Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Universe Chandelier

An article on the sculpture "The End of Modernity" (an awful title) appeared this past Sunday in the New York Times art section. The sculpture, currently on display in New York City the Andrea Rosen Gallery in Chelsea (no clue where that is), is basically a sculpture of the universe. The article tells the story better than I can, but basically, the artist, Josiah McElheny, was in residence at Ohio State, and decided he wanted to make a scientifically sound sculpture of the Big Bang. So he called up our resident cosmologist, David Weinberg, and once David realized that this guy was serious, they began to design the thing.

The astronomy department took a bit of a field trip over to the Wexner Center sometime during winter quarter when the sculpture was still on display there. David and Josiah were both there to explain and discuss it. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing. I'm not usually one for art; I often find myself wanting to feel something, but simply not being as affected as I'd like to be. Then there are the times when I feel as if the artist is trying to hard to add meaning that just isn't there; they know I should be strongly affected by good art, but they just can't get me there. They're trying too hard. Anyhow, I was highly impressed with Josiah. At a first impression, he's a stereotypical artist in many ways; he's short, speaks with a bit of a high-pitched voice, and kind of "off" as compared to normal people. Whereby normal people, I mean, astronomers, which isn't a fair comparison at all. But he had actually learned a great deal of cosmology, actually poured himself into this project, and was quite clearly deeply passionate about art and beauty and, most importantly, trying to leave an impression on people through art. I respect that, and, somehow, having respect for the artist helped me love the sculpture even more.

The sculpture itself is more representative of the Universe than of the Big Bang. Structurally, it's based on chandeliers from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Made entirely of aluminum and blown glass, the central aluminum sphere hangs from the ceiling at about 5 feet above the floor (approximately my eye level). This sphere represents the "surface of last scattering," or the time at which atoms first formed in the universe and light wasn't banging into charged particles left and right anymore, and so could stream freely throughout the universe for the first time. When you hear people talking about the cosmic microwave background, it is the light that has been going along its merry way until hitting our detectors that they are talking about. Basically, it's as far back as we can see in the universe, because before then, the universe was opaque. So that's the sphere in the middle. Distance from the center of the sculpture represents time; the further out from the center, the later the time. The lightbulbs represent quasars (incredibly bright found at the centers of some galaxies), and the glass pieces represent galaxies. The glass pieces come in groups at the end of the sticks, accurately representing the clustering of galaxies at different points in time. There are two shapes of glass pieces: the disks represent spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) and the spheres represent elliptical galaxies. One of the really cool parts of this sculpture is that the number and clustering of lightbulbs (quasars) and glass pieces (galaxies) at different redshifts (distances from the center) is based on science. It's not just some guy saying, hey, it'd look nice like this, but rather, David's code saying, hey, you should put the pieces on like this. It became a difficult, and interesting, problem when the fact that this thing has to hang from the ceiling without falling over. Very cool indeed. Orginally, it was going to be made out of chrome (Josiah knew of some guys who like to make big sculptures out of chrome and glass---go figure), but, uhm, chrome is kind of heavy. The other fun part is the fact that you've got all these clusters of galaxies (okay, bits of glass) coming off of all of these rods, and you need to position them in such a way that they don't touch each other.

Personally, as art, I was fairly affected by this sculpture. It's huge. It's hanging in a room with plain white walls---there it is---the entire universe. That's the thing I want to understand, to know. One of the unexpected side effects of having all of the metallic parts be shiny aluminum is that you can see your reflection in it. And the central sphere? It curves away from you, so your reflection looks terribly small and far away. And insignificant. I liked sitting on the floor ten feet away from the sculpture, staring at all the bits, and my little reflections, until I felt as if I needed to scream or else I'd fall off the earth. Now that's being affected by art.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Fun With Science

Today during AGN lunch, we got onto the frequently hackneyed topic of NASA and the NSF and how to actually be able to do real science when the administration (and thus the goals of this, that, and the other) changes frequently. For example, astronomers can be relied on to actually come up with viable science projects to do on the moon should that particular mission come to fruition. This kind of reliability makes NASA like astronomers. Biologists can't be relied on like this, it seems. When the space station became a big deal, astronomers realized, hey, we can try to capture a few cosmic rays, but other than that, there just isn't much science we can do, so we're not going to waste your time. So the poor astronauts are stuck with these awful biology "experiments." Like the one with the hamsters. Let's make space suits for hamsters and see how they respond to microgravity, or something. The thing is, no one managed to remember (or realize) that hamsters pee like once every four mintues. All of the hamsters drowned in their own urine in less than one orbit.

Fast forward to cosmology class. Today we learned about the first 10-11 seconds of the universe, and, specifically, we touched on the expected phase transition at that time. Woohoo! Such a discussion naturally leads to that of particle accelerators. In particular, there's the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which was the first collider to reach energies at these kinds of scales. Apparently, before it was first turned on, there was a question as to if this collider would cause some phase transition in the present-day universe, thereby, uhm, destroying the known universe. "This would have a negative environmental impact." But, hey, if we accidentally destroy the universe, who's ever going to know, right?