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Physics Nobel Laureate Brought to Life

Free performances of play about scientist and storyteller Richard Feynman

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September 8, 2010 | by Megan Fellman
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- “QED,” a play about Richard Feynman, popularizer of science and one of the best-known physicists in the world, will be presented in a theater-in-the-round setting Sept. 23 to Oct. 10 at Northwestern University.

Written by playwright Peter Parnell, “QED” was performed on Broadway in 2001 with Alan Alda as Feynman. Northwestern’s production features Rob Riley, 2008 Joseph Jefferson Award nominee for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the play “Cadillac,” as Feynman. Jillian Burfete will play the role of Miriam Field, and M. Payne-Hahner, director of The Gift Theatre’s 2009 production of “Talk Radio,” will direct. Courtney O’Neill is the set designer, and Matthew Grayson is the sound designer.

Performances are free and open to the public and will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Jerome B. Cohen Commons (fourth floor) of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, Evanston campus. The press opening is Thursday, Sept. 23.

Reservations for “QED” are highly recommended and can be made by calling (847) 324-3298 or by visiting www.etopia.northwestern.edu.

Feynman was a storyteller extraordinaire, prankster, nanotechnology visionary, bongo player, prolific author and atomic bomb pioneer. He also was a lifelong advocate of creativity and originality in science and an inspiration to young scientists the world over.

The play provides an intimate portrait of Feynman while reliving a day in his life. He speaks directly to the audience, regaling everyone with entertaining stories and sharing details of the eclectic hobbies, quirks and curiosities that made him such a special character in 20th-century science.

“Feynman could take scientific concepts and boil them down to one essential element that everyone could understand,” said Grayson, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and organizer of “QED” at Northwestern. “Some of his biggest fans were the scientists whose science he was translating. It’s fitting that we are featuring him as part of our initiative to popularize and communicate science to the public."

The play is part of ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, an outreach initiative at McCormick whose goal is to inspire a cross-disciplinary dialogue about the role of science and technology in society. “QED” is ETOPiA’s third play at Northwestern, following “Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie” in 2009 and “Copenhagen” in 2008. The annual theater program highlights the pursuit and application of knowledge by individuals whose historical and personal circumstances span from tragic to epic.

“We want the general public to stop and think about what science and engineering are and why people do it,” said Grayson, who founded the initiative. “ETOPiA is about breaking down barriers by bringing people into our engineering building to see theater.”

Panel discussions after each performance will feature the play’s actors as well as Northwestern faculty from various fields sharing interdisciplinary perspectives of the play and Feynman. Laurie Brown, professor emeritus of physics at Northwestern and Feynman’s first Ph.D. student, will be invited to participate in several panels.

The play was inspired by Feynman’s own writings, including his popular science book, “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.” “QED” refers to quantum electrodynamics, the physical theory invented by Feynman that explains how light interacts with electrons and other charges and for which he won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

“QED” is supported by the University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, the Materials Research Center, The Graduate School, the McCormick School and the National Science Foundation. ETOPiA and its projects succeed through direct involvement of Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students who assist in the organization and execution of the events. 

In addition to regularly scheduled performances, special matinee performances of “QED” at Northwestern are being offered to local high schools by appointment. For information about the high school performances, contact Martha Tanner (847) 491-4961 or m-tanner@northwestern.edu.

Topics: Campus Life