The Mirror Trap

16 December 2020

The Mirror Trap, By Simon Watt, The Bloomsbury Festival, 17 October 2020

The Mirror Trap

A quantum physicist has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind two mirrors, a strange machine, hallucinogenic drugs and a diary filled with ramblings and Feynman diagrams. His last thoughts reveal his views on the many-worlds interpretation – the controversial idea that there are as many worlds as there are possible outcomes in quantum measurements.

The Mirror Trap is an online performance where the audience has the chance to experiment with the psychology of self-identity and explore the interpretations of quantum mechanics. The public is asked to draw Feynman diagrams on a mirror, plonk themselves down in front of it and listen to the play using headphones, thereby transforming a dimly lit room into a private theatrical space.

The experience is hypnotic, eerie and introspective. Ideas at the intersection between physics and psychology are described in a beautifully written monologue. The protagonist believes that he has devised a new way to access a parallel universe and replicate Schrödinger’s thought experiment; however, he must play the role of the cat, and be observed. Under severe emotional pressure, he begs the audience to witness his desperate attempt to reach a universe where he did not make the biggest mistake of his life.

Visual and auditory illusions play tricks with the participants’ brains

While the physicist is digging deep into his psyche and preparing for a leap into the unknown, visual and auditory illusions play tricks with the participants’ brains. From Snow White to Alice Through the Looking-Glass, mirrors have been linked to mysterious portals, superstition and fairy tales. In this play, they are portals to other worlds, and also tools to reflect about life, self and perception. Many people feel subjective sensations of otherness and report dissociative identity effects when looking at themselves in a mirror. This strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion is more pronounced in dim light and is associated with Troxler’s fading and neural adaptation: when we look at an unchanging image some features disappear temporarily from our perception and our brain fills this missing information with other elements. This effect is particularly spooky when applied to one’s own face.

The performance was written, created and played by biologist and science communicator Simon Watt, with assistance from playwright Alexandra Wood. The 20-minute piece was followed by a discussion and question-and-answer session with Watt, psychologist Julia Shaw, and physicist Harry Cliff of LHCb and the University of Cambridge, who was scientific consultant for this work and guest physicist at the Bloomsbury Festival, under the auspices of which the piece was performed. Watt is now looking for other researchers and festivals interested in collaborating.

As arts and science festivals have moved online because of Covid-19 restrictions, this show found a creative way to engage the public while sitting at home. A well-thought-out merging of drama and science engagement, The Mirror Trap is an intense and intriguing experience for physicists and non-physicists alike.

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect