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  • From the Big Bang to Island Universe:Anatomy of a Collaboration
  • David H. Weinberg (bio)

I first met Josiah McElheny in September 2004, in the cafe of the Wexner Center for the Arts, for what turned out to be a three-hour lunch. We were joined by Helen Molesworth, the Wexner Center's head curator. From an earlier conversation with Helen, I knew that Josiah wanted to make a sculpture about the big bang, connected in some way to the chandeliers that hang in New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Conveying an accurate understanding of the big bang is one of the hardest challenges I face in my introductory astronomy lectures, and I doubted that I could provide useful advice on how to do it with a sculpture. But by the end of our conversation we had identified a way forward, and after six years and four completed works, Josiah and I are still collaborating.

Josiah and I have given numerous talks in the last two years, some individually and some jointly, on the four sculptures that have so far emerged from our collaboration: An End to Modernity (2005), The Last Scattering Surface (2006), The End of the Dark Ages (2008), and Island Universe (2008). I was delighted to participate in the Narrative, Science, and Performance symposium, which was an especially apt forum because of our project's deep roots at Ohio State and the Wexner Center, and because of the symposium's focus on the nexus between science and art. I have written elsewhere (see the Biographical Appendix) about the scientific background of these works, explaining the "code" that connects their elaborate arrangements of chrome-plated metal, glass disks and globes, and incandescent lamps to astronomical theories and observations. Here I will give just brief explanations of the science and focus instead on the history of the project, providing what I hope is an informative "case study" of an ambitious collaborative effort at the art/science border. [End Page 258]

An End to Modernity

In that first lunchtime conversation, Josiah began by showing me examples of his recent work, intricate constructions of transparent and reflective glass that explored themes of modernist design and architecture. He described his fascination with the Met chandeliers, a striking hybrid of cut-glass opulence and Sputnik spikiness, created in 1965, the year that the discovery of the cosmic microwave background provided the linchpin evidence for the big bang theory. Josiah showed me a sketch of the sculpture he envisioned: a "Met chandelier" remade in a streamlined modernist style, brought down to eye level, and connected explicitly to the big bang, with glass pieces representing galaxies and lamps representing quasars.

Josiah knew the potential conceptual flaw of this design. While the popular image of the big bang is an explosion of material from a central point into pre-existing space—an atom bomb on steroids—cosmologists understand the big bang as the origin of space and time itself, initiating an expansion that occurs everywhere and has no center. I ran through my usual analogy of the expanding universe as the skin of an inflating balloon, carrying apart "galaxies" marked on its surface. Returning to Josiah's sketch, I noted that one might naturally read it not as a snapshot of a single instant but as a progression in time, with explosion at the center leading to subsequent fragmentation in the outer regions. I suggested that we make this progression explicit by having distance from the center represent time, mapping specific locations in the sculpture to specific epochs of cosmic history. The outer edge would mark the present day, and the supporting central sphere could represent the "last scattering surface," formed half a million years after the big bang, when the opaque fog of light-scattering free electrons dissipated and the universe became transparent for the first time. Somewhat to my surprise, Josiah embraced these suggestions immediately. And really, everything else has followed from there.

Over the ensuing six months, Josiah made monthly visits to Columbus, and I gave him a crash course in modern cosmology, covering the empirical and theoretical underpinnings of the big bang theory and more recent discoveries about the formation and growth...


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