Montana State University

MSU art-science exhibition featuring gravitational waves makes journal cover

March 4, 2016 -- By Amanda Eggert for the MSU News Service

Visitors to the Black (W)hole traveling exhibition are enveloped by a multimedia experience. The exhibition, created by the MSU-heavy Einstein Collective, recently made the cover of the peer-reviewed journal Leonardo. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – In a bit of lucky timing, an article about an art-science installation that features gravitational waves appeared in a peer-reviewed journal the same month that an international group provided evidence of gravitational waves’ very existence. Montana State University professors were closely involved in both projects.

The Einstein Collective, a MSU-heavy group of artists, scientists and educators, collaborated to create Black (W)hole, an installation that was featured on the cover of the February issue of Leonardo, a journal dedicated to the application of contemporary science and technology in the arts.

That same month, scientists from across the globe announced they had observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. The evidence confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opened an unprecedented new window into the cosmos. A group of MSU researchers, including physics professor Neil Cornish, contributed to the discovery.

“This is a perfect storm of coincidence that provides a vivid example of the convergence of art and science,” said Bill Shields, interim dean of the MSU College of Arts and Architecture.

Black (W)hole has three parts, all of which are designed to create an immersive and interactive experience of elements of astrophysics. It first debuted at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in Bozeman as part of MSU’s Celebrating Einstein science festival, featured in the President’s Fine Art Series outreach events of 2013. Since then, it has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

Entering the exhibit, viewers step into a dark space where a laser star field designed by MSU Physics Professor Charles Kankelborg projects stars on their skin.

Architect Jessica Jellison, an adjunct instructor in the School of Architecture, worked closely with the team on the vision and experience for the space.

Next, visitors approach an animation of an extreme mass ratio inspiral—a small black hole being sucked into a supermassive black hole resulting in the emission of gravitational waves. Christopher O’Leary of UCLA created the black hole animation.

The trajectories of the two black holes in the animation were found by solving the Einstein equations – which are the foundation of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity – on a supercomputer.

“Overall, it’s fairly scientifically realistic, which I’m very happy about,” said Nicolas Yunes, an assistant professor in the MSU College of Letters and Science’s Department of Physics and the lead scientist working on the project.

Joey Shapiro Key, who previously served as educational specialist for the Montana Space Grant Consortium and who also contributed to the discovery of gravitational waves, was a scientific adviser to the project, as well. Shapiro Key earned a doctorate from MSU and is now a research assistant professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Yunes and Jason Bolte, a professor in the School of Music, took the supercomputer’s data that was used to create the animation and turned it into sound, a process called data sonification. This sound was then synchronized to a soundtrack for the animation.  

The third element involves the encaustic paintings of Sara Mast, an associate professor of drawing and painting at MSU. Her paintings – made with molten wax and powdered pigment applied to a panel – reference photographs of the chalkboard behind Einstein’s desk at Princeton. She worked with Cindy Stillwell from MSU’s School of Film and Photography to turn her paintings into a moving picture in which Einstein’s equations morph into stars and chalk dust, alluding to how Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity has informed our understanding of the universe.

Mast said she’s inspired by the opportunity to take an abstract idea and translate it into a more accessible sensory experience.

“I love the Einstein statement that energy and matter are interchangeable. That, for me, was the challenge of this project: How do we take this massive energy event and translate it into a form that can be understood on a physical level?”

People tend to think of art and science as opposites, but that’s a mistake, Mast added.

“Einstein had an integrated brain, and he was as intuitive as he was intellectual,” she said, adding that his theories are a fitting point of entry for an art-science exhibit, which she describes as “a new genre of art and science that’s not one or the other.”

Yunes said merging science and art allows scientists to reach a broader audience.

“It’s really important to reach the public because the science we do is for the public,” said Yunes, who in 2015 was the recipient of the Young Scientist Prize administered by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics through the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation. 

Yunes is collaborating with Bolte again to create a planetarium show about gravitational waves and black holes that will be unveiled this fall. Yunes said the group developing the show, which includes MSU’s Theo Lipfert and other faculty from the School of Film and Photography, the School of Music and MSU Extended University, hopes to distribute it for free to planetariums throughout the world.

Contact: Sara Mast, (406) 994-3890 or smast@montana.edu; or Nicolas Yunes, (406) 994-6182 or nyunes@physics.montana.edu