Some of my earliest memories have been of thresholds, doorways and windows. It took me many years to recognize this curious fascination, even though I had been unconsciously incorporating them all along in my artwork. There was just something about the narrow area where two different spaces met that intrigued me. The SciArt Bridge Residency has been one such threshold as it has introduced me to Leilhae and opened a whole new world of possibilities.
Over the last few months, I have thoroughly enjoyed my meetings with Leilhae, bombarding her with questions. Her patient responses have given me a better understanding of the workings of the cosmos. Every time I would share my crazy thoughts with her and ask very basic questions, she would always remind me that no question was less important, and that it provided a new viewpoint.
Leilhae has written about the chaos in her life currently in terms of carton boxes and commitments, and my world has been pretty similar too. These past few weeks, I tried to work on my blog posts and failed miserably. Apart from the pandemic and all the unrest going on in the world, I have been totally consumed by the 2021 Kolam project, which has gotten way beyond my expectations in terms of time, effort and outreach. Now more than 1,800 cardboard tiles are stacked around in my house, waiting to be rearranged and ready for installation. When these tiles are assembled together like quilt patches, a large kolam pattern will emerge from the parts. One of my partners from the 2021Kolam team, Roopal Shah, had shared a poem by Jon Maidan titled We are Weavers that spoke to me at many levels as it beautifully described my chaotic thoughts in words.
2021 Kolam, Paper, Paint, Pens, Colored Pencils, Board, Clasps and Board, 12”x12” each/ 50’x50’ installation
Kolams are drawn at the threshold of space and time, as Tamil women in India perform this daily ritual on the floor just in front of their houses at sunrise and sunset. They draw a grid of dots and then weave meandering lines around the dots, following certain rules and also allowing for creativity at the same time. Kolams are ephemeral as these aesthetically beautiful patterns last only for a short time before they are walked upon and erased, to make way for another new kolam. This alternating cycle of order and chaos seems to extend across scales in the universe.
The red dots on the doorway of my grandparents’ house had made me happy as a young child and had become my symbol for new possibilities. The threshold between the rooms was a gateway to explorations. Now as an adult, I still am an explorer of ideas and my curiosity to understand the universe we live in has only gotten stronger and the SciArt residency has helped push it further.
Leilhae and I have conversations that tend to switch back and forth between cutting edge science and traditional art forms, enabling us to create a new visual vocabulary. We try to interpret the abstract concepts with simple tangible materials. We hope to continue this collaboration as fellow explorers and come up with projects that will address the thresholds of science and art, traditions and modernity, and chaos and order.
Everything around is chaos. My new flat is filled with carton boxes. My work to do list has too many entries that I fail to rank. Any attempt to planify anything is strangely halted or postponed due to unexpected events. In the cyclone, there is an eye where life seems more quiet: my conversions with Shanthi concerning our project. We still regularly meet to discuss spacetime, black holes, gravitational radiation, and how it inspires our project. Once again it is her who highlights the evidence to me: physicists are actually driven by chaos, we neglect the orders that we are aware of to dive into disorder. While all we dream of is structure, we actually chose to go where it lacks in the hope to link the phenomena between them into logical processes. I often wonder if this hope is vain, if knowledge is but order, is understanding is but logic, if the system has a ground or at least a self-consistency for all that we require it to be. Nothing is less certain, and this is why Shanthi's work is so important, because if we do not fulfill this unmentionable quest for comprehension at least we would have generated some beauty on the way. Shanthi shows me the beautiful embroidery that she has created, trying to integrate in a finite surface the tridimensional complexity of the gravitational waves traveling through the Universe. That she manages to put so much in such a little circle reminds me about fractals, those mathematical constructions defined by an infinite perimeter enclosing a closed surface. Geometry has been giving us hints towards the mathematical oddness that Nature can display, and our project is a lot about taking this abstract concept and making it familiar and tangible again. With the handmade paper that Shanti embroiders, with the fabric that I have stored to dye first hand when I moved into my flat, we are giving to the impalpable presence of spacetime an embodiment with the common material that lives around us. It is like if we were turning our back to constantly growing superclusters, near-vacuum ultra-precise instruments, and consortium of busy minds to address to each of us and say: you too can experience spacetime, you too can feel those waves, with what is around you, inside your cupboard, at the end of your fingertips. This arte povera of us is nothing more than a scream to make the Universe become universal again, and not the toy of dedicated scientists only. We have trained to be on the forefront of chaos only to return the structure we have seen to all of us. And this is why I know that as soon as the tumult appeases, I know that I will return to my fabric, finally dye them and experiment with them, so I can send some material to Shanthi so we can continue this beautiful project of us until we have something more than words to offer to you.
Every time I look at mathematical descriptions or graphs pertaining to theories in physics, I am filled with curiosity to understand them as they unravel secrets of the cosmos. Though I enjoyed the challenge of the math, it was graphs and diagrams that were an important part of my learning process in school and college in a pre-internet era. I would struggle to grasp concepts when there were no images and I would desperately search for books with pictures. Many years later I realized that I was predominantly a visual learner, and images helped me understand and retain information, and that colored ones were better than black and white. Doodling during class was another way to be able to focus my mind on the lectures rather than slip away into daydreams. It was only as an adult that I recognized these strengths and weaknesses and it was a revelation of sorts leading to new possibilities. What if I revisited the non-intuitive concepts in quantum mechanics or relativity through the medium of art? I began paying attention to the doodles I would make as I listened to online lectures and talks, and noticed that the shapes aligned with the contents of the lectures. I immersed myself into various fields that interested me and started to create my own visual vocabulary. Over the years, this has enabled me to explore topics in physics, human anatomy and neuroscience among others.
I recently had to design a different kind of template to create a kolam with more than 1500 dots for an upcoming collaborative art installation. Community members including school children will print out the templates and design the allotted spaces to create a 12”x12” tile each. When these tiles are connected following the pattern, a complex kolam will emerge, as the white lines will weave around the dots. Kolams are fractals and this kolam with a central line of 55-dots was scaled up from a 23-dot pattern. In order to make the project easily accessible, I had to design templates by dividing each of the kolam shapes into quarters so that it would be easy to print at home. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that combining just two templates, a quarter circle and a quarter square could create the six shapes. I was fascinated by how these two templates and six shapes could create infinite kolams can be drawn and was reminded of how two massive objects that a ages ago in faraway space to produce waves that matched the simulated graphs.
Kolam Templates, Shapes and Patterns
Kolams have been on my mind lately as I have been conducting workshops and presenting them online, and drawing one in my book every morning. I am currently working on a project that involves scaling them up, understanding the shapes and creating templates. So, I decided to dedicate this blog post to Kolams.
Kolam is a traditional art from Tamil Nadu, India that is drawn on the floor in front of houses using powdered rice or rock at sunrise and sunset everyday. The powder is pinched out with the thumb and index finger to create a grid of dots and then the lines that go around the dots or connect them, are drawn. As these patterns are made on the floors, they are walked over and eventually get erased in a few hours, reminding us about impermanence and non-attachment and making way for a new beginning.
Kolam-Maroon1 & 2, Acrylic on Masonite, 2001
I learned to draw kolams as a child from my mother and grandmother by watching them draw the patterns and explain its philosophy along with their own take on it. I sometimes wonder if it was this early exposure to connecting ideas and images that eventually paved way for my interest in abstract concepts, be it in art or science. I have always been drawn to patterns, symmetries and connections, incorporating them into my artwork. I also remember being excited about courses in astronomy, relativity and quantum mechanics more than other topics that involved the immediate physical world we live in. I enjoyed studying the various theories and the math behind them and was curious to learn more about what was not directly perceivable.
The women who draw kolams every morning in India carry on an old tradition without getting into the intricacies on the math involved in it or its artistic aesthetics. I am often reminded of cosmology when I work with kolams as they symbolize the cyclic nature of creation and destruction, or the particle and wave nature of light. The undulating lines are like the curved paths of light waves around massive objects. The image of LIGO with its stretched out arms inspired me to draw a kolam as the path travelled by the LASER in the interferometer is split into two perpendicular directions and is reflected back.
The dots in a kolam are said to represent challenges or obstacles and if we can weave our way through it all like the lines, and get back to the starting point, while maintaining a symmetry, we will be able to deal with life’s problems. As I listen to the many lectures and interviews on the stories behind the discovery of the gravitational waves, the many hurdles and challenges that had to be faced, analyzed and resolved are truly remarkable. The perseverance and determination paid off leading to another new way of studying the cosmos. For me, kolams have served as a guide as I explore new directions, and continue to amaze me with their versatility.
The latest piece I had the time to read was the chapter "Time and Irreversibility" of Richard Feynman's book The Character of Physical Laws. It is actually the retranscription of lectures that Feynman gave at the University of Cornell in the 60's, where he describes the common properties of the laws of physics, until this chapter transitioning to the physical features that are not actually laws. Time is one of them, as time is currently not understood to be a fundamental force of Nature (those ones are, actually, symmetric in time, in the way that they can be reversed in time to go from consequences to cause in a logical manner), but rather a consequence of the dynamical process that take place. Despite this emergent explanation, time is an intriguing concept that still keeps physicists and philosophers intrigued. I would myself love to devote more of my time to study time, but it turned out that the end of year has been the busiest period of an already intense year. Gravitational-waves are being detected that require careful examination, new positions are open that are opportunities to develop exciting research, and once again in my semi-nomadic academic lifestyle I find myself surrounded by carton boxes.
I still hoped to dye some fabric as tests for our artistic project with Shanthi. I kept separate in a bag, an old white sheet, some indigo powder, ink and rope (and as I write this, I realize it can also be the material for a sailor, as if I was waiting to go riding on spacetime). I got them ready in case I could find some instants to make the dye, which did not occur yet. I did have precious advice from Shanthi, when I learnt the difficult process of using indigo dye. "You can start with ink", she told me. "Start small with the material at home, do a first test, then add one feature at the time, complexify your process little by little." Her wisdom and her freedom showed me how much I have to reach them, the exact tool, the complicated procedure, are not in my favor if they are so unreachable that they don't give me the time to dedicate to our project. Comforted by her words, I will keep the material with me over the holidays, wishing to create some pieces that may match her beautiful embroidery. And I will remind the borderless creativity that she let me perceive in our regular conversations. "What would happen if time was traveling in waves?", did she ask me the last time. A thought I never had, but that threw me in a fascinating mental experiment.
When I first came across the term “thought experiment” or Gedankenexperiment, I was reminded of my daydreams which, in a way, are my own thought experiments. While Einstein worked out his ideas in his mind followed by the mathematics to arrive at paradigm-shifting theories, my ideas served as inspiration for my artwork. One of my thought experiments as a child involved wondering what would happen if I blew very hard, making the air particles vibrate, and how far that effect would reach - if I blew so hard that the vibrations would travel around the Earth and when it reached the back of my head a long time later, I wouldn’t know what hit me. Leilhae’s description of gravitational waves and also sharing a link to her presentation about how scientific research affects everyday life, reminded me of this question that I had pondered years ago. I had no idea about black holes, spacetime curvature or dissipation of energy then and enjoyed the pure fun of making up impossible situations. Now, many years later, learning about the scales of the gravitational waves, from its place of origin to when it is detected on Earth, in some ways has been rekindling similar questions.
Leila and I have been exchanging emails about embroidery inspired by astronomy. They were representative versions of astronomical images and it made me reflect on my more abstract process. I am currently working on multiple pieces experimenting with various types of black and white thread using different stitches. Working with a needle and thread on paper is very different from working with cloth as it has certain limitations. The paper is more fragile and requires more careful stitching as the paper could tear, so the process is very precise and slow, giving me an opportunity to observe the details of the movement of the thread through the holes. The thread gets twisted with each stitch and eventually tends to knot up when it is pulled through the paper quickly. The twist reaches a point after a few stitches when it tends to double over or spirals around another strand if it comes in contact with it. This reminded me of turbulence in a fluid as it rushes through a narrow space. The knots resemble eddies and vortices and have to be constantly untangled.
Embroidered Cosmic Design pieces, Work in Progress, Handmade Paper and Thread
Scientific research affects our everyday life in numerous ways. For me, I find many opportunities in everyday life that inspire me to probe and understand deeper scientific questions. Whether it is a slice of beetroot, reflection of circles on a bowl or the self-forming knots as I embroider, my curiosity is tickled, and I continue to ask questions. The more I learn, the more questions I seem to have.
Every year, the University my laboratory belongs to organises the "Festival of Ideas". Researchers, artists, activists and thinkers are invited to share their study with the public to diffuse the state of the art knowledge that fills our worklife to the society. Because when one spends time at the edge of our understanding of the laws of nature, it is to decipher the rules that govern the Universe that hosts us all. Our expeditions on reconnaissance for the logical patterns that lead to our lives and design their fate are to be followed by sharing those discoveries with our fellow living beings. While in the "The Bridge" residency the science is diffused through the medium of art, the Festival of Ideas disseminates it through discussions between intellectuals. To introduce the round table that I animated, named "To see the Universe differently", I have contemplated the impact of scientific discoveries:
"In 1511, Nicholas Copernicus studied the planets in his astronomical observatory located at the top of Frombork Cathedral in Poland and studied their trajectories. He realised that it was not the sun that would revolve around one of them, but the planets that would revolve around the sun, in a movement that astronomers call "revolution". This paradigm shift was so well implemented in the consciousness that the word "revolution" is now used for profound changes related to the governance of states, the organisation of society or any established order in general. In this way, scientific discoveries are spreading in society and the understanding of the laws of nature offers a new point of view on the world order at all scales. A radio signal detected by an antenna in 1965 turns out to be a manifestation of the Big Bang: the Universe is no longer eternal but has a history. A star shows flickering light through a telescope in 1995: the first exoplanet is detected and the Earth finds companions beyond the solar system. More recently, in 2015, four-kilometre-long lasers have their light disturbed: a gravitational wave has passed through the Earth and has been detected for the first time. This new signal, generated by perturbations of space-time itself, was also the first time that an emission was observed from a black hole, those objects that are supposed to absorb everything. By offering us a new way of probing the cosmos, this discovery also points us towards questions that cut across the whole of science: what is the Universe around us made of? How do these new astrophysical channels complement observations from telescopes? And how can we continue to transfer the knowledge of physicists at the cutting edge of scientific discoveries to a society eager for knowledge and understanding?"
I grew up in a small town in India on the shores of the Bay of Bengal where I would spend long hours watching the waves crashing into the quiet beaches. Its immensity would evoke various emotional responses within me. I would be in awe with its quiet beauty, fear its power, calm in its repetitiveness, curious by its depth, excited by its unpredictability and an indescribable respect for its secrets. There was this oxymoronic feeling about it as it seemed tangible and unapproachable at the same time, longing to understand its mysteries and yet not disturb it. There was a timeless quality in its ephemerality, as the quiet ups and downs of the large waves in the horizon would break up into millions of smaller swirls as it arrived at the shore. This fascination has continued over the years and now I experience a similar feeling as I learn more about gravitational waves. They begin their journeys so far away in space and time, and yet pass through us and we have no clue.
Leilhae and I had a very interesting conversation a few day back and we discussed various aspects of gravitational waves. We talked about how its amplitude and frequency change as the black hole binary pair moves closer to each other in their orbits, leading to their eventual collision causing disturbances in the curvature of spacetime that propagate as waves. She also described the process of lensing that occurs when the propagation of these waves are influenced by gravitational fields of massive objects and how this affects the waves before they reach Earth. Leilhae also described how matching the observed information with the simulated ones in the template bank informs the scientists about the masses of the individual black holes and the final coalesced black hole. We talked about various other topics like information paradox, wormholes and fine structure constant. Leilhae also described her fascinating job as an astrophysicist, researching cutting edge science.
I think when it comes to translating this very precise research into art we are both changing gears and seeking traditional hands-on techniques to approach the concepts. The Cosmic Design series has been evolving over the years as I introduce new elements and concepts, with the latest being embroidery with black and white thread inspired by gravitational waves and black holes. I plan to work on it with pen and ink too. Leilhae is continuing to work on her shibori project and we have been thinking of exchanging some of her shibori dyed cloth and my handmade paper to create collaborative pieces. I will embroider and draw on the shibori piece while Leilhae will dye the handmade paper to create patterns inspired by the cosmos. We hope to work towards a joint installation sometime in the future.
What I work on lately is to study the structure of spacetime with gravitational waves. Spacetime, as we understand it, is defined by its geometry, a "Riemannian manifold with Minkowskian properties in the weak-field limit". This cryptic sentence is merely an homage to the mathematicians who developed the formalism describing our Universe, and mainly means that it possesses a specific curvature although it appears flat when the gravitational attraction is not too large. However, this story does not explain it all. It let aside the core of the black holes, the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, and even its birth as we cannot derive equations for what happens at the Big Bang. So we are trying to find the missing pieces of the puzzle so we can grasp the phenomena that escape our narration. What if, gravitation was mediated like a particle like the other forces, or what if spacetime had more dimensions, we wonder? This is the work of a physicist: to imagine new worlds and derive how those worlds would be if we lived in them. Then we confront those imaginary lives, where we would detect gravitational waves that would for example lose energy as they travel in spacetime, with the one we live in. How is my signal behaving? Does it seem more consistent with the standard theory, or does it interact with spacetime in a new way? As I discuss with Shanthi, I tell the tale of those waves carrying the energy of several suns across the cosmos, disturbing its fabric although not emitting a sound. We discuss transmitting this feeling of immensity, the sensation of a travel through the Universe, but also the structure of the objects and the fields, so it addresses our logic but also our senses. We talk about large pieces of fabric, intricate embroideries, patterns and irregularities, trying to get a project out of the emergence of the confrontation of our art and science. It will require more days, but we are both feeling that our exchange nourishes the embryo of an idea that may as well flourish into a beautiful piece. And as I go back to my empty office of the University of Zürich, I pass front of the hanging sculpture that I cross everyday. I then realize how it resembles Shanthi's installation Waves, and how it manifests its expansion into space, frozen under the staticity of the piece but moving along my sight as I go along the many intricate circular structures that reminds me - nothing is without movement, we are all wanderers when there is no reference frame.
A few years ago I had worked on a series of drawings on handmade paper titled Cosmic Design. These pieces were an attempt to visualize concepts that range from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from quantum mechanics to relativity and from singularity to infinity. I explored the dichotomies that are part of a whole and the limitations of our perception that create borders, separating and categorizing them. I had made stacks of circular handmade paper using abaca, flax and cotton pulp and played around with other materials while making the sheets, by sandwiching fiber, paper and altering the thickness of the sheets, giving me very varied surfaces to work on. With pen and ink, I made my drawings on the paper and then coated them with resin. The resin stiffens and warps the paper and also makes very thin sheets translucent giving the illusion of floating lines. I used thin monofilaments to suspend these drawings on the wall or from the ceiling to create site-specific installations. During our conversations the last few weeks, I have been rethinking about this series and how I could create new pieces with all the information I am learning.
Last week Leilhae had talked about the Shibori dying lessons she was taking online and how she would like to create artwork based on gravitational waves and black holes. So, we both discussed about possible ways to collaborate with our artwork and agreed that my mixed media circular drawing from the Cosmic Design series and her Shibori pieces would fit in very well. I enjoy doing embroidery and had started introducing stitches on the handmade paper, but had to discontinue due to other commitments. Now I am very inspired to create images of gravitational waves and black holes with thread on the sheets.
Before I studied the nature of spacetime, I was interested in the particles that inhabit it. During my PhD, I analysed the properties of neutrinos, an elementary constituent of matter that escape to be described by our current theories. We caught them in a giant water-based detector, the largest and purest pool on Earth, named Super-Kamiokande and located in Japan. Four times a year, I travelled to a small town in the North of Tokyo to take care of our detectors and meet with fellow scientists. Those jet-lagged weeks were intense in physics talking, particle interaction engineering, izakaya evenings and (bad) karaoke singing. In the middle of those intense periods, a breath was brought by the local cultural activities association that was visiting us to share traditional activities in the Japanese culture. Under their guidance, we learnt the tea ceremony ritual, to paint ideograms to decorate our offices, to fold origami, and the art of kimono wearing. So two weeks ago, when I came across an online class of introduction to shibori, the Japanese traditional art of tie-and-dye, I felt the need to revive this break in my research and spend again some time learning an Asian hand-on technique.
The class was online, as it was adapted by the organiser Rumi for the lockdown. She sent me instructions, and I tore down long dishcloths into pieces that I carefully washed and sunk in soy milk all night beforehand. When they were dry, I sat on a Saturday morning with Rumi who introduced me to the theory of the practice before showing me how to tie the different pieces to create motives. Under my hand, I took the square of fabric and folded them in regular or random patterns, turning their volume into little totems that I sunk in dark tea for another night. As I saw them sinking in the dark liquid, I thought that there was no way that the dye would not diffuse in the whole fabric, foreseeing squares as immaculate as my expected disappointment. Yet when I removed the rubber bands and strings, lighter patterns appeared in front of my eyes, portion of the clothes so strongly tight together that the liquid could not penetrate. This brought me an unexpected joy, as I contemplated the beautiful patterns dictated by a precise technique but still created under the complex laws of fluid diffusion. It was like if an embrace of material could protect it from the diffusion of a strong invader - reminding me, as Shanthi often says, that the beauty lies at the border of the confrontation. Here was a wave of abstraction, there rings that looked like expanding shock waves from a supernova. Reminding the thread art that Shanthi did in her Cosmic Design series, I told her about my experience, and asked her "would you be willing to experiment creating a piece of art with shibori?". I am glad that she agreed, and that we will share more about fabric art and physical laws soon.
Learn Shibori with Rumi (other times available on request): https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/1737188
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.