Quantum Theory: Making Sense of it All

“God does not play dice with the world” – Albert Einstein (Hermanns)

Or does he?

Quantum theory, as defined by whatis.com, is “the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level.”

So… what does this even mean? Why are we talking about this? Is this even related to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? I know you didn’t sign up for a science lesson today, but understanding quantum theory, and therefore existentialism, are more important to the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than you may realize. And yes, it may be hard to wrap your head around, but that’s okay because even Albert Einstein believed quantum theory to be unthinkable. However, we’re going to try and make sense of it all.

Quantum theory is the idea that the predetermined laws (classical physics) of the nature of matter, specifically atoms, are wrong. In quantum theory, atoms and energy are not tied down or stick to a single location. In fact, things like electrons, atoms, particles and matter can be in multiple locations and states at the same time. However, the location and state can only be determined once it is measured, before that it is completely unknown (NOVA 5:00 – 7:00).

Quantum theory first began to take form when physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) theorized that agitated electrons would leap from orbit to orbit around their atom, sending off specifically colored waves that we can see. Bohr’s theory has been proven through the sharp, defined stripes of light seen when agitated atoms are studied. Bohr’s theory shocked most physicists because the electrons leaped without moving through the space in between orbits (NOVA 10:00 – 11:40). Basically, the electrons were teleporting. Soon after, energy was also deemed to act in the same manner as electrons.

Atomic Spectra of Neon (courtesy of HyperPhysics .phy
Atomic Spectra of Neon (courtesy of HyperPhysics .phy

Quantum theory is a troubling topic because nothing can be predicted; there is no certainty what the outcome  of anything will be. Instead, in a quantum reality there is only probability. Our reality is like flipping a coin. We know that the coin has a fifty percent chance of landing either heads or tails facing up. We also know that the coin will land on one or the other and cannot land heads and tails at the same time. However, we don’t know which will be the outcome, heads or tails, until the coin has landed.

But what state is the coin in before it’s measured? Is it facing heads or tails? A quantum theorist would say, it’s both heads and tails simultaneously. This theory comes from a principle called superposition, which basically means that a particle is in all possible states simultaneously until we look to check (“What is Quantum Theory?”).

So what does superposition say about objects larger than atoms and particles, like humans? We can’t be in every possible state until measured, right? Or do we live in multiple states, in multiple universes at the same time without knowing?

Schroedinger's Cat (courtesy of diddue.wordpress.com)
Schroedinger’s Cat (courtesy of diddue.wordpress.com)

Erwin Schroedinger, an Austrian physicist, disagreed with the superposition principle and created the famous Schroedinger’s cat analogy to disprove the interpretation when related to objects larger than particles. Without going into too much detail, a cat that is sealed within a box for an hour with poison, a Geiger counter, radioactive material and a hammer cannot be determined alive or dead until the box is opened. The superposition principle would say that the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously as long as no one opens the box. Schroedinger thought this was ridiculous, as the cat could only be in one state or another and thus the superposition principle cannot apply to larger objects (Winter). What do you think, is the cat both alive and dead? Now here’s a better question: are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both alive and dead?

So what we can take away from quantum theory, other than it is incredibly confusing, is that we live in a world of probability. Our reality is random and particles are potentially in multiple states and locations until they are measured. Nothing can be predicted.

Quantum theory, then, has caused many humans to contemplate the meaning of our reality and life. If everything is random, if we have no control, no certainty, about the outcome of our lives, why bother trying to control our lives? What’s the point? If quantum theory has you asking these questions, you may be having an existential crisis. You may not even know what existentialism is, but why does that matter, if you can’t be certain about anything? Why get an education, a job, make money or be polite if you’re going to die anyway, since death is the only thing we can be certain about (even though we can’t predict when we will die)?

Calvin and Hobbes contemplating life. (courtesy of pixshark.com)
Calvin and Hobbes contemplating life. (courtesy of pixshark.com)

Calm down. Breathe. Maybe this is all too complicated. Maybe it’s time to revert back to a simpler time, say when you were five. In a subreddit called “Explain Like I’m Five,” redditors take a step back from the complicated adult world and break down giant ideas in simple terms. In the short three and a half minute video below, “Explain Like I’m Five” has simplified existentialism and how the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche inspired this ideology. So grab your favorite blanky and stuffed animal and let’s learn about “Eggsalentlalism.”

Okay boys and girls, wasn’t that nice? Did you learn a lot about “Exatentalum” in school?

In big boy/girl talk, existentialism is basically the idea that there are no set rules in the world; instead society is always making them up. Our “existential attitudes” develop individually depending on our encounters with our reality based in quantum theory, which is a random and absurd world (Balt).  We are, in essence, trying to make sense of it all.

So now that we’ve deciphered what Quantum Theory and Existentialism are, how do they pertain to Stoppard’s R & G? Well, Stoppard was known for using multiple degrees of scientific theories in his plays. Think of it as a little physics or philosophy lesson mixed in with some entertainment. As actors, it’s important to be able to understand what his references are to these theories so you can better exemplify them in the performance.

Let’s take the infamous coin game in the beginning of the play for example. Guildenstern flips a coin again and again, and even though probability tells us that there should be a 50/50 chance of a heads or tails, it always turns up heads. An impossible feat, some would say. This is Stoppard’s use of existentialism in order to show that the play will not follow the laws of nature (or in this case, probability).

The coin itself can be seen as a metaphor for the entire show. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip the coin knowing that every time it will be heads. Just like the audience and actors know that every time they watch or perform the show, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die. Not just in Stoppard’s show, but in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, too. Bringing Quantum theory into the mix, if it is known from the beginning that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die, are they simultaneously alive and dead just like Schroedinger’s cat? R & G are basically stuck in a cycle where they will live through the play then die until the next performance of Hamlet begins.


Calvin and Hobbes Contemplating Fate #existentialism (Courtesy of pixshark.com)
Calvin and Hobbes contemplating fate. |  #existentialism (Courtesy of pixshark.com)



Abbott, Stephen D. “Turning Theorems into Plays.” Math Horizons 7.1 (1999): 5-11. JSTOR. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25678223?ref=no-x-route:8ca53112974798d6fce00ee0152fe3ad>.

Balt, Andrea. “Existentialism & Nietzsche Explained to 5-year-olds: “Eggsalentialism?”.” Rebelle Society RSS. Rebelle Society, 28 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/04/28/existentialism-nietzsche-explained-to-5-year-olds-eggsalentialism/>.

Explain Like I’m Five: Existentialism and Friederich Nietzsche. Dir. Jared Neumark. Perf. Michael Kayne and Langan Kingsley. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kvz0CjtwH2k>.

Freeman, John. “Holding up the Mirror to Mind’s Nature: Reading “Rosencrantz” “Beyond Absurdity”” The Modern Language Review 91.1 (1996): 20-39. JSTOR. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/3733994>.

Hermanns, William, and Albert Einstein. Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man. 58. Brookline Village, MA: Branden, 1983. Print.

NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap. Dir. Julia Cort and Josh Rosen. Perf. Brian Greene. Public Broadcasting Services, 2011.YouTube. YouTube, 25 May 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBrsWPCp_rs>.

“What Is Quantum Theory?” WhatIs.com. Ed. Ivy Wigmore. TechTarget, 01 Jan. 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. <http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/quantum-theory>.

Winter, Lisa. “Schrödinger’s Cat: Explained.” Schrödinger’s Cat: Explained. IFL Science, 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <http://www.iflscience.com/physics/schr%C3%B6dinger%E2%80%99s-cat-explained>.


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