SWINBURNE SPACE TIME
A personal account of a spellbinding experience
In the Summer of 2016 I was researching astronomy observatories and university facilities for an art project and read where Swinburne University of Technology had a system referred to as a ‘supercomputer’ which is part of Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.
A Supercomputer is a particularly powerful mainframe computer that performs at, or near, the highest operational rate. Swinburne’s Supercomputer can perform around 400 trillion operations per second.
I read that it could link with the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. I had to see it. After failed phone inquiries and email requests I was eventually given the email address of an astrophysicist, Assoc. Prof. Jeffrey Cooke, to contact. Rushing off a rapid message he replied very shortly afterward saying it was possible to see the computer, but, (and this is where my cosmic drive changed gears), he suggtested I may also be interested in coming along to an ‘observation run’: a live to the sky view of a section of deep space searching for the fastest explosions in the universe - more particularly fast radio bursts and supernovae. This would be operated from a control room - the Advanced Immersion Environment - at Melbourne University - linking into a primary telescope in Chile while also marshaling twenty other observation facilities around the globe. It was a procedure for an astrophysics program - DEEPER, WIDER, FASTER.
!!!! Yes please.
Deeper Wider Faster, The Advanced Immersion Environment
and what Michael Murphy said
The science project, for which the ‘run’ was being performed, was named Deeper Wider Faster. That event (one of several so far) was slated for June later that year, 2016, at the University of Melbourne. As June approached I contacted the program mastermind, Jeff, who filled me in on the details.
The Deeper, Wider, Faster program (DWF) chases the fastest bursts of light in the sky with multi-facility, multi-wavelength, simultaneous observations and rapid follow up. DWF probes the milliseconds to minutes time domain with fast-cadence, deep observations of wide regions of the sky. The most elusive transients (an astronomical object or phenomenon whose duration may be from seconds to days, weeks, or even several years), that they want to discover and study include possible counterparts to Fast Radio Burst and to gravitational wave events. Target fields are observed in time domain with continuous, simultaneous observations with multiple telescopes. If a transient such as a Fast Radio Burst is detected during DWF observations, several telescopes are on standby to observe the region of the sky of interest, not only seconds after the detection, but also during and even before the transient is identified. (
The first evening I attended I took a friend Carolyn Lewens along. After arriving at Melbourne University we entered a darkened room, the Advanced Immersion Environment. Not knowing what to expect it really was a slightly anxious step into an an abyss. Inside, I remember being faced with a huge curved screen flanking the front wall, displaying grids of grey, white and black speckled rectangles. Elsewhere people were looking at graphs, numbers, squiggly lines and dots on large computer monitors. From time to time someone would pass a particular monitor - often pausing to say “hello” or chat at the face looking back. That person was talking live from Chile, the location of one of the prominent observatories through which the images and data were being transmitted.
I was introduced to a world of data, physics and fascinating people. Carolyn couldn't stay for long but wild equines couldn’t have hauled me away I stayed for hours the first night and continued this ritual for most of the following ten or so days it was running.
That evening I met Jeffrey Cooke in person, who was obviously a forward thinking scientist due to his openness to invited an artist along. I was introduced to Igor Andreoni, an Italian wunderkind from Milan whose PhD project DWF was. I met many more fascinating people including Stuart Ryder from Sydney who is/was the Australian Gemini Scientist for the Australian Astronomical Observatory and who broadened my knowledge of dipoles, radio antenna and the SKA (Square Killometer Array, due to start construction soon), a project I was already excited about.
Jeff Cooke showed me many images on his computer– in real time – such as a galaxy that was millions - or is that billions - of years old, star clusters, nebulae and so on. One image he pulled up reminded him, he said, of my art. I was so surprised that he had even seen my work I was lost for words.
I was faced with so much jaw dropping visuals and information speechlessness became commonplace. The candidates for one: they were the fuzzy grey, black and white oblongs - thousands of them were projected onto the screen over the course of the run. They mostly had white dots in them – they were stars.
Above is the big sweeping screen at the Advanced Immersion Environment, Melbourne University campus. Mostly it showed candidates (rectangles seen on the left) but sometimes there’d be a galaxy image such as the one to the right above. Above image, Pam Bain
photos courtesy of Igor Andreoni.
Over the days of the run I met many more people including Prof. Karl Glazebrook the director of Swinburne University’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, (CAS), Deputy Director Michael Murphy, Pablo Rosada whose public lecture on black holes I had attended, (Black Hole Binaries – A Love Story), Chuck Horst, a professor of astronomy from San Diego State University, and Bernard Meade from Information Technology at Melbourne University. I also met many other astronomers and inspiring students not only from Melbourne but from all over the globe who were lending a hand.
At the end of this experience, I emerged from the deep darkness feeling transformed as if something really incredible had occurred - and it had. I’d been closer to the Universe than ever before – seeing stars and galaxies up close live to the eye was surreal and inspiring. I’m a space nut, have been to NASA Houston many times, I have my telescope and interviewed an astronaut but this was altogether different. I’m glad I had a record of my time there – my workbook.
As well as taking a large number of phone photos and notes, I took in a black pencil and work book. As I drank in the atmosphere I began to write down the sounds and comments and excited exclamations amidst the hum of technology doing its thing. I drew my version of the candidates, grids of dots and black scribble. I call them Pamdidates. I jotted basic, quick doodle sketches and lots of notes. I drew an observatory on Igor’s nose as well (not shown here).
THE AFTER-RUN DINNER
After the observation everyone received a dinner invitation. These dinner events thanked all the volunteers with a food bonanza on campus prepared by Jeff’s wife Julie, an excellent cook. Jeff lent a hand too.
During the evening I gave Igor a drawing - image right - I had done that day as a thank you for having me along to the observation.
I FELT A PROJECT COMING ON
While drawing, thinking, listening, and talking with people during the ‘run’ I began to formulate ideas for a body of work. Wouldn’t it be great to develop an artist’s response to this science experience? During this time I had been introduced to Michael Murphy, the CAS Deputy Director. During our chat I commented that it was a shame Swinburne didn’t have a gallery as I’d love to respond creatively to the program and exhibit it. Michael replied something to the effect that he was sure they could do something – there being walls and other options. He suggested I contact Prof. Chris Fluke their Outreach Co-ordinator at the time.
Opportunity had flung a door open. I contacted Professor Fluke, mentioned my recent conversation with Michael Murphy and put forward the idea, suggesting it might even just entail having our images projected somewhere. As Carolyn Lewens, also an artist, had dropped in twice more to the run I made a decision to ask her onto the project I had cooking in my head. We met Chris together during which time he offered us the department’s animator, James Josephides, to work with.
PHASE 2: Shaping a Project
Animation & Storyboards, Seeing Stars, and We Have Sound
ANIMATION & STROYBOARDS
Carolyn and I were excited at the prospect of having our work animated, however, I suggested that, as a prelude to this, we should show animation that described the science project as a concept foundation of our subsequent art pieces – it would help to make sense of our images. We set about discussing how this could unfold visually. I made several basic storyboards and finally, when ideas became more concrete, I put together a comprehensive A4 storyboard comprising 50 or so pages and a lot of research, drawing, graphic design and photocopies. We gave a presentation of this to Chris Fluke, Jeff Cooke and Igor to outline our plan. They liked our ideas and how it was shaping up. James was great to work with and for several months we toiled away – refining it and having the science stuff checked by our local gurus. We had a deadline of October 20th which was to be the first viewing of the piece in conjunction with Igor’s public lecture.
We also wanted to include images of the telescopes used but it required high resolution images. This was difficult; I tried unsuccessfully to find them on the internet and elsewhere. No one was able to help so, eventually, I contacted Stuart Ryder who, thankfully, supplied details of most of the observatories and individuals who could help, I was able to contact most people and places in countries including Chile, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Antarctica and America as well as Australia. Later Jeff was able to supply some too. It was important to us that the telescopes and countries be highlighted as this is, partly, what makes the program unique. Things were going well. However, to our horror, when showing Jeff Cooke our progress some time later he mentioned that there were now twenty more telescopes taking the tally to forty and that more countries were involved... Picking my jaw up off the floor I planned to deal with that later. The telescope sequence was already too long and we later decided to highlight the most strategic ones while mentioning the others.
SEEING MORE STARS & SUMMER OF SOUND
During February, 2017, another observation run took place, this time on Swinburne campus. The room was referred to as the Control Room and we attended. As we wanted a soundscape to accompany the animation, I suggested Roger Alsop, a sound artist and lecturer in sound from the VCA may be interested. He came along one night to the observation and recorded the atmosphere and people such as Stuart Ryder explaining the project. Roger has since composed an effective mesmeric sound scape for the animation which adds ambience and an ethereal quality.
With Igor in the Control Room at Swinburne University, 2017. Photo, Carl Knox.
Time out for MONA and a Large Hadron Collider experience
if viewing this on a phone, apologies - the image and informatin do not appear for some reason.
In May 2017 I saw an installation, ‘Supersymmetry’ at MONA Hobart that was right up my lightning lane. Japanese sound artist Ryaji Ikeda was an Artist in Residence at CERN - home of the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. The show aims to transform the complexity of quantum information theory by engaging sound with visual data and high speed light displays. It conveys an idea of what it would be like to be inside a particle accelerator. I was exhilarated by the whooshing, bleeping, pulsing and buzzing electronic soundscape, shooting laser lights, blinking screens, rapid fire data and mutating patterns of text - a truly multi sensory experience.
Gallery a Go Go, Scienceworks, Our new status, Star-breaking News,
The Optics Lab, and Talking Art
Our ideas had expanded and we wanted to have an exhibition which meant securing a gallery. After considering several options I decided the Town Hall Gallery in Hawthorn was a no brainer, if we could secure it, as it is very close to Swinburne's Hawthorn campus. It is also a stunningly beautiful space and run by the Boorondara City Council.
I made a call in May 2017 and spoke to deputy curator Elle Groch to explain our purpose. I wasn’t deterred when she said they were booked out in 2018 and I suggested to Carolyn that we go and attempt to see her in person which we did and she suggested we send in an outline of our project. This we did and, after much deliberation, the exhibition was named DEEPER DARKER BRIGHTER.
Well, the planets aligned and in September we received the go ahead for the show to take place the following May of 2018. We were elated and glad that our work and our involvement with Swinburne would be acknowledged in an exhibition that would run for close on two months. Not only that, we were given the whole three galleries. With the animation and our ideas and experience, I was more than confident that we could fill the spaces with an engaging event.
We had serious work to do. But other things were also simmering on the spacetime stovetop.
Chris Fluke mentioned he knew Dr Tanya Hill who is an astronomer, an Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne, and the Senior Curator (astronomy) at the Scieneworks Planetarium. We made a time to meet and I put together a portfolio of our work to show and tell and in early September we had a constructive discussion with Tanya Hill and Kate Barnard, talked about our animation and what our hopes and dreams were for it. Although we didn’t have anything to show beyond our portfolio we explained Deeper, Wider, Faster and our plans to bring it to creative life and that it would, hopefully, be interesting enough to show at the Planetarium. We agreed to keep Tanya and Kate posted as to its progress.
Scienceworks presents a series of art animations in their Planetarium and in July Carolyn and I went along to see Fulldome Showcase 2 which was part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Fusing art with science these hypnotic moving projections, Escher’s Universe and Chaos and Order – A Mathematics Symphony (Germany), explored interconnections between creative and scientific worlds.
As we were feeling fairly ensconced at Swinburne by this stage I felt we could, perhaps, be deemed Artists in Residence. In August I suggested this to Chris who was quite correct in noting that as we were not occupying a studio on campus it may be a bit tricky. In September I then put to him the option of becoming In-House Artists. Chris gave us the green light on the 12th September to, thus forth, be named ‘In-House Artists’ for Swinburne University and the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. We now have this status until the end of 2018.
Thank you Chris Fluke.
STAR-BREAKING NEWS & IGOR'S TALK
By October 2017 the astronomical news had broken, two colliding neutron stars had been detected and this became the subject of Igor’s public lecture. Igor was exceptional – he explained things very clearly. The first draft of our animation was screened at the end with an introduction from Igor. It looked great on a large screen but there was still work on it to do, a whole sequence needed to be added and a lot of tweaking and refining. We were pretty pleased though and inspired to complete our vision. Jeff Cooke also showed it during his talk for the Mt. Burnett Observatory and has also offered to show the finished product at his public lecture in 2018. Thanks captain.
Since the project began I had been reading widely about stars, telescopes, quantum physics, light behaviour and spectroscopy, and I wanted to see some related apparatus. Chris Fluke organised a visit to the Optics Lab In December for James and I where we met Jeff Davis who demonstrated how the spectrum can be viewed using various instruments.
TALKING ART at the DIRECTOR'S LUNCH
Each Monday in the lunch room on campus at CAS the staff and students get together for pizza, announcements, and a talk. Carolyn and I gave a talk in December 2017 to these fifty or so people introducing ourselves, our art and the upcoming exhibition using a powerpoint presentation I had put together as a reference. One of our objectives for the talk was to see if anyone would be interested in participating in art workshops to be lead by Carolyn and myself. We had some takers.
Workshopping, the Astro Lab and Seeing Stars Again
Chris Fluke had mentioned that some students and staff are also creative. We discussed the idea of somehow including intersted people in the up-coming exhibition. I felt art workshops would be interesting to explore with science minded people and perhaps their work could be exhibited in the show too.
Carolyn wanted to exhibit a few models of observatories in the show and sent a call out to those who might be interested in building them. Four students arrived for Carolyn’s model making session with others coming along later. They began work on their sculptures which wee eventually exhibited in the gallery.
My painting workshops aimed to produce images of explosions (such as supernovae), with the idea of displaying them in the gallery – a wall of explosions perhaps. I was also secretly hoping to unlock some creative doors within scientific types who had not explored art previously. A few students came along and, putting paint to paper, off we went. I showed them a few basic effects with water and ink etc. and at the end we had several arterly outcomes that showed promise. Over the weeks more people came for painting activities and there began a two way engagement of art and science.
Fast Radio Burst talk at Mt Burnett. I went to Mt Burnett Observatory one evening in December 2017 to hear a talk about fast radio bursts. Just as well I did! Dr Chris Flynn from Swinburne was giving the presentation. Afterwards, I met Chris and looked through a VR gizmo he had which showed planets and the sun. I was, of course, amazed and we got talking. I told him about the exhibition and he offered to show me some more ‘toys’ at the lab on campus.
This was mind blowing stuff. I organised a visit, with James and Carolyn, to the lab in early February 2018. It was incredible! We looked through the mobile headset which takes the viewer around the solar system but what blew our eyes nearly off was the VR tour, via a much bigger headset, which showed 3D imagery of cosmic animations and effects. It’s hard to describe but it felt like walking in space: looking up, down and around, walking toward celestial bodies and seeing the most startling and captivating light shows. This was inspiring stuff and I wanted to have something like this in the show so asked if it could be included. Thank you Chris Flynn and the team , Jacqui, Carl and Mark who accommodated a fantastic interactive activity including their VR experience, during the opening of the exhibition..
MORE STAR SEARCHING
In February there was another observation run scheduled for four nights commencing, this time, at around 9pm and finishing at about 4am. I attended two nights for 2-3 hours each; it was a buzz as usual and I met new people and old ones too. It was great to see Stuart Ryder again who explained many more things. More candidates appeared - can't get enough of them. Also, there was a strong asteroid presence where particular people were delegated to that search. Molluskular magnificience -The Crab Nebula - looked great on screen too (below middle shot on the right).
Photos, Pam Bain.
THE ART PROCESS
The Wall of Candidates
I was enamoured with the candidates - those exotic oblongs - from the first observation run in 2016 which is why I had been drawing my own ever since and putting my unique stamp on the alluring rectangles. I calculated how much paper we needed to fill one of the walls in the gallery and how many candidates were required to fill it. I started painting 24cm x 42 cm size rectangles in late December 2017. As I painted each batch, I scanned them and arranged them in a document - drafting designs in different configurations. I still call them Pamdidates.
This was the outcome - the Candidate Light Collective - over 4m wide and 2 m high comprised of 90 separate paintings using ink, pencil and paint.
The Paper Expeeriment
Mid 2017 I began working with paper – painting about 60 sheets in different colours and textural aesthetics, sculpting them in various ways and lighting them via various means from within. I took a few photos with my digital camera and the results were exciting. I developed this experimental approach and carried out more photo sessions. I developed them into some of the works shown in DEEPER DARKER BRIGHTER.