a UM professor and a leading star formation theorist). Ikeda emphasized this point a number of times. While Superposition was inspired by ideas in quantum physics, it wasn't meant as an artistic tutorial in the subject.

But while inspiration may be where Ikeda began, for both myself and for University of California at Santa Cruz physicist Anthony Aguirre, the effect was far greater. Aguirre is a theorist who is one of the co-founders of the remarkable Foundations Questions Institute. For him, Ikeda's explorations in image and sound opened up new perspectives on the science he'd spent his life studying. It was the difference, Aguirre said, between learning about something in a formal way and directly experiencing it.

In quantum physics, a superposition is when two possible states of a system overlap or occur at the same time. An atom can be simultaneously in two places or an electron can be spinning simultaneously in one direction and its opposite. This kind of "both at once" logic never occurs in the classical world and it's the root of a lot of quantum weirdness. The revolutionary possibilities of quantum computers are primarily dependent on the idea that a quantum bit (or qubit) of information is both 1 and 0 at the same time.

Ikeda played relentlessly with this idea in the piece, turning it over and upside down in different forms. Throughout much of the concert, two performers were onstage sometimes tapping out Morse coded messages (including quotes from Blake and Einstein), sometimes examining old punch cards, sometimes rolling balls across projected grids whose positions where rapidly tagged by a sensor/algorithm pair.

These images and ideas played out across the stage as an ocean of pure tones, white noise and stuttering beats pushed through the concert hall making the interior space seem to expand and pulse.

As the concert progressed, I felt like someone had opened a door in the side of my head. I've been thinking about quantum mechanics and what it means for a long time. But through Ikeda's work, I wasn't thinking about it, I was riding the waves of its intention. Through the force of the images (often coming faster than could be fully perceived) and the immersive sound (deep bass or chirping high frequencies), I got my first sense of something entirely new. It was not about what the quantum world means but, perhaps, what it feels like.

Ikeda's work demonstrated the meaning of true excellence in the collaboration of art and science. A painting using a computer algorithm may not mean much. A dance based directly on an idea in mathematics may not reveal much. But when artistic explorations in the terrains of science truly work, they do much more than just interpret a map of a scientific idea. Instead the unique power of artistic expression reveals wholly new human landscapes within that terrain.

Ikeda didn't just teach us what textbooks say about superposition using sounds and images. Instead, he made it clear that superposition is more than an idea. It is a reality that is already human and already beyond what humans previously expressed.

So can you learn science by dancing or composing or painting or writing poetry? The answer is yes. But it won't just be science you'll be learning.

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.