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How art helps us understand the universe
- ARTSHUB, OCtober 2018

RICHARD WATTS

The discovery of gravitational waves gives us new ways to explore the cosmos, with poets and sound artists as our guides.

In 2017, physicists Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for proving the existence of gravitational waves – the existence of which were originally theorised by Albert Einstein in 1916.

‘Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time. Anytime we move we create a gravitational wave but they’re so completely and utterly minute and undetectable that you wouldn’t feel you and me moving, putting our imprint on the universe and it carrying on forever,’ said poet Alicia Sometimes.

‘So it takes large events, like two neutron stars colliding or two black holes colliding, a supernova exploding – and these waves ripple out into the universe … and the great thing about gravitational waves is that it’s the actual space itself that is rippling like fabric, if you can imagine that, which is incredible.’

Together with co-producer, video artist and musical director Andrew Watson and a range of other artists (including poets Maxine Beneba Clarke and Omar Musa and sound artists Camilla Hannan and Nat Bates), as well as several scientists, Sometimes has created a multimedia performance, Particle / Wave, at this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival that uses art to explore the secrets of the universe and the science of gravitational waves.

Science communicator Kendall Ackley, a research fellow at Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, is one of the experts roped in by Sometimes to help ensure that the facts behind gravitational waves don’t get lost amidst the artistry.

‘When Alicia first contacted me I was very honoured to be asked to help this story be told and bring it to a wider audience, so that others could understand the beautiful link between science and poetry – I was completely honoured to be able to tell this side of the story,’ Ackley said.

Recruiting scientists for the project was surprising easy, Sometimes said; what was harder was finding the best way to write about the science. She had to avoid easy analogies, such as comparing colliding stars with a lover's quarrel.  

'It’s not like that. I’ve got to be a bit careful. You can be too flowery and poetic about the universe, but I just fell in love with it and I’m doing this out of a genuine love,' she said.

STARS IN THEIR EYES

If representing the science of gravitational waves in poetry is challenging, it's even harder to explore the topic visually, according to Andrew Watson, who created the visuals for Particle / Wave at the Planetarium.

'Dealing with gravitational waves has been very much a process of making intangible (at least to the human senses) things relatable. Science informs us that these things are there – it measures them with charts and waveforms that are interpreted into audio frequencies that the human ear can hear (like the chirp),' he explained.

'When two neutron stars collide with extreme force, they create gravitational waves along with heavy elements like gold and platinum. We know these things, but what does that look like? No human has ever seen that. We have all these images of deep space that are based on reproductions of data into false colour reproductions that we can understand. But if a human did happen to witness a neutron star collision up close, they wouldn’t be left intact to tell their tale.

'So I went about reverse engineering the ideas around these scientific concepts, working my way back with abstract visuals and imagery that felt right and connected with viewers. I wanted the visuals to create an emotional response in the audience. All of my work in the show features real world filmed elements – even those incorporating heavily manipulated elements of French animator, Frédéric Vayssouze-Faure’s algorithm based monotone art,' Watson said.

For some sections of Particle / Wave, Watson responded directly to the poets and scientists' words, using aural cues to inspire the visual elements of the performance.

'In one piece, Dr Katie Mack talks about how these forces stretch you and squeeze you as they affect your reality every waking moment of your life. It’s barely detectable, but it’s happening. For me that was about creating a set of visuals that made the audience feel like they were being stretched, squeezed and contorted as they sat back rather than depicting a third party object that was divorced from their own bodily experience,' he told ArtsHub.

'Likewise, Omar Musa uses the story of the death spiral of two coalescing stars as a means to convey the brutality of a broken relationship – the passion turned into heartbreak and all its collateral damage washing out and dissipating over time. I wanted to mirror that, but at the same time I wanted to show the audience something they hadn’t seen without resorting to figurative representations and take them on a kind of psychedelic journey,' Watson said.

BIG IDEAS

Art is the ideal medium for helping people grapple with big ideas and hard science, according to Kendall Ackley.

‘I think it is one of the best media for exploring these ideas, because not only do you have the science behind it, which is fascinating, but you’re able to translate – especially with this show. You’re able to translate it from something that can be quite technical into something that is an inspiring take on what is actually happening in the universe,’ she said.

Swinburne University astrophysicist and fellow science communicator, Alan Duffy, agreed.

‘Anything that can convey the beauty and the excitement of this endeavor has to be, by definition, a good thing for science. And I think it’s also a good thing for art,’ he said. 

‘The challenge of exploring and explaining the wonders of the universe is inspirational to artists. The challenge of explaining something that is fundamentally of a higher dimension than we can actually see is exhilarating. And I think that both disciplines will benefit from the attempt to communicate with one another.’

Some scientists may scoff at the idea of dumbing down scientific enquiry in order to present it through art, but not Duffy.

‘I’m sure some people may struggle with the [MIAF] performance or question its value, but I think the value of broadening science to be enjoyed by more people, but also by science gaining the insights and comprehension and exploration that art is so powerful at exploring, is in itself its own value,’ he said.

FUTURE DISCOVERIES

While art provides new ways of exploring gravitational waves, their discovery may well lead to entirely new ways of looking at the universe.

‘At its most basic, the gravitational wave discovery confirmed the existence of black holes, which is no mean feat. We can now directly probe the event horizon of black holes – the point at which not even light can escape, and hence is fundamentally locked away, beyond our physics, and yet with gravitational waves we can get an understanding, a sense, and there’s a chance to actually maybe even explore within,’ Duffy enthused.

‘That alone would be enough but even more excitingly is that it has opened up a new window on the universe. It’s been 400 years since we first turned telescopes to examine the universe and look at what we have done [since then]. Our place in this universe has changed in ways that I don’t think anyone could have predicted.

That is what gravitational waves can offer us. Four hundred years from now, we will be exploring the universe with gravitational waves at scales and in ways that are just as unimaginable today as the square kilometer array would have been to Galileo. This is what has happened in our lifetimes, in just these last couple of years. It has been the greatest revolution in astronomy since the telescope, and I suspect the ramifications of this are something that will beyond any of us presently,’ he said.

Proving the existence of gravitational waves also deepens our understanding of the universe and our place it in, Ackley explained.

'I think probably one of the most important aspects would be that it is in itself a test of general relativity, the theory that Einstein had developed and created – it is a perfect test for that, but it also kind of gives a timeline and a history of what makes our universe and our place in it,' she said. 'It answers questions about our own experience with nature, it gives us a more complete history.'

In creating Particle / Wave – which has proven so popular with MIAF audiences that two additional performances have been programmed at the Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks this Saturday – Sometimes and her artistic colleagues have grappled with the question of just how far they can push their creative responses to scientific fact without spinning off into fantasy and science fiction.

‘Some of the writers have spoken to scientists, others have used research – either of other people that I’ve directed them to or I’ve given them research – so in that sense it’s an interpretation and a riffing off of the facts … but mostly, it’s a question of how can you get close to the actual science itself? Because that’s the thing – nothing is as beautiful or poetic as the science itself, and what we’re doing is perhaps like a love letter to gravitational waves,’ Sometimes concluded.

Two additional performances of Particle / Wave at Melbourne International Arts Festival have been programmed for Saturday 20 October. Visit www.festival.melbourne for details.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER, 2018

 

Gravitational waves inspire arts festival show
- COSMOS MAGAZINE, SPRING 2018

Science meets poetry in a creative response to the Nobel Prize-winning detection of gravitational waves. Richard Watts reports.

Romantic poet John Keats was not a fan of science. In Lamia, written in 1819, he expressed grave concerns that rigorous and rational investigation of the physical world would “Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/ Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine … ”

Melbourne poet Alicia Sometimes does not share Keats’ concerns. A writer, poet, and broadcaster, Sometimes has long been enamoured with science and discovery.

“Quantum physics or particle physics, astrophysics or astronomy, looking at the beginning of the universe – that’s my deep fascination,” she says.

Having previously explored the Big Bang and the existence of dark matter in 2009’s Elemental – a multi-media performance which toured India, the UK and the Czech Republic after its Australian premiere – Sometimes has now turned her attention to the existence of gravitational waves, the existence of which was hypothesised by Einstein in 1916 before being discovered in 2015, a feat which would later win its discoverers a Nobel Prize.

“Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time,” Sometimes explains.

“By the time they reach Earth they are minute, making their detection an incredible challenge. It takes large events, like two black holes colliding or a supernova exploding, to be detected … And the great thing about gravitational waves is that it’s the actual space itself that is rippling like fabric, if you can imagine that – which is incredible.”

Sometimes’ passion for science has resulted in a new, immersive, multi-media performance set to debut at this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival in October.

Premiering at Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks in the suburb of Spotswood over three nights, and developed in collaboration with artist and music director Andrew Watson, Particle / Wave will feature the talents of poets, visual artists, sound artists and scientists, including Swinburne University astrophysicist Alan Duffy, and Kendall Ackley, a research fellow at Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

The collision of art and science excites Duffy almost as much as the discovery of gravitational waves themselves.

“The biggest challenge of gravitational waves and the warping of space-time is that it happens at a higher dimension than we can see, and as a result we rely on art to guide our interpretation of the mathematics,” he says.

“It’s clear what Einstein’s equations say in terms of predictions and effects, but how you imagine that – how you explore that – takes the artistic side of our brains, and that’s why I was so excited when Alicia came to me.”

Scientific facilities known as Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO) in two American states detected the first proof of gravitational waves – the faint after-shocks of an ancient collision between two black holes – on 14 September 2015. After careful verification, news of the discovery was announced in February 2016.

Physicists Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss, who helped spearhead the discovery, were subsequently awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics for their shared contribution to science.

Their decades-long search to prove gravitational waves existed was “an extraordinary feat of human ingenuity, engineering, and almost a madness of determination and doggedness,” Duffy says.

“The collision in question essentially converted three times the mass of our sun into pure energy, and it did so in such a tiny amount of time that it was [temporarily] more powerful than all the stars in the visible universe combined ... and, yet, that most powerful of explosions created the smallest change or ripple detected here on Earth that we’ve ever measured.

“This was the equivalent of measuring the width of a hair here [on Earth] from the nearest star.

“That is a small measurement by anyone’s standards,” he laughs, “and that is the paradox of gravitational wave astronomy – it is impossibly subtle in its impacts but what causes it has to be the most extreme events of the universe, just so we even have a chance to detect it. And that conflict, that paradox, I think is beautifully explored in art.”

Proof of the existence of gravitational waves will doubtless have significant ramifications for humanity in the decades and centuries to come, just as the race to land mankind on the moon in the 1960s resulted in a range of scientific advances that are now part of everyday life.

As Ackley explains: “In the process of getting and using the science to detect these waves, a lot of new technology has had to be developed. And in terms of the key core technologies, the LIGO detectors that found this – and the Virgo interferometers that helped find this – are probably the most sensitive instruments ever built by humans.”

The ultimate benefits of such technology for humankind are not yet known, but Duffy is certainly prepared to speculate.

“At its most basic, the gravitational wave discovery confirmed the existence of black holes, which is no mean feat,” he says.

“We can now directly probe the event horizon of black holes – the point at which not even light can escape, and hence is fundamentally locked away, beyond our physics – and even, maybe, actually explore within.”

In the 400 years since Hans Lippershey invented the telescope, our view of the universe has changed profoundly. The existence of gravitational waves will only accelerate such changes, Duffy believes.

“Four hundred years from now, we will be exploring the universe with gravitational waves at scales and in ways that are just as unimaginable today as the Square Kilometre Array would have been to Galileo,” he muses.

“This is what has happened in our lifetimes, in just these last couple of years. It has been the greatest revolution in astronomy since the telescope, and I suspect the ramifications of this are something that will be beyond any of us presently.”

Thankfully, we have art – and poetry – to help us visualise what the discovery of gravitational waves will mean for humanity, now and in the years to come.

Sometimes says: “In other shows I’ve done, I’ve been quite esoteric and maybe the stories can seem too … fanciful.

“This time, though, while what we’re doing is perhaps like a love letter to gravitational waves, my poetry has actually stuck more to the truth. Because nothing is as beautiful or poetic as the science itself.”

This article appeared in Cosmos 80 - Spring 2018 under the headline "Gravitational waves of emotion"