Gravitational waves inspire arts festival show

Science meets poetry in a creative response to the Nobel Prize-winning detection of gravitational waves. Richard Watts reports.

Andrew Watson

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 space-time,” Sometimes explains.

Alicia Sometimes.

Alicia Sometimes.

Caterina Fizzano

“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 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.”

A scene from the multimedia production, Particle/Wave.

A scene from the multimedia production, Particle/Wave.

Andrew Watson
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 be 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.”

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