Quantum Ballerina

Author: Lara Louise Bevan-Shiraz

Dr. Merritt Moore sees physics in ballet and ballet in physics (Courtesy of Dr. Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

Dr. Merritt Moore holds degrees from Oxford and Harvard University, and has performed with the Zurich Ballet, Boston Ballet, English National Ballet, London Contemporary Ballet Theatre, and Norwegian National Ballet. Named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 in 2018, she also underwent rigorous selection to appear on BBC Two’s “Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?”, and continues to pursue the dream of becoming an astronaut, and performing ballet in space. Dr. Merritt Moore also actively advocates for greater questioning, imagination and creativity in the way STEM subjects are taught, and started SASters (Science-Art-Sisters) in order to empower girls especially to think and visualise science in a more creative way. I met up with Dr. Moore while she was at the Norwegian National Ballet, rehearsing a combination of George Balanchine’s Symphony in C and Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère. We discussed taking on the “impossible”, her myriad inspirations, and how great solutions start with great questions.

Dr. Merritt Moore hopes to be the first to perform ballet in space (Courtesy of Dr. Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

On the dialogue between her twin practices of dancing and physics, Dr. Moore says she has grown to see that dance enhances her creativity as a scientist and analysing ballet, as a physicist, helps her achieve her artistic vision. On the dialogue between physics and ballet, Dr. Moore says that when she was younger, she didn’t realise there was one but she grew to realise this. When she is in the physics lab, she feels it is important to be creative, and dance has taught her the value of “going with the flow”, just as:

“Einstein, imagined what it would be like travelling as a photon on a light beam.”

Dr. Moore’s recent explorations of the nexus of science and art include virtual reality film projects and dance installations with robots. Being “an experimentalist,” she is extremely curious if someone says something  is “impossible”; the physicist in her likes to go out and “test whether it is really impossible”. Since Dr. Moore started learning dance quite late, at 13 years of age, and took further years off dance when she started her physics career, in becoming a professional ballerina, she has “already done the impossible”.

Newton’s 3rd law taught her that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, so when she does a grande battement (where the ballerina “throws” the working leg as high as possible), she imagines a pendulum and pushes her supporting leg down into the floor to get the force that lifts her working leg higher, then, the pendulum seemingly suspends (yet still moves), and before you know it, the restoring force of the pendulum brings her leg down. Physics also helps her to find the easiest way to “jump back in” and perform after time off ballet.

Dr. Moore in her physics lab (Courtesy of Dr. Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

In both dance and physics, Dr. Moore loves to deep think and ponder on “the universe! The fact that we don’t know 75 percent of what’s out there, that we don’t even know what dark energy is, or dark matter, or all of the bizarre quantum physics, the questions of how on earth is this possible, and all the unknown questions just make my mind go wow in a really wonderful way that just makes me so excited. Also of how small we are”. Taking the intersection of dance and physics one step further, always, Dr. Moore has also danced her PhD in Quantum Optics!

Dr. Merritt Moore explores the synchronicities between ballet and physics (Courtesy of Dr. Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

Discussing her inspirations in the world of dance and in the Arts generally, Dr. Moore is quick to cite:

“I love William Forsythe’s works, because of his musicality. It’s very smart, the way that he choreographs and uses the body, and the patterns. He is always investigating, and he’s such an experimentalist as a choreographer that I’m always very drawn to his work.”

Also from the ballet world, Dr. Moore says, “I love Sylvie Guillem, not only was she physically incredible but she was known as “Mademoiselle Non” as she is always saying no, she is extremely strong and forceful, and strong willed.” Her taste in music is also dynamic: “it changes every day. One day I’ll listen to classical for motivation and another day I’ll listen to hip hop.” A playful polymath, she has also collaborated with an artist, Benjamin Arizmendi, who was painting based on her equations, and couldn’t resist “putting my pointe shoes in the paint, and dancing with my feet”.

Sylvie Guillem: “Mademoiselle Non” has a strength of will that Dr. Moore admires.

Other avenues of inspiration include architecture, in particular, her “favourite architect” Thomas Heatherwick:

“I love the way Thomas Heatherwick uses movement in his architecture. The way he asks questions – he asks brilliant questions. At school they teach you to memorise facts and regurgitate facts, and I think that’s such a shame. I think the future of schools should be teaching us how to ask good questions, and having talked to Thomas Heatherwick, he knows how to ask really good questions, and I think that brilliant solutions come from spending the time developing a good question.”

Spun by Thomas Heatherwick for Magis | Sabi Style Blog

Dr. Moore is inspired by the architect Thomas Heatherwick’s ability to formulate good questions.

From the scientific world, Dr. Moore also cites Elon Musk as an inspiration:

“I think [Elon Musk] is brilliant because he dares to dream big and dogmatically pursues dreams no matter what other people say. He’s quite an incredible force of nature!”

Always connecting the dots in her thinking process, Dr. Moore continued: “Another interesting book I read was The Art of Learning [by Josh Waitzkin], which investigates how you become incredibly excellent at your craft, and that learning process. Learning is also a skill, no matter what you’re doing, and so I found that the author wrote about his excellence in chess and martial arts, and the parallels between the two. I find it’s quite similar to how pursuing physics and dance, although they seem different, are actually quite similar, if you break it down to this art of learning.”

Inspiration (Courtesy of Dr. Merritt Moore, Physics on Pointe, Instagram)

Throughout her journey combining physics and dance, Dr. Moore has coached herself with positive mottos and mantras. When younger, her motto was “nothing is impossible, possible just takes time”, which took away the doubts of whether or not things are possible, it was just “am I willing to put the work and effort in to make it happen?” Later on in life, she “made a personal mantra that I that I tell myself on a daily basis: “I am free and I give hope”. So the first part is: I’m free of prejudices, I’m free of stereotypes, I’m free to make mistakes, I’m free to be me, I’m free to mess up, I’m free to do nothing. It just gave me that liberation and freedom, and the second part, “I give hope”, gave me inspiration. It’s hard to do both physics and dance, let alone one or the other, so it was like motivation. I had felt lack of motivation when I was younger: I had felt like “what’s the point?” because everyone was telling me it’s impossible. Every hour that I push forward, every time that I can get better, it helps to motivate other people who are much more talented than I am, and show them that it is possible, so that they can be like “well, if Merritt did it, then I can too””.

Asked about her most marked characteristic, Dr. Moore says she treasures her “persistence and resilience”:

“I go with the flow and am quite chilled but very little can knock me down. I can get back up very quickly, like if I get a rejection, or I fail at something, it takes me like two seconds to get back up again and try again. That’s been a trait I have appreciated and has helped me to get through everything.”

Dr. Merritt Moore lost her mother six years ago, and her most treasured possession are the memories in her photos. When asked what she is most proud of, it is also these family roots:

“Being a supportive sister, that’s number one, regardless of everything else. Physics and dance, these are things that I pursue, but if she needed me the next day, I’d fly out and quit everything.”

In terms of which qualities she most values in her friends, Dr. Moore really values trust: “I have incredibly wonderful friends, who I trust immensely and who have been there in the good times and bad times, who are supportive, and inspiring – they inspire me to be a better person.”

Dr. Moore took part in the BBC series: Astronauts, Do you have what it takes?

Dr. Merritt Moore sees careers as simply part of life’s journey and not a destination, and embraces the fact her next work could be literally anywhere and doing anything: “a [recent] adventure was the Astronaut show, Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? by the BBC. They selected twelve candidates out of a couple thousand in the UK, to undergo astronaut selection process. They threw us from a helicopter, drowned us, and did all sorts of astronaut things! That was truly inspiring, so ever since then, I really want to become an astronaut and go to the moon!” This positive mindset is one she fosters “on a daily basis”:

“I wake up quite happy because I have a passion and I feel a purpose and a drive… but also there’s a kindness to myself, I push myself as hard as I can, and I think I always have a bit more I want to push, but at the end of the day I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t achieve a set goal. I really do believe in the journey, and just learning and becoming a better person in the process. I think that alleviates a lot of pressure and allows me to explore whatever opportunities come my way with 100% commitment. Sometimes people do things to check a box and they miss out, or get disappointed with themselves and quit if they don’t achieve that, whereas if you have a commitment to improve as a person then there’s nothing that will make you upset enough to quit.”

When she isn’t questioning the impossible, or taking on the rigours of both ballet and physics, what does Dr. Moore do to relax? “On an off day, I’ll stay at home in a onesie, drink hot chocolate, and chill, turn off my phone, or go for a walk, and listen to an audio book (I love zoning out with an audio book!), and going offline. It’s great!” Dr. Moore thus embodies her message, reassuring polymaths in particular, that you can be passionate about and pursue both arts and science, that being kind to yourself and others matters far more in gaining success than scoring points on a C.V., and that everything good in life starts with a good question!

“Odile” by Lara Bevan-Shiraz, an aspiring ballerina scientist.