Science Theories Are Like Swiss Cheese



Tjaša Ferme: Welcome to Theatre Tech Talks: AI, Science, and Biomedia in Theatre, a podcast produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Annemarie Hagenaars is an actor and performer with degrees in astronomy and physics. She works as an actor and coach with drama-based training company, Bi-Jingo; as an actor and educator at Mount Sinai Hospital; and as a business developer on AI solutions for climate adaptation and mitigation. She founded her own company as an independent theatremaker and educator, and toured the Netherlands with her one woman show, The Story of The Einstein Girl.

Annemarie, you’re an actor and an astrophysicist with degrees at the same time. This is rare. This combo is extremely rare, and some people would claim that they’re in the opposite sides of the spectrum. But I would love to hear how you think they’re similar, how you think they complement each other, and really about how and why did you choose this path for yourself?

Annemarie Hagenaars: Well, basically when I was eight years old, there were two hobbies that I had. One was astronomy. I would go to the local observatory and take classes there. My father would drop me off every Saturday morning and I would take a class on everything basically. And on the other hand, I was also involved with, well, first the local choir, but then I discovered acting, so theatre club and astronomy club. And that’s actually been the story of my life that I’ve always meandered between the hard sciences, so to say, and acting. And then at some point, well, I’ve always had a difficulty making a real choice between the two.

I couldn’t let go of one thing, even if I was for years full-time in acting and taking on all kinds of acting jobs, jobs that were totally different from each other. But I think when you’re saying, what is the similarity between the two? Well, I think the major part is to have a curiosity. And the creativity of the two is also… The imagination when you think about the galaxy of everything that’s happening there. So you have to have that imagination. And it’s the same when you’re an actor. So imagination is a big part, but that research is also a big part. What I love about theatre, and you say that I’m always so thorough and well-prepared, and that has to do with that curiosity and research, thorough research. Whenever you are exploring a character, that’s the most fun part, to really understand why a character makes certain choices.

And of course the whole psychology comes in. So my interest is not only in physics, it’s also the brain, the human brain. And then maybe to make it more clear, so when I studied astronomy, which was my bachelor’s degree, which was full on calculations, math. Math was really heavy algebra and analysis. It was just math. And then after my bachelor’s degree or during my bachelor’s degree, I noticed, okay, we’re doing all this math. I know how to calculate this, but why am I calculating it this way? How did people come up with this theory? How did, for instance, Einstein come up with the theory of general relativity and why am I doing the calculations the way I’m doing them right now? And then, because eventually it’s people behind those theories, it’s people who invent the math to be able to describe the world around us.

So that was my fascination, and that’s when I decided to do my master’s in history and philosophy of science with the emphasis on the foundations of physics and what is the foundations of physics that’s really going behind the theories, really diving deep into what’s behind all those theories. What’s the human thought? Why did people come up with this?

Tjaša: I also have the same questions. Humans invent everything, right? So if you go to the paradigms, you’re like, but how did you even come up with this idea to calculate it this way? And then also, is it possible to go back to, I don’t know, point zero and reinvent something? In human sciences, everything’s a matter of an agreement, isn’t it?

Annemarie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And what you are saying about going back to point zero, yes, that’s totally possible. That’s something Sean Carroll talks about when he talks about the multiverse theories and what’s the Big Bang. But what I discovered for myself personally when I was doing my master’s was how, when you’re studying physics or even in high school when you’re studying physics and chemistry, you’re always presented with: this is the truth, this is what it is. And then when I discovered, when I was doing all these calculations, there’s only one way to do this calculation to come to the right answer. And when I started studying the foundations of physics, I discovered, oh my God. Especially with thermodynamics for instance, that theory that was developed, it still has a lot of holes in it.

And then you discover, wow, that’s the case with a lot of theories in physics, they have holes like Swiss cheese. Physicists are still working on tying things together that still don’t make sense. And that’s something I learned while I was doing my master’s and I had these weekly discussion groups with all these people who were very knowledgeable in the theories of physics. And I was young, I didn’t know everything, and I was just like, wow, people don’t know. Even my professors who’ve been in this field for, I don’t know, forty years, they still don’t know. And here we are discussing with each other about time travel and the implications of certain models of the universe that do imply time travel, that it might be possible to time travel. And that’s when I was like, wow, this is philosophy.

Tjaša: I am curious specifically, what does point to the possibility of time travel?

Annemarie: Well, it has to do with, and this has been a long time and I have to admit that I just don’t have time to read up on the latest research on everything, but what I remember is that it has to do with different models of the universe, which follow from general relativity theory. There are different shapes, so to say, of the universe. And in these calculations, so if you just calculate according to those models, then you discover in some of those models, hey, wait a minute, time is curved, curled up. So it means that you actually can go back to the same point in space and time if you just follow the model and calculate it. But that’s the model. We don’t know if the model really reflects what happens in reality, and that’s our whole thing when the brain comes in, right?

Tjaša: Yeah, thank you for saying that. Exactly. We don’t know. Not everything’s tested and proven. And I love that you were talking about Swiss cheese because then it kind of becomes obvious that in order to fill up the gaps in somebody’s theory, you do need to employ a lot of imagination and then speculative models and calculating. But it’s almost like the imagination is the precursor that gives you the idea that you later on start working on and trying to see if you can make a mathematical formula out of.

Annemarie: Yes. And that’s why that’s exactly the overlap between artists and very, very successful physicists. So that’s when I always explained it during my lectures when I gave a lecture before I performed The Einstein Girl, sometimes after in schools, universities, I would always demonstrate it with, we always think that artists are on one side of the spectrum and physicists are on the other side, that it’s this line and they’re so separate from each other. Artists, there’s this cliche, oh, I can’t do math. I was never good at math. And then the physicists are like, oh, but me, and I am not artistic at all. But actually, when you have brilliant artists and you have brilliant physicists or brilliant creatives, so to say, basically… And Einstein is a great example of that. It’s like a circle.

Tjaša: I’m just realizing as we’re talking about the spectrum, when I was writing down the question for you, I first wrote part of the spectrum, and then I was like, oh, actually English says side of the spectrum, which indicates this duality, this two-dimensionality of it. Like you said, it’s on one line. It’s going from past to the future. It seems like it’s always one line, and it’s much more than that. First of all, a spectrum I think is usually presented as a circle, right? It’s like a color palette. It’s a spectrum of colors. It’s round. And so it’s so funny how limiting the language and the grammar in itself is, and once you start just questioning the differentiation between how we visually represent something and how it’s manifested in a language or in a written word, already there, there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, right? A million of the shades of gray.

Annemarie: Yeah, absolutely. I read this book once by Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Paradise or something. That had such an impact on me because that book was really about, well, first of all, his whole research on the Inuit and how the Inuit don’t have that duality built in their language while in western society, duality is really a thing. And he presented it as that it had to do with our monotheistic religions that somehow good and bad, dark and light. But I think that is something we build in every part of society. So what we just said about that one line, artists can’t do math and physicists can’t be creative artists, like, no, it’s not true.

Tjaša: That’s true. If I remember correctly, you studied philosophy and time in physics. Tell us more, just a little bit more about what that is and what did you discover, or if you have any running theories of your own.

We’re living in the now, and the now is basically that present that’s moving along that line, but we can’t capture that in physics. We can’t capture that in the laws of physics, that movement, that flow.

Annemarie: When I did my master’s in foundations of physics, I also discovered about this discrepancy about how we describe time in physics, in the formulas with the parameter T and how we experience time in our daily lives. And one big thing is that in physics, in the formulas of physics, we can’t describe that flow of time, that feeling that the present moves, that time is one dimensional in an arrow that goes toward the future. And there’s the thing, the way we describe it is as a line where the present is moving along that line of tying points. We have the past behind us, the future in front of us. It’s a very spatial representation. We talk about time in spatial metaphors. That’s how we describe time as well in the physical theories. That’s what Einstein basically does in his theory of general relativity.

It’s not exactly the same, but he treats time as a fourth spatial dimension in his thoughts to imagine it. So when I discovered that time was so problematic, the philosophy of physics, I’ve always been fascinated about how time passes by, how we experience time that you make choices and that those choices, you can’t go back in time to fix that. It’s so definitive really, moving along that timeline of the fixed past, something that happened, and then the future with those millions of possibilities. And it all depends on the now. We’re living in the now, and the now is basically that present that’s moving along that line, but we can’t capture that in physics. We can’t capture that in the laws of physics, that movement, that flow. And that was what my thesis was about.

So it was about a cognitive perspective on the flow of time in physics, which is basically, I drew from recent research from the cognitive sciences on how time is perceived in the brain to get some answers on how we might bridge that gap between how we describe time in physics and how we perceive time in our daily lives, which has been a problem since the Greeks. The Greeks were already thinking about, and maybe way before then, how is that possible?

Tjaša: I love what you’re saying. I was just trying to imagine what you were describing. And what I discovered was that oftentimes I actually experience time in bubbles. Right now we’re talking about a certain topic. As we’re dialoguing about a certain topic, I feel like this time is actually a bubble of interest. And until we move onto the next subject or I am thinking about the next question that I’m going to ask you, I don’t really actually perceive time because I am in time.

Annemarie: Yes, and that’s really what the brain does. So what I also discovered during that research is exactly what you are describing. When we are very much engaged in the moment, we lose track of time and time passes by really quickly so that we feel like, oh my God, that flow of time is sped up while in physics, when we measure the time, which we do with clocks, no, it’s the same speed. So where you’re in the now, it’s different from when looking back. It’s because of the different snapshots that the brain makes with the memory. So memory has a huge impact on our perception of time when we’re looking back.

Tjaša: That’s a great explanation. That makes total sense. It also feels like if you’re paying attention to time, then time runs slowly. As soon as you start paying deep attention to something else, the time runs. I’ve had moments where from 3:03 to 3:07, I experienced three hours of deep thought. You know what I mean? Sometimes when you really have to… I feel like the deep concentration really unlocks this ecstasy of presence. Ecstasy of presence and at the same time, there is a way perceptually to experience almost opening a window and getting another three hours or something like that. This has happened, I don’t know, in my personal experience, once when I was applying for a grant and I really had an hour to write the grant, which is impossible, but I was incredibly motivated, and I had some people who were incredibly encouraging.

So I remember that between 3:03 and 3:09, I wrote the entire grant. It gave me three hours, those six minutes, which I don’t know how that’s possible except that I went so deep into the problem of what I was trying to untangle that my own being was ethereal, and maybe it was not bound to time or regular brain constraints when it comes to how much you can do in a certain amount of time.

Annemarie: That’s right. It’s because you’ve already spent so much preparation, so much thought into it that in the short amount of time, you can really create something that that’s it. And that’s why ideas come in an instant, right?

Tjaša: Yeah. Yeah.

Annemarie: It’s like all of a sudden you’ve done so much mulling over and you’ve so much thought, and then all of a sudden that light bulb goes on, and then you’re like, wow, that’s what it is. And then it all clicks together.

Tjaša: I have an idea. So maybe when you’re thinking something over and you’re only trying to create connections among different notions, not that it’s linear, but you’re traveling the distance between one notion to another to create a relationship between them. And once you’ve created a relationship between them, the memory consolidates and it becomes almost like a curved space in your brain. And all of a sudden this, I don’t know, condensed into a dendrite or something, but basically the time traveled when you were making this connection is now way, way, way, way shorter because you’ve established the relationship between them.

Annemarie: Yeah. Yeah.

Tjaša: Your fascinating show, The Story of The Einstein Girl starts with the formula that includes the big L at which you then speculate that stands for love. I was curious, where did the formula come from? Did you originate it? And can you briefly explain it to the listeners?

Annemarie: So this theory, the Lagrangian, so the famous equation, the start of that part is a letter that exists on the internet. I found that letter all of a sudden, and nobody knows who wrote it. And a couple of years back in 2015, I believe, people thought that there was actually a letter of Einstein to his daughter, and it was just floating around on the internet, but it turns out to be a fake letter. So it’s not from Einstein at all. Who wrote it, nobody knows. It’s just out there on the internet. I know some journalists did some thorough research to find out if this letter was fake or not, and it turns out to be fake, but it’s basically a letter, a love letter to his daughter. And I didn’t use the full letter and I changed it here and there.

And the formula that I changed it to, the L stands for a general form of energy, which is the Lagrangian, because the original equation, that was really true. Of course, we all know the famous equation, E = mc², but in his original paper, Einstein, when he writes about that, it’s actually not the E, he uses the L, which is the Lagrangian. That’s a general form of energy. That’s just a different parameter to describe it. Later on, it became energy. But that’s when the thought came up like, oh, wait a minute, the Lagrangian, what if the interpretation can be love and then start the play that way? That was again inspired by this fake letter who writes about that. And then discovering that in his first article it wasn’t actually E = mc², it’s Lagrangian, it’s L=mc². It’s like, okay, well, maybe we can turn that into love and start from there and see what happens.

Tjaša: So basically L as love is completely your speculation?

Annemarie: Yeah.

I think love is the most powerful form of energy, and that’s what I wanted to play with… There must be something physical around us. 

Tjaša: Okay. That’s awesome. Do you believe in it? Do you want to believe in it?

Annemarie: Well, I do believe that love is energy, that there is a way we can think about energy, like positive energy. We all have these different associations with energy, energy can be negative, can be bad, but eventually, I think love is the most powerful form of energy, and that’s what I wanted to play with in this version. There must be something physical around us. It might be something that future physicists will really find out when they work together with cognitive scientists. That’s why these two fields, they need to merge. They need to work with one another because what I think that there’s this energetic field that we can tap into with our brains because it’s all electricity eventually. And that we can have that communal or that community thought, and that also might explain why sometimes we feel that the universe is giving us something when we really work hard for something and serendipity happens.

You can’t really explain it, why it happens at that moment, at that time, but somehow the universe is throwing something back at you. So to say, hey, listen, you are on the right track. Keep going. And you can have a thousand explanations for that, but I find it very interesting to see how can we explain a social cognitive science, not just one brain, but just the whole community and they’re doing a lot of research in that. Like just what happens with people watching the same show, the same theatre show? What happens to people’s brains and is there some superposition of different brainwaves of people if they all are in the same state? Quantum mechanical almost, that you have brains in the same state what happens when everybody has that feeling? It becomes bigger. There’s a field of waves going on in that theatre, right?

And I think that’s just an example of something really local, but what if that happens on a huge scale all around the world? That might also explain, I don’t know, why some inventions have been done in the past independently from one another, but around the same time period as if humanity was ready for that invention and in different spots without knowing, people came up with the same kind of inventions. I don’t know, I’m just throwing that out. I have no idea, there must be other explanations, but so that’s what find it fascinating.

Tjaša: I also find fascinating what happens, let’s say in a theatre when everybody’s experiencing the same thought or the same energy or the same elevated mental space. They have one thousand people or one hundred people meditating in town squares, and right away they can see that the level of crime decreases by, I don’t know, 60 percent in such places. There’s been a lot of cases like that so yes, what does this mean for our theatre, communal theatre experiences? You said that the fields of physics and cognitive theory or cognitive sciences need to be connected. And I think actually that actors are the perfect tissue in between because we are embodied, but in some ways we’re masters of the embodiment. We usually know how to modulate our thoughts, how to modulate our emotions, how to modulate our energies and our body. That’s a lot. What is fact about The Einstein Girl and what is fiction?

Annemarie: Okay, so what is fact? So she really existed. So she was born in 1902, and really nobody knows what happens to her. The only reference that we have is that she’s mentioned in a couple of letters between Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric. And those letters were found in 1986, because that’s when those letters I think were released. They were donated to the Einstein Papers Project that was started. I think Einstein’s, was it his granddaughter, but I think her name is Evelyn Einstein, but she found those family letters and she donated them to the Einstein Papers Project. And there was a physicist who worked on that project, and he discovered it. So he discovered in the letters, wow, there’s actually a daughter, but nobody knows what happened to her.

So Philip Sington, he’s a novelist and he writes amazing books in which he uses things from history and creates his own story. So he created this story as well, The Einstein Girl, what if she is still alive and she’s looking for her parents? She’s going on a search who her real parents are, and then discovers that she’s Einstein’s daughter. What do you do with that information?

Tjaša: That was the premise that then launched you into starting to write your own one woman show about it. What did you take liberties with? What did you invent in this story? And what were maybe some of the mysteries that were attracting you to start this project in the first place?

Annemarie: So first of all, Philip Sington’s novel was a gift from a friend of mine when I graduated in 2009. So when I graduated on the history and philosophy of physics, one of my friends gave me this book as a gift, and I read the book and everything came together. History, philosophy, physics, psychology, everything I found fascinating came together in this novel of Philip Sington and I thought, oh, I have to do something with this. But Philip Sington’s novel was written from the perspective of the doctor, of the psychiatrist who treats the woman, so it’s his story. It’s his story of him falling in love with her, that he can’t help himself. He’s engaged to another woman, but there’s a whole… His brother was an astronomer who got killed in the World War II. He himself was a psychiatrist who dealt with all these colleagues of his who were doing these Nazi experiments in the basement on patients because it was situated in Berlin during the Nazi time.

So all that fascinating history came together, but I thought, what if I write something from the perspective of the girl? How is the girl, this woman experiencing her memory loss, her identity loss, her quest for understanding who she is, and then discovering that she’s Einstein’s daughter? What would that feel like? And then in order to describe that, yeah, I took numerous liberties. I used Sington’s novel as a base, as a source of inspiration for the story itself, but then I looked for metaphors from physics to describe that feeling what that woman must go through. And that’s when I just came up with this metaphor of the black hole, because basically when information gets sucked into a black hole, it just stays in there and it can’t go out. So I use the metaphor of her brain, of there’s information in there in her unconscious. She has information about who she is. It’s just not getting out. It’s not coming to the conscious surface.

So that’s how I use that metaphor of the black hole to describe her memory loss. And then those memories are the light rays. Light rays that get stuck in the black hole and they can’t come out, but black holes, according to Steven Hawking, can evaporate. So they can eventually release that light again and then evaporate so that’s something that I use as well through the story. Eventually, her black hole evaporates. She remembers again who she is. There’s little light rays that come out, little memories that escape to her consciousness. And so that’s that metaphor that I used. And then there’s the other metaphor. There’s the metaphor from quantum mechanics, that quantum mechanics, initially the base, the foundation of quantum mechanics is Einstein came up with that in one of his papers in 1905, but he denied the theory. And basically that’s what happened in the story to his daughter as well.

Tjaša: Yeah, he made her and then denied her. Oh my gosh.

Annemarie: That he made her then denied her. Yeah.

Tjaša: I see a pattern. Jesus.

Annemarie: Yeah. So those are the two metaphors that I used to tell her story, to convey her experience to the audience. And depending on whether you know more about memory loss or a black hole, and that’s that story of the source and target domains of metaphors, depending on what your base knowledge is, you learn new things about other domains by building analogies. That’s how we learn. That’s how human beings learn new knowledge. It’s building a relationship between different concepts. But if you’re a physicist, you are probably more familiar with the description of a black hole, and then going into the psyche of a young woman who loses her memory, that might be something new that you learn. On the other way or the other way around, if you are a psychologist or if you are someone who ever experienced memory loss, you’re like, wait a minute. I’m learning a new concept about the black hole. So apparently this black hole sucks in everything and it can’t get out. Yeah, that’s the idea of using metaphors from physics to help create storytelling.

Tjaša: I so enjoyed the vulnerability and the exploration of this character, of The Einstein Girl when I saw her. Of course, as a theatre person I was very interested in the, not discrepancy, but just two different ways of how you worked with the same text basically in two different countries, in two different languages with two different directors. So how the aesthetics of the country and cultural trends really influence our perception of storytelling and acting.

Annemarie: Yeah, totally. That makes sense. It’s a difference.

Tjaša: What are you finding in the Netherlands? What are you finding that the theatre aesthetics is?

Annemarie: So when I did those two different versions of the story of The Einstein Girl back in I would say 2012. So I did an experiment with the audience during the Amsterdam Fringe Festival. The first weekend I performed one version, the Dutch version which I had worked on with a Dutch director, different music, different light. And then the next weekend I would perform the American version, which also had different music completely. It was the same script, and that was about the only thing that was the same. My acting style was different. My whole mise-en-scène, how I moved on stage was different. And we had a completely different engineer working on the lights, and that was very fascinating. When people came back the next weekend, and I asked them to write down what their experience was. There were some people who saw one show and not the other, but there were people who saw both shows.

And those people who were more into books tend to like the Dutch version better because they had more room to imagine, because the American version was more cinematic in a sense. So people who were used to going to films and watching American films, they appreciated the American version more because I had really worked with the director like a fourth wall really almost in the method kind of style because this director had taught at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and that’s how I met him, and that’s when we decided to work together on this play. So that was really fascinating. While with the Dutch director, it was more focused on technique almost. So I worked with her on my voice, I worked with her on dance movements on stage. We really worked on the visual while with the American director I really worked on my internal life of the character itself. So it was two totally different processes, but both fascinating and both very helpful for me in my development as an actor.

Tjaša: You’re so brave and so adventurous. Who would take on doing a one woman show and then do two different versions with two different texts, with two different styles? That’s almost crazy. I’m so proud of you. That’s insane. It’s a huge undertaking to do something like that. But it also shows your, let’s just say more sciencey part of you that’s maybe interested in the experiment and not so much into, or as well alongside the immersion that I think that all actors seek this complete immersion of being in something.

Annemarie: Yeah, absolutely. And to make it even more complicated, when I went to schools and universities for them to book my show, including a lecture, I offered them four different options. I offered them the Dutch version in either the Dutch language or the English language, or the American directed version in either Dutch or in the English language. So there were basically four different versions that I offered them.

Tjaša: Oh my God. I think this is maybe your artistic approach to demonstrating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. What do you think?

Annemarie: Yeah, because sometimes, of course, if I would do the Dutch version in the English language sometimes I noticed that my American version would come through because I was used to working on this American version in English. So it would become a blend. It would be sometimes very difficult for me to really distract the two.

Tjaša: I can imagine how that would be hard. That’s super hard. Humans are just creatures of habit, and our subconscious is just so massive and obviously once you memorize something, it does become a huge part of the subconscious. And so I think that the actor’s freedom actually comes from this automation. The text and the live comes from the subconscious, and obviously there’s other things that you are consciously directing in terms of energy. But I think that’s a very tough experiment for an actor. I wonder, what are the future opportunities of when our listeners can see or hear The Einstein Girl, and what else is cooking for you? What else are you working on that’s blending the vast field of physics, astrophysics, philosophy, history, paradigm shifting and acting and theatre?

Annemarie: You know what it is? I have a lot of ideas, but the hardest thing is to really put those ideas really into concrete scripts. What I’ve done in the past, in these couple of years I’ve done a lot of collaborative projects like Bioadapted, like working with a company like Gorilla Science and really finding other collaborations to work on science and art projects. I haven’t really worked on my own projects as much. So yeah, there are a lot of ideas, I just have to—

Tjaša: Okay. So for everybody that wants to collaborate with your wonderful self, where can we find you? What’s the website? Instagram?

Annemarie: Oh, you can definitely find me on So that’s my website.

Tjaša: Where are the two A’s? Just tell us where the two A’s are.

Annemarie: Oh, yeah, yeah. So Hagenaars is spelled H-A-G-E-N-A-A-R-S.

Tjaša: Thank you.

Annemarie: And you can find me on Instagram @annemarie_hagenaars and LinkedIn.

Tjaša: Yeah, you love the LinkedIn. You’re using it very well. I have stuff to learn from you. I can’t deal with so many platforms.

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