Week 20 – 18-24 May – D.Cheeseman, O.Hagen, R.Trotta (by Alix Mortimer)
This is week twenty, and once more we are in the white room drinking a sticky drink. This is where the truth/beauty-makers show their pictures and other made-things,. You will have seen that AJ has already written about week twenty-one and put it up in its own word-pocket before this one. That’s because sometimes space and time are wavy, dark and confusing, and wind around in ways you would never expect! That’s exactly what the truth-beauty makers of week twenty-one wanted to show us, and also exactly what week twenty is about to show.
But all that is in the not-yet-tomorrow, and this is now. Probably. Today there are black shadows in the white room, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars. There are coloured lights which you can turn on by pressing something several feet away. The big black shadows are like the walls teachers used to write on. One of the black wall shadows is wavy and cut three ways, and on either side of it stand Ole Hagan, a truth/beauty-maker and Dr Roberto Trotta, a student-person who loves space and the stars. They are going to tell us about their different understandings – as a truth/beauty-maker and a student-person – of the all-there-is.
The thousand most commonly used words in the English language are surprisingly impractical. How often are you called upon to use the words “aunt”, “chairman” and “tomato”? Have you ever “smirked” at the “police”? Does your “dog” have “glass” “eyebrows”? And do we really drink so much more “coffee” than… the other common hot drink? The common words are short on Latinate higher register entries, obviously, but they are also short on conceptual language of any origin. I settled for “wavy” in the passage above and it isn’t doing a very good job – of course I never expected to find “concertina’d”, even if I did work out how to spell it, but I thought I could rely on “crunched” or “folded” – nope. And hard cheese, or hard white bar of animal-water-food, if you have to count anything that numbers between seven and ten.
Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky is a book about the universe written in these thousand most commonly used words, and among the words it cannot use is universe, hence “all-there-is”. He gets round the numbers problem with word-sums, and the terminology problem with charming coinages – “star-crowd” for galaxy, “big-seer” for large telescope. But on the basis of my tortuous ten minutes composing the above I imagine his real problem was the lack of common conceptual words. Think of all the words you use to describe any concept – whether in particle physics, art or any other theory field, and you will be struck by how many of them are lumpy old Anglo-Saxon words used metaphorically. Common (but clearly not that common) words used to uncommon purposes. We “crunch” numbers as well as crisps, the universe in some conceptions is “folded up” and so is the ironing board, and all new theories or works “build” on previous ones. And in the biggest metaphorical catch-alls imaginable we talk about the “stuff” the universe is “made of”. In fact, public intellectual discourse is in the grip of a bit of a pride movement with the words “stuff” and “things” right now, and academics below a certain age are right there in it.
As such, The Edge of the Sky doesn’t actually make its subject matter any simpler. Leaving aside technical jargon which is easily unpicked with a glossary, we use simple words to talk about this big fundamental stuff already, and it’s still difficult. You’d be hard pushed, even in this elegant little book, to find a more pure and childlike coinage than the respectable jargon term “space-time” but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to get my stupid great ape brain round. Trotta describes his special subject, dark matter (both words which make the top ten hundred) as a metaphor for the bits of the universe that… well, frankly, we don’t have a damn clue what they are or what they’re made of. Really most of particle physics reasoning takes place on such a theoretical plain that the whole discussion is made of pure metaphor.
And what else is made of pure metaphor? Art. Art is as logical a way as any to represent the theoretical realities that particle physics seeks to describe. It certainly lends itself to depicting what dark matter might be. Trotta understands all this, because in theaccompanying interview he doesn’t talk about his science communication work in terms of simplifying as such. You can’t simplify this, er, stuff, it’s just complicated. Instead he is concerned with “speaking to people’s hearts”, a subtly different proposition, and this is why he is interested in collaborating with artists.
This has happy potential, but I feel it all needs to gel a bit more before it can produce anything genuinely collaborative and new. I read the book as a result of going to the exhibition and I think I now understand – in a WTF way – dark matter. So that’s a result. And I liked David Cheeseman’s scrunchy, glittering blackboard sculptures and I understood instinctively that they were post-Newtonian models of the universe and were going to do as well as anything else at helping me conceive of what the universe is. But I didn’t really understand anything from Trotta and Hagan’s performative conversation (see if you can do better here), other than that they like collaborating with people from other fields. The conversation is not itself the exhibit, it’s just the happening that draws your attention to all the ideas underlying the exhibits. And at the moment I think the participants are still figuring out how these ideas fit together and how they can help each other.
There’s a point in their interview when Cheeseman discusses the parallels between the tools of the most advanced astronomy and physics and the perception-bending props of the magician. And you can hear Trotta demurring slightly, insofar as people of such charm and positivity ever demur. Perhaps this isn’t a useful parallel to him in terms of his mission. He wants to show – and find new ways of showing – what the all-there-is is, with the most direct and simply constructed metaphors he can find (whether made out of words or other artistic media). So maybe metaphors that wilfully introduce further confusion and baggage, like the intersection between science and magic, are unhelpful. On the night Trotta spoke engagingly about the history of particle physics and how the whole enterprise had been conducted for a number of decades in a spirit of “shut up and compute”. The twentieth century was the age of the pointless and sterile science/arts standoff, and the discipline of physics did not entertain the idea of collaborating with philosophy and the arts to find ways of describing reality. The next age of physics may well unfold differently, but only if all cross-field collaborators strip back everything they think they understand about each other and create a very basic new discourse in which to communicate. Possibly this is what Trotta was grasping towards by writing The Edge of the Sky.