October 30, 2003

The First Stars

Stars play a fundamental role in origin of the elements of the universe. The atoms in the universe can be organized into a table, known as the periodic table of the elements. Each element has its own type of atom, built up of neutrons, protons and electrons. The more neutrons and protons an atom has, the heavier it is. Some atoms are very stable and long lived. Others, like uranium, decay very rapidly. The periodic table lists all the atoms in order of increasing weight, starting with the lightest element, hydrogen and ending up with some remarkably heavy elements that have been synthesized in the laboratory. Each element can be identified by the number of protons and neutrons it contains in its nucleus. For example, hydrogen only contains one proton and no neutrons. The next element is helium which has two protons and two neutrons. Carbon has six protons and six neutrons while oxygen has eight protons and eight neutrons. A very stable element is iron which has twenty six protons and thirty neutrons. The lightest two elements are synthesized in the first three minutes of the life of the universe. At that time, the universe was very dense and had a temperature of about a billion degrees Kelvin. Individual protons, which are nothing more than the nuclei of hydrogen, came together with neutrons to form the nuclei of helium atoms. Things happened far too quickly for any of the heavier elements to form.

The heavier elements of the periodic table were formed when the universe was already hundreds of millions years old. At this time the universe had cooled sufficiently for clouds of hydrogen and helium to start collapsing under their own gravitational pull. Gravity is attractive and the bigger, or more dense an object is, the stronger the pull. As these clouds collapsed, they became denser and hotter. Sufficiently big clouds collapsed with enough force that they compressed the cores at their centres. In these cores, the hydrogen atoms would be pushed together with such strength that they would fuse into helium atoms, releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the process. It is through this process of hydrogen burning that the stars that we see shine. As time goes by, most of the hydrogen burns out and, if the star is sufficiently heavy, the helium inside the stars continues to burn to form carbon, oxygen and even heavier elements. Gradually the cores of these stars accumulate a stockpile of heavy elements. This soup of atomic nuclei is ejected when, at the end of its life, these massive stars die in a supernova, a massive explosion that rips it apart and can emit as much energy as a whole galaxy. The heavy elements are then distributed throughout the interstellar medium to be reprocessed by other stars or even land on planets such as ours.

Posted by Pedro Ferreira at 11:30 PM | Comments (1)

Blackhole tone

Went to see GB. Before he got to show me some of his simulations he told me about modes of vibration in stars. Caused by fluctuations in the equilibrium between gravity pulling inwards and pressure pulling outwards they vibrate in different planes - modes. So they must make a sound. Whether one can hear it or not is another matter. So there's something to follow up, helio seismology, study of pulsations of the sun. He explained how the black hole made a sound. I'd been wondering how you could have sound in a vacuum but of course it's not. The black hole is in the centre of  the Perseus cluster, a vast cloud of hot hot gas (density, a few 100 atoms per cubic meter, ie not very dense). Hit the cluster and it will "ring". The black hole does the hitting by spewing out plumes of gas. We worked out that the length of time for one cycle of the low low B flat is around 20 million years !

Watched some beautiful simulations - birth of a star in the early universe - clouds of  hydgoren and helium in which the denser areas exert a gravitational pull and gather more gas until they start to collapse into each other forming bigger and bigger clumps until a star is born. In the simulation the new born star looked very fragile and waif like.

Looked at some other simulations of clusters.

KC talked to me about theology and astrophysics and then about pulsars. I never realised how small they were, that you could fit one within the ring road of Oxford. A super dense spinning ball of iron humming above the spires. I'm wondering whether it's possible to make one. Is it the density or just the magnetised spinning iron bit thats crucial ?

Posted by Jem Finer at 10:44 PM

October 23, 2003

B flat

I'd just finished reading a Scientific American special edition called "The Once and Future Cosmos" I wanted to try and get an overview of what people actually researched in the department and how it interelated. Now on the train I was thinking that it would be good to try and make a map of it all, fit it all together in a diagram. That way I could check I had my facts right. So that was one thing to do. There were a few things I had broadly sketched out in my head that I wanted to see if I could work with. Extra spatial dimensions was one,always good for twisting my head in knots. Another was to see how various bits of data could be visualised using sound. And of course to find out what sounds there are out in the cosmos.

I typed astrophysics +sound into google and immediately found the url of a report about an x ray telescope detecting sound waves emanating from a black hole. B flat, 57 octaves below middle C. Spent a bit of time on my map and went to see who I could talk too. I thought that the last thing people would want is to be disturbed in the middle of their work but Pedro was quite insistent this is what I should do. Thought I'd start off by trying GB who people had said made simulations. So I went to see him and we arranged to meet the following week.

Met some people at tea time in the afternoon who work with Pedro on Cosmic Microwave Background. We talked a bit about my wanting to try and use data to create sound. In the likley event of different possible topologies of the universe sounding rubbish AL had the wonderful idea of reverse engineering topologies from beautiful sounds.

Posted by Jem Finer at 10:48 PM

October 8, 2003

1st day at school

This day really was like going back to become the member of an academic institution. I attended a safety lecture in which I learnt about the colours of fire extinguishers and how the EU had screwed up the colour coding. I went around to Janna's place to visit her and her husband, W, and their baby, G. I ate most of their pizza and then went back to the department with Janna where I had my photo taken and a bit later went to an introduction to the department lecture for new students and members of the department.

Some time inbetween I looked at images proposed for the walls of the new bit of the department where I will have my desk. I felt a bit bogus being given responsibility for choosing the images they have to live with. I mean just because I'm called artist in residence doesn't mean I have to foist my taste on everyone.

Then a little drinks affair to socialise and meet people. Everyone was very welcoming which is nice. The thing is they never asked to have an artist in residence, to have someone come knocking on their doors asking inane questions about cosmology. Some people ask me what I'm going to do and I have to try and explain that while I can't give them a specific answer I have an idea as to how to proceed towards the point at which I can.

Posted by Jem Finer at 10:52 PM

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 11:15 PM

. . . in the beginning . . .

Sometime in early 2003 I wrote to my friend, Janna Levin, and asked her if she might have any idea how I might become artist in residence in an Astrophysics department. Janna is an Astrophysicist so she seemed like a good person to ask. She was very positive and said she'd see what she could think of.

A bit of time passed by and then one day she got in touch and said that a colleague of hers in Oxford, Pedro Ferreira, was interested.

So I went to visit Pedro and that's how it all started. We talked about the details of the residency, met a few times and agreed that I should start at the beginning of the 2003 - 2004 academic year and work until the end of the 2005 academic year. At that point the idea is to have some kind of public exhibition. The department very generously offered me space, use of a computer, and welcomed me into their midst but couldn't fund me directly so I made a couple of grant applications of which one to ACE and one to the Gulbenkian Foundation have been accepted. With theirs and the departments support I started on the 8th October, the first day of term.

Posted by Jem Finer at 10:56 PM