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Aug. 03, 2009

Connecting With Emily Levine at the Edge of Chaos

by Karen A. Frenkel

Click to enlarge images

Levine_EmilyLike a colorful Mandelbrot fractal, Emily Levine’s one-woman show about her illness and triumph over it spirals in and out from her personal experience to the universal. Her story spans Emily 2.0 and Emily 3.0––releases on life during her struggle with acromegaly. This disease is caused by a pituitary gland tumor and results in “gigantism,” severe headache, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, enlarged jaw and heart, hypertension, diabetes, and heart and kidney failure. Here is the website of humorist, speaker, and radio commentator Levine.

Levine’s case took some time to diagnose and yet she wittily conveys her fear of the unknown. She also tells us that in the year 2004 while she was literally growing, America, too, was “out of whack,” suffering from a compulsion to grow beyond its limits. She was not alone and by making that connection, she found comfort. Once the puzzle of her symptoms was solved and after she elected surgery to remove a tumor from her pituitary, Levine convalesced in a small northern California town called Point Reyes. In the local library, she happened upon a book on quantum physics and on James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science. Here is his website. Her interpretation of them and events around her is the basis for her sophisticated and humorous show.

Levine learned from quantum physics that light is both particles and waves––“wave particle duality is sort of like Oy and Vey,” she quips. From this she embroiders her own perception of an AND - AND world (a reference to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s two volumes, Either/Or, published in 1843) in which people are good and bad, right and wrong (for example, Freud might have been right about penis envy and wrong about who has it). It is a world where people can have their cake and lose weight. From there Levine explores Newton’s rational universe in which causes have effects, but asks, “What about irrationality, what about randomness—the odds that I would get such a tumor?”

In contrast, in Einstein’s universe, you’re not sure of anything. The Heisenberg Principal tells us that the more you know about one thing, the less you know about the other, and that’s true of some acromegaly symptoms that at first stumped doctors. “The less they knew about carpal tunnel syndrome, the less they knew about my under bite,” Levine laments.

Levine’s easy ability to swerve from personal medical history to scientific concepts like dualism is truly admirable, and she clearly is curious about science. So I was surprised when she waxed sarcastic mid-way through her performance about the scientific method. “Scientific method, yeah right. I don’t believe people can rise above subjectivity,” she said, “because fear drives prejudice.” When she became ill, for example, she feared losing control of her story. “I could not control how people perceived me,” she confesses, transformed from an active person to being a patient, “a closed system––no new matter could enter or leave.” That is much more a comment about human foibles in social and emotional circumstances than about experimental design, benchwork, and discovery.

But back to randomness. “The edge of chaos,” she says, “is the most creative place in the universe. Fractals are the most non-linear phenomena, the curls have information, and the definition of infinity is information packed into finite space.” But to appreciate that, you must be really, really open, Levine beseeches us, before she continues.

And then Levine, who is 64, tells us that her doctors had been so upbeat about her prognosis that she actually hoped after her surgery that she would be young again. “Cute as a Benjamin Button,” she quips. But when reality set it, she became depressed. She struggled: calibrating, recalibrating. Stabilizing, restabilizing. Living and dying. And with that association, she has taken us back to the not AND - AND.

Levine’s way out is the middle––a special phase transition with continuity so that we don’t have to make choices based on dualism. Every fractal, she insists, reflects a bit of Newton’s and Einstein’s universes. It’s about E 2.0 and E 3.0, you and me, says Levine. Once we have excised dualism, opalescence lets you see the entire system.

Levine has presented variations on her show for several years. As she said at TED 2002:

“I love connections…what I hope to do when I make these connections is to short-circuit peoples’ thinking, make you not follow your usual train of association, but make you rewire. The shock of recognition is really re-cognition, re-wiring how you think…”

During her two-week run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre here in New York, she seems to have accomplished just that. A film version is in the works. When that is complete, much larger audiences may share a spot on the edge of her edifying, zany swirl.

- Karen A. Frenkel
For information about me please visit my website, www.karenafrenkel.com

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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