13 January 2016

Transcendence

Since I haven't been to the theatre in a while, we opted to go and see the world premiere of Transcendence, a play by Robert Marc Friedman. This play is set in the 1910s-1920s, during World War I. The three main characters are Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Max Planck. There are two other secondary characters, Allvar Gullstrand and Carl Wilhelm Olsen, both scientists who are members of the Nobel Committee. The play is less about Albert Einstein, but more about the scientific and political movements of that time.

It starts with Albert Einstein figuring out whether he would move Zurich to Berlin. His relationship with his wife is not good, and all he wanted to do was develop his theories on relativity. There are issues against Jews, and Einstein, being a Jews, at first dismisses these, wanting to be identified not as a Jew, but as a theoretical physicist. Later on, during the course of the narrative, he moves to Berlin, and slowly gets in touch with his Jewish heritage, and what used to be the apathetic Einstein now is an activist, who is eventually forced to leave Germany for the United States.

Einstein might be portrayed as a pragmatist here, making use of all available resources to do his research, and only leaving when all resources have been exhausted, but his character is mirrored against two opposing characters: Max Planck, who is a conservative, and pledges allegiance both to the Kaiser and later to Hitler; and Franz Kafka, who is a surrealist writer, who really adapts and disappears in the background as the situation needs him to. Einstein pretty much bounces back and forth between these two characters, until at the end, he finds his own voice, so to speak.

This play brings to light a sad reality: science ideally should be borderless. What is scientific truth here should also be scientific truth in other countries and communities. However, that is not the case. Science is a front for politics. This play brought to light the political ramifications of scientific advancement and decisions. The Nobel Prize, for example, while on the surface it simply looks like an award that is meant to recognize scientific effort, but in reality, it is a political tool, and is used to make a statement that is more political than scientific.

I learned a lot from this play. I don't know much about the history of science, and it was definitely interesting to see how various political sentiments of those times reflected and affected the scientific work of the scholars back then.

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