October 1, 2003

. . . before the beginning . . .


It all started when my good friend Janna Levin asked me if I would be interested in hosting an artist in my department. It is an interesting idea but before I accepted, I needed to think through what it would all be about. My field of expertise is cosmology, the science that studies the origin and evolution of the universe. In the past twenty years, it has evolved from a highly speculative intellectual exercise into an area of research which is strongly based on observations. We now know (or think we know) much more about how the universe is built and what it is doing. I would say that this is primarily due to the vast improvements in the observational techniques and facilities. We now have satellites and enormous telescopes that can map out the sky with unprecedented precision. The pictures and films that we make of the cosmos can be analysed on massive computers. And with the development of technology, we will only do better.

But even though cosmology is becoming a hard science, it still seems to be a magnet for cranks. The grandiosity of the aims, the speculative nature of the ideas and, lets face it, the appeal of the language that cosmology uses seems to catalyse a lot of ill thought conjectures among non scientists (and even some scientists). And there is a compulsion to make practicing cosmologists pay attention. I regularly receive emails which have the answer to everything, from the origin of time to the structure of the earth or even the foundations of consciousness. The arguments presented are usually based on numerology, misinterpretation of fundamental concepts and some mysticism. We learn to ignore these missives because they would take up too much time to answer and it stop us from getting on with our work. So of course, my first worry, when the possibility of having an artist in residence arose, was that we would end up having a resident crank. Someone who would be able to freely walk into our offices and waste our time with half baked ideas. Furthermore, if I was to convince my department to have a non-scientist in our midst, it would have to be clear in my mind what the benefit would be for all.

The interplay between art and science has taken on a life of its own in the past ten years. When I lived in England, in the early nineties, a few organizations were trying to connect artists of all sorts to some active scientists to see what would come out of it. In 1994 I took part in such an experiment, organized through the Arts Catalyst, with a bunch of performance artists under the name of Louder than Words. It was interesting exercise which played itself out over a week. I spent the first day talking to the artists about my work and interests. I was already working on cosmology at the time but also had interests in more speculative fields such as the nature of space and time. It was a wonderful and exhausting experience in which I was ruthlessly questioned and quizzed about my research and I really had to make an effort to explain it in an understandable but truthful way. I mention truthful because I find that, when one sometimes is trying to explain a difficult concept, one sometimes has to resort to simplifying analogies. And the use of analogies is fundamental in what we do but can sometimes distort the picture so much that the person, who is hearing it may understanding something completely different to what the analogy is being used to explain. I felt that I was careful enough during the meeting with the performance artists to make them understand what I was doing. During the rest of the week they developed a series of pieces based on what they had heard. And on the Saturday, they performed them in front of an audience at the Jackson’s lane theatre in North London. The pieces were wonderful. They had incorporated so many different concepts in very clever ways. For example, they had a piece on the disintegration of a relationship which was based on the time contraction and dilation. The women would leave the house and come back after, what to her was five minutes, but to the man was two days. He was beside himself while she didn’t understand what the problem was. Simple, but effective. It was a good example of ideas in science inspiring interesting art. So I was positively inclined to experiences such as these. I really loved the work by Keith Tyson who won the Turner prize in 2002.

After that experience I left England for about five years and when I came back, Janna had become an important figure in the Sci-Art community. She is a talented scientist who has always cultivated an interest in the arts. She is knowledgeable about art, knows how to draw and paint and has been able to take part in the interface between science and art with complete integrity. I mean by this that she does not let people get away with simple-minded misinterpretations of scientific concepts nor is she dismissive of the use of basic ideas which are put to good use. Her participation in the movement has given me some hope that interesting art may come out of it. So when Jem Finer finally got in touch with me, Janna had already done most of the work in convincing me to take him on. I trusted her judgement.


Jem came to Oxford for lunch and we hit it off immediately. He told me about the various projects on which he had worked and I was impressed. Longplayer is a serious piece of work with many interesting conceptual ramifications. I heard a bit of it and found it surprising that he could keep a piece of music going with so much variety. It’s the kind of thing that sets me thinking about algorithms and systems that are periodic but with a very long period. Indeed one of the ingredients in many computer simulations is what is known as a random number generator. The idea is to generate a sequence of random numbers, i.e. numbers which are impossible to predict from one moment to the next. This is can be done using some algorithms which generate sequences of numbers which don’t repeat themselves for a very long time. There are a number of standard techniques which lead to very random series of numbers. But funnily enough I don’t think these methods would work for Jem. He came up with a much more ingenious way of generating a continuous, varied piece of music which could last for a thousand years.

It became clear that Jem wanted to come and spend time at the astrophysics department to learn what was going on. He had not preconceived ideas of what he wanted to do and simply wanted to understand the kind of things we work on. The art would follow from that. This was important because it meant he wasn’t coming to spend time with us with an agenda. For example he could have had a theory that he wanted to push. Then we would have been in trouble. But he doesn’t, he simply wanted to learn and see where that would take him.

One issue that came up was funding. Jem wanted to spend at least a day a week at the department and this would involve spending money on travel, subsistence and most probably materials. I have a fair bit of experience with funding in science. All research institutions must constantly apply for funding to keep the show on the road. The kind of activity I am involved in primarily uses computers but most importantly needs young minds to pursue the important questions. An appreciable fraction of my time is therefore spent applying for grants to fund postdoctoral researchers. There are a number of sources for this starting off with the Particle Physics and Astrophysics Research Council (PPARC), the Royal Society (of which I currently holds a University Research Fellowship) both in the UK as well as European funding agencies or even private foundations. For example over the past four years we have received generous support from the Leverhulme foundation to fund three five year positions to study dark matter. It’s a game we have to play, and part of our job is learning how to do it.

Of course, funding in the Arts is probably altogether different and I had no idea what to do. We searched for different organizations which might be interested in giving Jem money. The Royal Society and PPARC have small programs that might have been useful but we decided to apply to the Arts Council because of their declared interest in funding residencies. Jem would be undertaking quite a unique form of residency and so it fit the bill and. The Astrophysics department would supply a range of facilities that Jem would be free to use, from computers, to libraries but most importantly people. The group has grown and diversified substantially over the past four years and currently has an unbeatable range of expertise and knowledge into which Jem could tap. We felt we had a lot to offer and luckily so did the Arts Council and Gulbenkian foundation who decided to fund Jem for the duration of his residency


Astrophysics at Oxford has undergone a major expansion over the past five years with the arrival of two new Professors, Joe Silk and Roger Davies, a number of new lecturers and long term researchers and a host of new postdocs. We have physically expanded into new spaces in the building, including the newly created Beecroft Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (BIPAC) which brings together not only people from Astrophysics but also Particle Physics and Theoretical Physics. Given this tremendous growth, space is tight and we had to have Jem’s residency approved in a staff meeting. It was possible that some of my colleagues might object to the use of resources for activities which weren’t strictly scientific. I think we are all very aware of the importance of linking with what we sometimes call “the outside world” and are all committed to the public understanding of science. But it wasn’t obvious to me that this would be seen as a valid way of doing things as opposed to, for example, giving public lectures to educate the public. Jem and I put together a one page proposal and I circulated it in the Astrophysics group. It was discussed at a staff meeting in the Spring of 2003 and the reactions was very positive. Some of my colleagues asked me what Jem would actually be doing. Would he be painting portraits of the members, or creating artwork to hang around the department? Would his work be allegorical with astrophysical motifs? The vagueness of it made some of them wonder it was all about. But the general feeling was that it was a good thing, that it would also benefit the department to have an artist around to talk to. And ultimately it would be exciting to have a rock star in our midst! It was decided that Jem would take up one of the desks at BIPAC and would have access to all the facilities that any other postdoctoral fellow has in our group. And with that, all the pieces were in place.

Posted by Pedro Ferreira at October 1, 2003 11:15 PM