Grav­i­ta­tional waves of emo­tion

Cosmos - - Spectrum - RICHARD WATTS is a Mel­bourne-based arts writer and broad­caster.

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 space­time,” 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

“What we’re do­ing is per­haps like a love let­ter to grav­i­ta­tional waves … be­cause noth­ing is as beau­ti­ful or poetic as the science it­self.”

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 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.”

IMAGES 01- 03 Ca­te­rina Fiz­zano

| Alicia Some­times

03 | A scene from the mul­ti­me­dia pro­duc­tion, Par­ti­cle/wave.

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