Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Listening, dancing, and nano-seconds

A weekend full of tango. On Friday night Monica and I went to a tango club in River North, sort of a warehouse district here in Chicago. It was very quiet at first, and then a series of nice cars quietly began arriving and unloading nicely dressed men and women in stiletto heels. We set up and got some footage, but all in all the place was dark, crowded, our time was limited, and we might not use much of it.

However, the next night, we went to the home of Dr. Marcela Carena, Argentinian tango-dancing, polo-riding (and, as we found out Friday, hang-gliding) theoretical physicist. It was great--- there were two instructors there and a house full of couples. They had cleared out the living room and dining room, and a cd full of music was playing in the background. After a glass of wine, couples started shuffling to the dance floor to "warm up." They danced slowly, occasionally stopping to quietly ask each other "does my foot go there, or there?" After about 30 minutes, the lesson began. The instructors, a male and a female, demonstrated, coached, cajoled, critiqued, praised, and encouraged. They split the group into halves and made them swap partners and made everyone watch a particularly successful couple. Marcela and her husband were working on a particularly slow move in which Marcela dragged a toe in a circle on the floor ... they were working on the timing of when Carlos would move his shoulders and go to the next point in the dance.

As Monica pointed out, the Tango is a complex dance of relationships --- it's all about shifting control, about leading and following. There is often a certain amount of tension between the two dancers; in fact, one version of the dance involves what looks like a gentle shoving match between the man and the woman. There are complicated steps, moves, postures and poses that can look effortless when a skilled couple is on the floor but for the rest of us could feel a bit like a math equation set to music.

It turned out that nearly everyone in the room was a physicist --- even the male teacher! During a break in the evening, I asked Marcela if physicists made good dancers. She immediately laughed and said, definitively, "no." She said physicists were often too procedural --- because the Tango is a series of steps, a sequence, physicists often latch onto that far too strongly, since it's in their nature and their work to do so. "That makes it difficult for them to listen, to feel the dance," she said. Another female physicist from South America (the instructors were the only Americans present, besides us) was standing nearby and said "the men don't make good dancers. The women are much better." They both laughed but pressed the point. The men get hung up on procedure and sequence worse than the women, it seemed. "They perform this series of steps no matter what," the other physicist said, "even if the music is doing something completely different. They don't always listen."

"It's all about listening," Marcela said. "Not just listening to the music, but listening to the other person." The male, traditionally, leads the dance. But as Marcela explained, that doesn't mean the male decides what to do and the female just follows. "The leader of the dance, in a sense, asks permission for a move. Can I do this? And the female responds yes or no. The leader has to listen with his body, responding to the moves and communication of his partner. And all of it happens non-verbally, in a nano-second."

So, what does this have to do with the Higgs boson? Why are we filming physicists dancing?

There are ways a filmmaker can tell a story, or make a point, and there are ways for a filmmaker to find moments in which the story tells itself. Those are usually the better moments in a film. For me, that evening in Marcela's house was one of those moments. In addition to showing a terrific unexpected side to a theoretical physicist (what, you mean they don't just sit around writing equations all day?), the Tango itself became a really nice metaphor. The idea that there is tension between the partners who are dancing together is very apt for our film, as there are many tension-filled dualities we've come across (Fermilab & CERN, high-energy physics and the Bush budget, the CDF & D0 detectors). Each of those pairings is engaged in a dance of sorts, pushing and pulling while trying to move in the same direction.

More important and interesting for me, though, is the idea Marcela spoke of: a delicate balancing act between the procedure and the instinct that the physicists engage in while dancing the tango. While a rigorous search for anything involves a combination of hard work and intuition, the search for the Higgs boson carries this combination to an extreme level as it involves arguably the highest intellect AND the largest leap of faith of just about anything going. In a sense, like the Tango, such a search is the perfect meeting point of the left brain and the right brain, intellect and spirit, science and art (I found it very telling that Marcela and her friend theorized that women have an easier time with this). So for me, the search for the Higgs boson was beautifully encapsulated in this strange scene of dancing physicists struggling to remember their steps while trying to let the music move them, listening, listening, and all of it happening for the length of a song and in the space of a nano-second.

During the evening, Marcela's 4-year old son, Julius, was racing around, entertaining himself (the baby-sitter had failed to show up). At one point Julius was at the top of the stairs with his dad's cell phone, taking pictures of us. He kept telling us to say "cheese!" He started to get a little cranky and tired, and Marcela sat with him on the sofa for a few minutes, speaking softly and rapidly in Spanish to him. I could only make out a few words but it sounded as though she were explaining that they were dancing, and he was trying to tell her SHE needed to go to bed. She asked if he wanted to go to bed on the sofa. No. Where, then? He decided the recliner. They pulled it out and extended it, and Julius kept opening and closing the reclining chair as Marcela hit a second wind and went back to dancing. It was nearly midnight. Monica shook her head in amazement. "I don't see how she can do it all."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was struck by Marcela's comment that physicists don't make good dancers - they latch onto the sequence and miss the feel of the dance. I am an engineer and am experiencing the same problem as I work on a dance. You may have a chance at Tickfest to see whether I was able to overcome this limitation.

Bill Rexroad
Hutchinson, Kansas