Archive for June 18, 2011

Life is Space

Posted in Art with tags , , , on June 18, 2011 by telescoper

I just got back home from Berlin, an hour later than I’d hoped owing to having spent an unenjoyable hour circling in a holding pattern east of London waiting for Air Traffic Control to give us clearance to land at Heathrow. The reason for the delay remains mysterious. “Showers” was what we were told, but since when was a plane prevented from landing by showers? And when we landed the airport taxiways and apron were dry anyway. Very strange.  Still, the trip had been such fun that even this less than ideal ending didn’t cast much of a shadow over it.

I spent yesterday at the studio of renowned artist Olafur Eliasson who is probably best known for his installation The Weather Project which appeared in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003/4. If you want to get an idea of why it made such an impact, take a look at this short clip

That work made him one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, but he has of course done many other things besides.

About two years ago, Olafur invited me to his (then) new Institut für Raumexperimente, which is situated in the same converted brewery as his own studio, to talk to his students about my work on cosmology. I had a great time then so when I received an invitation to take part in another event at the studio, I gleefully accepted.

This event was in a series of extremely informal workshops called Life is Space. In fact this was the fourth; you can get an idea of the previous one here. The day revolved around a series of “experiments” involving all kinds of sensations and phenomena – sound, movement, laughter, even tickling – involving contributors and audience to a greater or lesser degree. Among the guests were scientists, artists, architects, musicians, poets, dancers – all sorts of creative people, really. Including the people working in Olafur’s studio and the guests the total number of participants was about 150, so it was a large event.

The day wasn’t really planned or rehearsed but (or perhaps because of this) was fascinating and, for me, quite inspirational. It was certainly a very different experience to the usual science conference.

I knew I was going to enjoy the day right from the start, because it opened with a reading of a poem by John Keats  which I think I’ll post on here in due course..

Lacking the ability to present any “real” experiments of my own I decided to talk about various thought (or, as they say in Germany, gedanken) experiments to illustrate the idea of a horizon in cosmology, but also managed to weave in a few other ideas that had been suggested by previous contributions. I wasn’t consciously trying to construct a narrative for a day which had been deliberately designed not to have one, but it seemed to turn out that way because I was on relatively  late in the day and I found lots of connections with earlier experiments sprang into my mind. Just as well because I hadn’t prepared anything!

In between the experiments there was a lot of time for informal discussion, all of it hugely stimulating, and we were given a splendid lunch and dinner at which the conversation and wine flowed freely. The participants were not only extremely knowledgeable about science but also very keen to learn more – I’ve got an inbox full of requests for information about various things I mentioned, which will take me some time to reply to.

The only disappointing part of the day for me was the contribution of Otto Rössler right at the end. This chap is a biochemist who achieved a certain amount of notoriety in 2009 for his claim that when it was switched on the Large Hadron Collider would create black holes that would destroy the Earth. He still thinks so, apparently, despite the evidence that it hasn’t. I was very embarrassed by his diatribe yesterday because it betrayed a staggering lack of understanding of basic physics but at the same time was delivered with an air of absolute confidence that he is right and everyone else is wrong.  He gave a description of the properties of a black hole that a 1st year physics student would be ashamed of and at which I almost laughed out loud. It also turns out he believes that the cosmic microwave background was discovered in the 19th century (which it wasn’t) and that  the Big Bang theory is wrong and that anyone who believes in it  has been brainwashed.

I was getting a bit hot under the collar as his incoherent monologue meandered on. I thought of interjecting, but didn’t want to end the day with acrimony and in any case I thought it was self-evident that he didn’t know what he was talking about. When proceedings drew to a close and we went outside for pre-dinner drinks, it became clear that most of the non-science participants had pretty much the same opinion as me. “Is that guy a fucking crank or what?”, one participant asked me. “Yes” was all I could say.

I wonder if  Prof.  Rössler had been invited to provide comedy value?

Anyway I finally staggered back to the Hotel about midnight, tipsy, but at the same time invigorated. I wish science conferences were as much fun as this!