IME faculty members participate in Nobel Prize celebrations in Sweden

There’s no doubt the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden this week was a big event for the University of Chicago: two of the University’s economists received medals for the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

But also joining in the celebration were two of the University’s faculty members in the Institute for Molecular Engineering: David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, and Nancy Kawalek, Distinguished Fellow in the Arts, Sciences and Technology and Professor in the IME. Awschalom and Kawalek each contributed to the Nobel Week program, which ran from Dec. 6-10.

Awschalom, a pioneer in spintronics and quantum information science, participated in the Nobel Week Dialogue, an open, cross-disciplinary forum on “Exploring the Future of Energy.”  He joined other world-leading scientists, policy makers, thought leaders, and six Nobel laureates in a discussion aimed at deepening the dialogue between the scientific community and the rest of society. Awshalom’s panel asked, “How can we reduce our Energy Usage?”

Kawalek, a visionary in theater that combines science, technology and art, sat on a Nobel Week Dialogue panel discussing “New Formats for Communicating Science.” The founder of the theater-science collaborative laboratory STAGEScientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration—Kawalek also organized and directed the inaugural event of the 2013 Nobel Week Festivities in Gothenburg, Sweden: a staged reading of the play Copenhagen, starring two Nobel laureates, David Gross, 2004 Nobel Laureate in physics, and Alan Heeger, 2000 Nobel Laureate in chemistry.

Written by award-winning playwright Michael Frayn and first produced in London in 1998, the drama depicts a real-life meeting between two friends, Nobel laureates Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Their conversation, held in private in 1941, most likely dealt with WWII and the atomic bomb. Although the details of their discussion are uncertain, the close relationship between the two scientists was never the same after that meeting.

Kawalek first realized the intrigue of having “real” scientists perform the roles of scientists in 2010, while she was on faculty with colleagues Gross and Heeger at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She asked them to play Bohr and Heisenberg, along with actress Stephanie Zimbalist in the role of Bohr’s wife, as a fundraising event for a professional theater company. It was a hit. From there the production was restaged in 2011 in Brussels, Belgium, as the opening event for the 100th anniversary of the famous Solvay Conferences in Physics, with acclaimed British actress Fiona Shaw in the role of Margrethe Bohr. That production led to an invitation to reprise the reading for the Nobel Week celebrations.

“I’m extremely honored to have participated in the Nobel Week events,” said Kawalek, who, prior to the event, traveled back to Santa Barbara for an intense rehearsal period with Gross and Heeger. “I enjoy working with David and Allen, because they’re both highly intelligent. They quickly grasp any direction they’re given.”

For the Nobel event, the actors arrived from all directions: Gross came from China, Heeger came from Paris, and Shaw came from London. In addition, the playwright, Michael Frayn, joined the program for a post-show discussion. He had done the same for the Copenhagen event in Solvay. “It was quite a privilege to once again have Michael there to see David, Alan and Fiona perform the play in Sweden,” Kawalek said.

While Kawalek’s work at UChicago with STAGE is devoted to creating and developing new theater work inspired by science and technology, she says the work on Copenhagen lives up to her mission to explore the potential of combining art and science.

“The original London production of Copenhagen stirred so much interest in the meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr that it effected a change in the historical record,” Kawalek said. There were personal papers that were to be released 50 years after Bohr’s death, but the production prompted the Bohr family to release them earlier. In turn, Heisenberg’s family released papers. Although some questions still linger, various aspects of the meeting were clarified once the scientists’ papers were made public.

“A work of art had an impact on the historical record, illuminating what transpired in a meeting between two scientists at a critical time in world affairs and in science,” Kawalek said. “This is the perfect embodiment of what the art and science collaborations of STAGE aim to achieve.”

Kawalek and the cast are pleased that the performance in Sweden was such a success. “When David and Alan perform as Heisenberg and Bohr, it’s a bit as if we’re in our own ‘parallel universe,’ ” said Kawalek. “Two Nobel Prize-winning physicists play the roles of two Nobel Prize-winning physicists. I can’t help but get a kick out of that.”

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