In Particle/Wave, a collaboration between artists and scientists, Alison Croggon says that the confounding abstractions of physics are given a human dimension
I love planetariums. Inside these rooms, the infinite mysteries of space are domesticated and dramatised for our viewing pleasure. But as I was queuing outside Scienceworks for Particle/Wave, I realised that I haven’t been inside one since I was about 10 years old. Back then, astronomy was one of my childish passions: along with books about dinosaurs and Greek mythology, astronomy books were my favourites.
I felt that old enthusiasm reignite watching – if watching is the right word for such a sensually overwhelming experience – the multimedia show Particle/Wave. Directed by poet Alicia Sometimes, it’s a collaboration between scientists, sound and visual artists and poets that revolves loosely around the detection of gravitational waves.
In 2015, scientists from the Advanced LIGO project confirmed that they had detected gravitational waves caused by two black holes merging about 1.3 billion years ago. This discovery, which was predicted by Einstein, was hailed as the most significant in a generation. It revolutionised how we observe the universe and ushered in a new kind of physics called “multi-messenger astronomy”, in which objects are detected using both electromagnetic and gravitational waves. The fourth detection of a gravitational wave happened last year, when scientists were, for the first time, able to witness the collision of two neutron stars.
Sometimes has brought together a raft of artists and scientists for a work that takes full advantage of the Planetarium’s possibilities. The seats instantly recline to enable you to look up at the ceiling, on which are projected a spectacular series of digital animations accompanied by equally spectacular sound. The show is divided into 11 parts, which perhaps reflects the 11 dimensions of String Theory, an evolving theory that reconciles incompatibilities between quantum physics, which deals in subatomic particles, and the theory of relativity.
Each part revolves around a central idea – Spacetime, Light, Dark, Waves. It’s introduced by a quote and then a discussion by scientists – Katie Mack, Kendall Ackley, Alan Duffy or Ling Sun – and is then followed by a poem. As well as Sometimes, there are poems by Krissy Kneen, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Lisa Gorton, Omar Musa and Jordie Albiston, each of them jumping off, sometimes in surprising directions, the central theme.
The scientists are riveting: what’s palpable is their excitement, the sheer exhilaration of the struggle to discover how the universe works. When Katie Mack talked about how the same gravitational waves that took so long to find pass unremarked through her body as she sleeps, a shiver went down my spine. The reality of our everyday remains so infinitely mysterious.
There are perils as well as rewards in this approach. The abstractions of physics and astronomy turn our common sense ideas about the nature of reality inside out, and then some. Anyone with a poor sense of mathematics – me, for instance – simply can’t understand them beyond a certain point.
The temptation is to anthropomorphise the unhuman universe; you can see that in some poems about erotic attraction, which often struggle to compete with the excitement of what the scientists discuss, although Omar Musa finds a means of breaking this open through the sheerly original dazzle of his imagery. Other poems look at the humans behind the science; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s wonderful poem about collaboration, for example, breaks down the “great man” theory of scientific discovery, highlighting how each progression of human knowledge, such as the detection of gravitational waves, is the result of collaborative work by thousands and thousands of people.
The visuals and sound bind it together into a wholly immersive experience. The curved dome of the Planetarium sometimes gives you a dizzying illusion of infinite space, a blackness that isn’t an absence, over which plays a constantly changing pattern of light – stars, car headlights, café encounters, nebulae, elastic topographies that symbolise the patterns of spacetime. It’s a show that’s at once spectacular and intimate, bringing home the confounding mysteries of the universe.
Particle/Wave, directed by Alicia Sometimes. Musical Director and co-producer Andrew Watson. Writers: Alicia Sometimes, Krissy Kneen, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Lisa Gorton, Omar Musa and Jordie Albiston. Sound Artists: Andrew Watson, Camilla Hanna and Nat Bates. Video: Andrew Watson, Isobel Knowles, Benjamin Portas, Carl Knox, Mark Myers and Dee Mason. Scientists Katie Mack, Kendall Ackley, Alan Duffy and Ling Sun. Melbourne Planetarium, Scienceworks, 2 Booker St, Spotswood, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 20. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available