Many years ago, when I was watching my children attending their Karate lessons, and doodling patterns on my sketchbook, another parent who sat next to me saw my drawings and asked me if I had heard of Penrose Tiling. He told me that I should check them out as I might find them interesting. And I did and was floored. Not only was I amazed at the beauty of these patterns and the possibilities but also by Roger Penrose’s many achievements, and I started listening to his talks online. Though most parts of his talks were beyond my understanding, I enjoyed doodling based on what I did understand. His transparencies with drawings of black holes were wonderful and gave me a better understanding of these mysterious objects. I had always wondered if scientists ever came up with scientific ideas inspired by art and it was nice to find out that Penrose was inspired by MC Escher’s work and that he thought visually. Recently as I was working on a project that involved Penrose diagrams, I revisited his tiling patterns and was inspired to try out some of my own patterns. So, it was a pleasant surprise to hear about the Nobel Prize announcement being awarded to Sir Roger Penrose and the two other scientists for their work on black holes.
Naturally, Leilhae and my conversation began with a chat about the announcement, sharing our thoughts on it and discussing Penrose’s contributions. As we talked about his work on black holes, Leilhae explained about the different kinds of black holes - static and spinning types. She described the shape of the gravitational waves and how scientists try to locate the position of a black hole collision when an event is observed. We also talked about Leilhae’s artwork in which she has attempted to capture the story of the birth of her son from the time of the Big Bang, which captures our origins very beautifully.
As I was speculating about the circularity of trajectories two weeks ago, the recent news made me wonder about squaring the circle. This week, the Royal academy of a nordic European country decided to offer its most prestigious prize to Roger Penrose, a living legend of Physics and Mathematics. He has been rewarded for his work in black holes, notably proving that stellar collapse, a phenomenon that regularly occurs in the Universe, could lead to the singularities already observed in General Relativity. Penrose, very like Einstein, is a geometer: his work is not only illustrated by diagrams, but visualization seems to be a tool integrating his research process even in its development. Similarly to Feynman diagrams being commonly used by particle physicists, gravitational physicists regularly use Penrose-Carter diagrams to visual causality in spacetime. As those diagrams summarize four dimensions into two, assuming a spherical geometry, the horizontal axis represents traveling in space while the vertical axis represents traveling in time. Light, for which, as Rovelli points, "time never passes at all", travels along the diagonal, towards the edge of the square that symbolize infinities. As I observe this diagram again, I notice how its elegant schematization of spacetime enables me to feel the physical process display in it: massive objects crawl along the space axis as time flies towards the future, while light transperse the manifold towards an infinity that appears like an horizon never reached but always aimed for. The Universe in this squared circle appears absurd, yet supremely beautiful in its laws that we relentlessly try to decipher to understand the logic beneath all our experiences.
This process of trying to ordinate the chaos of phenomena around us with logic is inherent to the work of the other scientists with whom Penrose shares his award. Genzel, Ghez, and other fellow astrophysicists spent years following the trajectories of stars around the object at the center of the Milky Way to infer its nature. After more than a decade extracting the light of the few stars standing out from the extremely bright area that a galactic core is, they inferred that according to the extremely massive nature of the object, in a very restricted volume of spacetime, it could only be a black hole. This extremely intriguing object, holding in its heart the singularity implying the limitation of the very same theory that predicted it, was not only an artifact of a theory, neither the outcome of a calculation: it became an experimental presence, an body permeating the fabric of our reality. I observe how once again, its presence has been revealed by paths: it is from the motion of stars around the black holes that it existence could be inferred, after Penrose studied the trajectories of particle in spacetime, and Einstein devised the theory of Relativity by considering the time of the clocks of a train passing through a station. Paths, it seems, are not only the daily walks paving our lives obligations, but belong to the very nature of the effects that arise from the law of the Universe and enable us to perceive the machine behind the motion. And when we do, we freeze our knowledge in a diagram summarizing our insights in a visual form - the sense most of us turn to when we need to understand a concept.
Credit: UCLA Galactic Center Group & Advanced Visualization Lab,
National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois
Is life a circle is a question that has been pondered by many thinkers. As much as I try to distance myself from equivocal aphorisms, my encounter with Shanthi Chandrasekar’s art results in myself spotting patterns in the geometry of my work. I am an astrophysicist, I study the signals emitted by black holes to probe the nature of spacetime. Those signals are not made of light nor sounds, there are waves of space itself, that we name gravitational waves. The ones I study are emitted by binary systems of black holes spiraling around each other and getting closer as they lose energy into those waves, until they coalesce into a singular black hole. Black holes are perfect spheres* delimited by an horizon - everything passing the threshold of the horizon border, whether it is an apple, a human or a ray of light, is trapped inside without hope to escape, inevitably attracted towards the singularity at the center of the black hole. For this reason we do not know what occurs inside the black holes, and I need to contempt myself of studying their ballet when they orbit each other along in quasi-circular motion. The gravitational waves that are emitted at the black holes horizons travel until our detectors, LIGO and Virgo, can only detect those tiny ripples in a specific sphere of spacetime as they fade when they travel, diluting their energy in the volume of the Universe. And I am trying to infer from those beyond-microscopic perturbations the nature of the fabric of the Universe. How I arrived to this point has, I realize, some circularity in it: I studied particle physics and cosmology, specialized in particle physics, decided to switch to gravitation, before landing back on the formalism I now manipulate because of its complementary with the quantum physics I used for my previous analyses. I guess that circles are the manifestation of an obsession, in which case my fascination to understand the Universe we live in, through my scientific work but also by exchanging with artists. As I appreciate how the discovery of Shanthi’s art offers a new light on my activities, I am looking forward to our collaboration.
*when they are not spinning, else they become ovoid.
One of my favorite pastimes is daydreaming. Sometimes I imagine myself as an anonymous world changer and create a place where harmony and kindness rule. But most of the time these daydreams take me away from Earth and to the worlds that my SciArt partner, Leihae, studies. I find myself traveling through space and time, moving past other particles, be it subatomic particles in the quantum realms or galaxies at the cosmic levels. These fantastical mental journeys, along with my self-guided research, have been the seeds for my artwork.
My artwork, like my dreams, are a constant exploration of the known and the unknown, and can be unpredictable in the directions they may take. I often find a theme that interests me and linger there for sometime to learn about it and experience it before moving on to another direction, leading to a wide range of interests in my work. Though my path may seem random, there is a strong underlying goal to better understand the universe in which we live and our place in it. Similarly, experimenting with various mediums has also allowed me to attempt to communicate my thoughts across in many different ways. My work ranges from traditional Indian Kolam drawings, endangered languages, to the latest scientific discoveries, often finding ways to juxtapose them in my drawings, paintings and sculptures.
I enjoy finding patterns, similarities and symmetries inherent in our universe and also between seemingly unrelated fields. The cracks on the road, the movement of the clouds and the evaporating drop of water hold my attention and remind me of similar actions that occur at different scales of space and time. I try to capture the transitory nature of subatomic particles where events occur at incomprehensibly small distances and time periods that our limited perceptions cannot perceive. Through my work, I also attempt to capture the other end of the scale where the birth and death of stars and the movement of the galaxies happen at such enormous distances and over long periods of time by our standards, such that our lives seem minuscule and irrelevant. My work has been about finding our place in this infinite cosmos, and coming to terms with our limitations and at the same time celebrating our insatiable curiosity and capacities to unravel these mysteries.
I am very excited about this partnership with Leihae, who has been researching the very fields that I have been interested in - I have so much to learn more about and have many questions that I would like to share with her. As an astrophysicist, Leihae’s expertise in the field of black holes and gravitational waves would be of tremendous help as I would be able to access the science directly from a scientist rather than other indirect resources. Together, I hope to have an interesting and fruitful collaboration during the next few months.