October 8, 2004

Curiosity on a Cosmic Scale

Full text of an article I wrote, published in todays Guardian :

Black holes, extra-spatial dimensions, quantum gravity, string theory, dark
energy, the nature of time … for the curious there’s a lot to ponder.

Once, the universe seemed small. Stargazers believed that climbing a tower
brought them closer to the heavens. Now, one could take a rocket ship to
the edges of the Solar System and still not have even started to inch into
the expanse of the cosmos. The universe has expanded, not only in a true
physical sense, but in the conception we hold of its dimensions. From
a space smaller than the solar system, as the extent of the universe was
visualized in the 16th century, it’s now known to stretch for billions of
light years, contains billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of
billions of stars. There are photographs to prove it, Hubble pinups, beamed
down to earth.

Popular science expands apace with the universe. From the generic blue
covers of the 1950’s Pelican and the dawn of the atomic age, the
communication of scientific ideas to the general public, has become ever
more sophisticated. Literary forms, graphics, design, documentaries
employing state of the art simulations, all capitalize on the interest
stimulated by iconic images from space, and by the spectacular weirdness of
developments in cosmology and theoretical physics.

Since the early 20th century, scientific theories of the nature of reality
have begun to diverge drastically from human experience. The theories of
relativity and quantum mechanics, extremes of scale, tell us respectively
that time is not absolute, space stretches and warps, and that at the
sub-atomic level not only can there be no certainty as to a particles
position and velocity, but that a particle can be in more than one place at
the same time. Too big to be subject to the bizarre world of quantum
mechanics, far too slow moving to experience the effects of relativity, at
a human scale neither of these properties of reality appear to affect us.
Contrary to our experience, they’re hard to visualize, to comprehend.

Perhaps this explains the upsurge of interest in “sciart”, collaborations
between scientists and artists, formalized by the emergence of several
organizations whose aim is to promote such exchanges. I’ve worked
within this context for the last decade. Composing a thousand year long
piece of music or working in zero gravity, the question “where does the
science end and the art start?”, has never arisen, the two always appearing
to be seamlessly entwined. Yet, while the term “sciart" aspires to
encapsulate its cross-disciplinary practice, it is misleading, implying
that science and art are in some way opposites, hermetically sealed, isolated categories in a classification of disciplines. It bares the stamp of ad speak, an upbeat spin co-opted in the repackaging of what is in fact an old alliance.

Culture defines both the place — and conception — of art and science within
society. It seems clear that what is considered to be “art" on the one
hand, and “science" on the other enjoys a symbiosis at a more subtle and
fundamental level than suggested by the word “sciart". A cubist painting
could be termed sciart, for its exploration of spatial and temporal
dimensions (a challenge to Renaissance pictorial space, itself a product of
science), as much as could a contemporary collaboration between a
theoretical physicist and a composer to create a sonification of colliding

While their ultimate aims may differ — science seeking a clear answer,
reproducible and verifiable under experimental conditions, art working
toward the unexpected — their starting points and working methods have much
in common. Both science and art observe, ask questions, form hypotheses,
conduct experiments. Serendipity is not the unique preserve of art, playing
its part in scientific enquiry too. Observational cosmologists build
progressively more powerful telescopes, not to look for something which
they theorize exists, but to see what lies out there, on the edges of space
and time, unknown and unexpected. Curiosity on a cosmic scale.

A glance at the shelves of new popular science books will reveal “Mauve",
the story of a chemist, William Perkins, who while attempting the synthesis
of quinine from coal tar in the mid-19th century, derived aniline purple,
the first synthetic organic dye. The colour mauve became highly
fashionable, made Perkins a fortune, spawned the synthetic chemical
industry and started a chain of events that led to rocket science. Round
the corner in the fiction section this serendipitous discovery and its
progeny appear woven into Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow", a seminal
meeting of art, philosophy, myth and science manifesting itself as

For the last year I’ve been working as “artist in residence" in an
astrophysics department. Again words create confusion. What am I? I’ve a
degree in Computer Science (paradoxically a BA, a Bachelor of Arts), I’m a
musician and I work as an artist, in the expanded post-sixties sense of the
word. Were it necessary to appear in the life room with palette and canvas
I wouldn’t get a look in. I arrived in the department through the help of
Janna Levin, author of “How the Universe Got its Spots", a book exploring
the possible topology of a finite universe. Written as a diary, it mixes
the personal with science, drawing connections between the two and
reflecting her path through philosophy, mathematics and painting to
cosmology, a natural continuum, rather than a series of leaps from one box
into another.

In cosmology, many of my interests meet. My concern is not so much
observing the cosmologists observing the universe, more in understanding
their areas of inquiry. I’m interested in the questions they ask, I’m
curious to discover the answers, how things work, why they happen. The
point of divergence is that I’m not trying to formulate deep physical laws,
I’m taking this comprehension — or lack of comprehension — as a starting
point: to discover connections, to make tangible, in some way, ideas
contrary to my experience, to experiment, to question and finally, to make
something (a film, an installation, a piece of music) which communicates
the results of this process.

What is the exchange here? It’s easy to see what an artist can gain from
working in such an environment, but what can the scientists get from art,
how does art, if in any way, impact on their practice? My astrophysics
colleagues say that art assumes an importance through enabling the
scientist to think about what he or she does within a wider context.
Creative thought, an unquantifiable process if there ever was one, is as
necessary for a scientist as for an artist.

Physics seeks to understand the laws of nature, the physical structure of
reality, not human experience. In the gap between the two exists a vacuum,
fueling curiosity and imagination, where strange alliances form to
communicate from the interface between our experience as physical, sentient
beings and theories of reality beyond our conception.

As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the
mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom
this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand
rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

Posted by Jem Finer at October 8, 2004 3:45 PM

I have worked with neil before. we put a 8.5m geodesic sphere on top of a water tower in Oman.

We are presently working on a 30m high "sculpture" tower in Straford East London, due to be built in feb/march 05

we would love to build your superb tower.

Adrian B tel 07799 036 161

Posted by: adrian at December 16, 2004 4:01 PM