Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

What is Quantum Physics? Dancers Explain

Quantum Dance Dancers
Credit: ©Jim Carmody

Quantum physics drives much of the research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Explaining this research is a challenge, because quantum physics—nature's rules for the smallest particles of matter and light—inspires words like weird, curious, and counter-intuitive. The quantum world is strange and invisible in the context of everyday life.

And yet, quantum physics can be explained and at least partially demonstrated visually. NIST physicist Ray Simmonds recently collaborated with MFA graduate candidate Sam Mitchell of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), to create a dance piece based on the laws of quantum physics. The piece, Dunamis Novem (Latin for "the chance happening of nine things"),* premiered at The La Jolla Playhouse Forum Theatre in January, as a part of Mitchell's thesis work.

The project has practical benefits such as education, Simmonds says.

"While quantum mechanics is a well-established theory, proven true overwhelmingly by experiments, it is still confounding to most people, even those in science," Simmonds and Mitchell noted in describing their work.

"At its heart, it describes nature in terms of possible realities with probable outcomes, with almost no predictable certainty. We have taken some of the probabilistic rules that govern quantum systems and integrated them into a creative process. The results are then born from an artistic aesthetic and an algorithmic code that produces dynamics that embody in some way randomness, concepts of quantum entanglement, and the effects of observation or measurement."

The dances are based on nine quantized energy levels of a harmonic oscillator—like the mechanical micro-drum built in Simmonds' NIST lab (see animation)—with each successive level exactly one 'quantum' or unit of energy higher than the level just below. For each level, Mitchell created corresponding dance actions or phrases with increasing intensities of movement, with names like "crumble" and "hug the world". Dancers are much more likely to remember choreography through a visual description than a number.

Simmonds arranged for a random number generator to produce sequences of the numbers from 0-8, representing either smooth oscillating or noisy, "hot" motion. Four sequences of both types of motion were generated, one for each of the four dancers. How the dancers negotiated the space together, the lighting, and the music were all chosen to help emulate the ambiance of these orderly or noisy types of quantum motion.

Overall, the dances demonstrate several features of the quantum world, with the dancers representing both the individual and collective behavior of an oscillator, with particles or quanta of energy randomly appearing and disappearing. This unpredictable behavior is characteristic of the quantum world. Each dancer forms a piece of a quantum "superposition" — multiple coexisting energy states — which can characterize the movements of an oscillator.

To demonstrate quantum entanglement, the four dancers touch each other and their sequences then become synchronized, evoking a linkage or correlation among their individual behaviors. Entanglement is essential for technologies such as quantum computers, which, if they can be built, could solve problems considered intractable today. Simmonds' research group relies on quantum properties like this; they have entangled the motion of the micro-drum with microwave light particles. The dance also demonstrates that a measurement, symbolized by a beam of light, can cause a quantum state or entanglement to collapse, as shown by one dancer falling out of synch with the others.

The accompanying video clips show randomness, entanglement and measurement. A video of the entire dance performance is available at

*Simmonds explains: "Dunamis is Aristotle's Latin term meaning that something 'might chance to happen or not to happen.' Novem is Latin for the number nine. We stuck it together to mean the chance happening of nine things."

Q & A with Physicist Ray Simmonds and Choreographer Sam Mitchell

1. What got you interested in dancing and dance choreography?

Mitchell: It was such a perfect combination of everything I loved about sports, art and music. Dance and choreography are really challenging fields for people with limitless imaginations.

Simmonds: I always liked the freedom I felt when dancing. I could be creative and just let go of my analytic mind. This is true during choreography too. Analysis can then happen later.

2. What inspired you to combine dance with quantum physics?

Mitchell: It was a book that I read in 1995 called "The Tao of Physics".

Simmonds: I always found it surprising how simple rules can lead to complex behavior. Brian Eno explored this when generating ambient music. It seemed that the natural laws of quantum physics could also play out in a human dance. And, a performance like this could help educate through a physical experience.

3. What was the most challenging part of this project?

Mitchell: Trying to get the dancers to understand our process and have them be okay with not being entirely in the spotlight. We created this work from a holistic approach vs. from the individual's point of view. That can be hard for performers. As you can see, they met the challenge!

Simmonds: Working close to my computer and far away from Sam and the dancers!

Sam Mitchell is a director/choreographer. He is originally from Imperial Valley, California, and is of Native American descent, from the Yaqui tribe. Sam earned a BFA in dance from University of California (UC) Santa Barbara and an MFA in choreography from UC San Diego and will soon begin a PhD program in drama and theatre at UC San Diego/UC Irvine. Sam teaches dance and movement workshops throughout the United States and abroad. He enjoys surfing, playing guitar and relaxing at home with his wife and son.

Ray Simmonds is a physicist. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended Santa Barbara City College, where he studied mechanical engineering and dramatic arts, before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received MS and PhD degrees in physics. As an undergraduate he participated in modern dance and theater performances and took classes in modern dance. In 2002 Ray joined the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, where he conducts quantum physics research. Ray enjoys spending time with his wife and two children and gets outdoors as much as possible.


Released May 15, 2015, Updated March 25, 2019