NEW YORK, NY – JULY 09: Lin-Manuel Miranda (C) attends his final performance of ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway at Richard Rodgers Theatre on July 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
The big cultural phenomenon of the last couple of years is, of course, Hamilton: An American Musical, which brings the biography of Alexander Hamilton to Broadway with hip-hop style songs. This has been a smash hit, both financially and critically, and that kind of success naturally breeds imitation.
History of science might not seem like an obvious place for Broadway to turn next, but in fact the field is full of quirky and colorful characters and powerful stories that just need the right person to set the whole thing to music. Here are a few suggestions of possible musicals based on great but not-that-well-known physicists:
Emmy Noether and one version of her famous theorem. Noether image from Wikimedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Noether.jpg Figure by Chad Orzel.
EMMY! The life of Emmy Noether has an arc that perfectly fits with the theater: fighting the strictures on women in early 20th century Germany, she became recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. Starting as an unpaid “assistant,” she eventually won the right to be paid for private classes, and then junior faculty status, only to get purged from her university when the Nazis came to power. Assisted by the Rockefeller foundation, she emigrated to the US to take up a full faculty position at Bryn Mawr, only to die shortly thereafter of a sudden illness.
It’s a powerful story– there won’t be a dry eye in the house– and that’s even before you work in her transformative influence on physics and abstract algebra.
Musically, the standout song is, of course, “Continuous Symmetries,” in which Noether muses that, like the laws of physics, people are the same wherever you go. David Hilbert’s thunderous “A University, Not a Bathhouse!” (based on his famous exclamation as he tried to win permission for Noether to teach at Göttingen) is an audience favorite.
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EMMY! will, of course, sweep the Tony Awards, and a film treatment will go on to win some technical Oscars. It will never be televised, though, and as a result the Internet will be confused forever.
Biography of Chien-shiung Wu, aimed at kids: https://smile.amazon.com/Chien-Shiung-Phenomenal-Physicist-Checkerboard-Biography/dp/1617834513/
Madame Wu: Like Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu is an inspiring story of a successful woman in 20th century physics. Girls weren’t allowed in school in China until right around the time she was born, and her father founded a school just to ensure that his daughter would receive a proper education. After maxing out the educational opportunities in her native country, she emigrated to the US, where she became one of the most respected and successful experimental nuclear physicists of her era. She made crucial contributions to the Manhattan Project, and was the first to observe parity violation in nuclear decays.
Wu’s life doesn’t have the theater-friendly tragic arc of Noether’s– Wu lived to 84 and won many awards (though not, alas, a share of the Nobel for parity violation, which went to the theorists T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang in 1957) and was the first woman elected president of the American Physical Society. It does, however, allow for musical innovation in the same mode as Hamilton, with a score heavily influenced by Chinese pop hits. The call-and-response number “Ask Miss Wu,” in which Enrico Fermi ponders the problem of xenon buildup in the uranium enrichment facility at Hanford (which Wu eventually solved) is a crowd favorite, and of course the ballad “Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” about her decision to cancel a long-planned visit to family back in China in order to complete her parity violation experiment in late December 1956.
US author Graham Farmelo poses during a shortlisted authors photocall for the 2009 Costa Book Award Winners, in central London, on January 26, 2010. (Photo credit: SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images)
Dirac. (the period is part of the title): Hamilton is, of course, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, so for the last suggestion we’ll also turn to the pop biography shelves, and Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man. This is a biography of Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, and takes its title from a remark by Niels Bohr than Dirac was the strangest of all the many people to visit his institute in Copenhagen over the years. Famously taciturn, Dirac developed the first theory combining quantum mechanics with special relativity, an equation that turns out to predict electron spin and the existence of antimatter, and planted the seeds that would later blossom into the full theory of quantum electrodynamics.
While less musically inventive than the others, with a score that’s pretty much mid-century Broadway standard, Dirac. will win notoriety for the highly unusual decision to have the title character not sing at all. In fact, he barely speaks. This will spark an intense debate over exactly what it means to give the lead performance in a play, a debate the mirrors the ongoing arguments about interpretations of quantum mechanics.
The controversy will be further intensified by the opening of “Schwinger?”, a musical about Julian Schwinger during World War II. The character of Schwinger never shares the stage with his fellow actors, in a nod to the way the real Schwinger worked a one-man night shift at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, communicating with his colleagues only via notes left on desks. After this, plans for “Cavendish?!,” about the pathologically shy and reclusive Henry Cavendish (in which the title character neither sings, nor speaks, nor appears on stage) will be scrapped, and Broadway will go back to ignoring the world of physics, to the very great relief of both playwrights and physicists.