Life is Space

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!

15 Responses to “Life is Space”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    If people want to do modern art and art/science interface projects at their own expense then my best wishes to them. I think it not should be taxpayer-funded though.

    I believe the ‘showers’ explanation. It is an one-word summary of the sort of highly changeable, high-kinetic-energy weather which can arise in summer associated with microburst – a phenomenon that can slam a low (eg, near-landing) aeroplane to the ground yet be too small in scale to be detectable by weather radar.

    • telescoper Says:

      To assuage your concerns, this event, including travel and accommodation for guests like me, was entirely funded by private and corporate sponsors of which Olafur appears to have no shortage…

      I understand what you’re saying about the weather, but I’m suspicious that the real reason for our delay was in fact a warehouse fire near the airport

      although I’m not sure why they didn’t tell us that.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      This is a reply/question to Anton, rather than a comment on Peter’s posting. Why don’t you think taxpayers should fund art-science interface projects? I know that sometimes they can be a bit pretentious and up themselves, but often they are tremendously valuable and a great way to get science to audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with science. Such projects are especially important in schools, where the science underlying otherwise difficult concepts can be explored in different environments. Art-sci interface projects are also usually a lot of fun to be involved in.
      Peter- your Berlin trip sounds like it was fun. I saw the weather project when it was in the turbine hall, and was mightily impressed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Monica: There is an increasingly cavalier attitude to taxpayers’ money, but high taxes hit the working poor hardest. Using tax revenue to fund people who are probably not badly off simply to have fun is not my idea of fair. If you want to use tax revenue to fund science, use it to fund science, not science/art interface projects.

      I have a low opinion of these interface projects but that’s not the point. Anybody who wishes to should be free to do them out of their own revenue. But not out of taxpayers’ revenue.


      • telescoper Says:

        I try my best to be miserable whenever I’m at scientific meetings, but I sometimes fail.

      • “high taxes hit the working poor hardest”

        Well, yes, if the working poor are taxed high. However, whether high taxes in general hurt the working poor too much obviously depends on the tax system. There are certainly countries which have “high taxes” in general but where one doesn’t pay any income tax at all if one earns less than a certain amount. (Yes, the poor pay sales tax, but in most countries sales tax for non-essential items is at a reduced rate or even non-existent.)

      • Monica Grady Says:

        I meant the projects were fun for the students…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: If you draw a poverty line, ANY tax system will always cause some working people to fall below it. That is not an argument for zero taxation. But it is an argument for thinking very hard indeed about tax rather than adopting a cavalier it’s-easy-to-fix approach or using it as bribery as Labour did here (ie, get as many people working for the State as possible coz they all vote Labour then, even if their jobs are useless).

  2. […] thought I’d reblog this as it relates to the pronouncements about the LHC by Otto Rössler I mentioned yesterday. As I predicted nearly two-and-a-half years ago, it looks like the Earth will survive the most […]

  3. I can’t make sense of Eliasson’s output.

    Eliasson would take the phrase “making sense” and say something affirmative about being a coproducer of sensations.

    I don’t know.

    When i see his works and listen to his thoughts, I think there is “something there” – something worthwhile. But i also think there is an element of fabulation.

    He consistently preempts that accusation:

    I’m a very cynical person.

    I think Eliasson’s success has something to do with being deeply un-cynical.

    Did they film your gedanken about horizons? I’d love to hear them.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I think they filmed everything, but I’m not sure what they plan to do with the footage….

  5. I don’t know how dangerous the Collider is but I do know if dangerous it could take a hundred, thousand, million or more years to do so. To claim that since we are still here Otto is ridiculous is pure ignorance. Otto may be exaggerating the speed of the danger but you and others like your cushy research jobs more than a danger more likely after you are dead.

  6. Otto E. Rossler Says:

    Dear Richard:
    The fact that no scientist contradicts my Telemach theorem is the real scandal. The wiki page suppresses this fact when quoting Professor Nicolai with a by 4 years outdated comment (on my previous, much more complicated gothic-R theorem). That dissensus got resolved in my opinion in a face-to-face discussion in early 2009, but is so much harder to follow that for this reason, Telemach was born so everyone could understand the new point. The non-quotation of this decisive undisproved safety-relevant theorem has the effect of misleading the reader – which no doubt was unintentional on the part of the wiki authors but is very sad as a fact in its own right (I feel).
    Thank you for correctly saying in your other post that instead of 5 years, the CERN-induced Armageddon can also take longer. However – since black-hole growth is an exponential process – only small prolongation factors (up to about ten) can be expected – not the very much longer time course that CERN is projecting in its never updated single (“LSAG”) safety report of 2008.
    Take care,

    • Could you please perhaps post the journal or arXiv reference of this “Telemach theorem”? I assume that if it’s so important it will be published in an accredited scientific journal somewhere.

      • My guess that Black Hole growth is four times not experiential. Since we are dealing with what relatively speaking an ant eating its way to be a solid lead ball from the earth to the sun that could still take a while even if time slowing and six other factors kicks in.

        When it comes to four times it is like playing three dimensional chess. With two dimensional chess we have the ancient astrologer being granted a wish by the king and seemingly humbly asking for a grain of rice doubled for each square of a chess board. Enough rice to fill a bin comparable to if Mt. Everest if the mountain was a cylinder silo. I wish I could get people to comment on my blog instead of just inducing them to comment of other blogs.

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