“Vortices” and space-time storms

“Vortices” and space-time storms

If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to be sucked into a black hole—twisted, expanding, disoriented, doomed—you could do worse than journey through “the warped side of our universe, an odyssey through black holes, wormholes, and time.” “Travel and Gravitational Waves,” a collaborative book project by Kip Thorne, a physicist at Caltech, and Leah Halloran, a visual artist and chair of the art department at Chapman University in Orange, California.

Dr. Thorne brings impressive qualifications to this task. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which detected space-time oscillations caused by the collision of two distant black holes. He was also the executive producer of “Interstellar.” Ms. Halloran, who grew up surfing and skating in the Bay Area, became obsessed with science after interning in high school at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The book consists of illustrations of what Dr. Thorne likes to call “space-time storms” predicted by general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, alternating with his own interpretations of physics, which appear in poetry. Many of the illustrations, written in ink in the film’s framing, depict Mrs. Halloran’s wife, Felicia, being whipped, crushed, and twisted by the forces of nature.

These images involve real, cutting-edge science based on work carried out in recent years led by Dr. Thorne and Sol Tikulsky at Cornell University, in a project called Extreme Spacetime Simulation, or SXS. Gravitational waves were expected to stretch and compress spacetime in perpendicular directions as they travel, but it turns out that they also warp spacetime by a small amount. When Felicia falls into a black hole, her feet turn in one direction while her head turns in the other; In Ms. Halloran’s drawings, this movement is represented by eddies that Dr. Thorne calls vortices.

“Torsion is not something current technology can measure, whereas stretching and compression are easy to measure,” Dr. Thorne said in an interview. In the case of the colliding black holes at LIGO, this measurable difference is four thousandths of the diameter of a proton.

Dr. Thorne and Ms. Halloran have been collaborating for more than a decade. She received her MFA in Printmaking from Yale University in 2001 with a project based on Dr. Thorne’s book Black Holes and Time Warps, Einstein’s Obscene Legacy. She recalled meeting him years later at a party in Pasadena, California, and being “gushing hard.” She invited Dr. Thorne to her studio, and they agreed to collaborate on detailing and celebrating our strange Einsteinian world.

Their first project was a commissioned article for Playboy magazine in 2010, at the invitation of former book editor Dr. Thorne, who was working there at the time. The 6,000-word, nine-panel piece was ultimately rejected because Felicia’s photographs did not meet the magazine’s standards of feminine beauty. “I didn’t objectify women enough,” Ms. Halloran said.

Dr. Thorne refused to publish without his assistance. So the two continued to work side by side in her studio, producing illustrations and text for what they began to call “their little book.” During the pandemic, an aerial tour of the LIGO antenna was conducted in Hanford, Washington, on a friend’s private plane.

“It was just a wonderful act of friendship and collaboration,” Ms Halloran said. “Kip would come to my studio. We would talk and my head would be fuzzy from trying to process all the wonderful things he was saying. And then I would try to create something that could tangibly embody the kinds of concepts he was describing,” she added.

At some point, curious to see what they had, they asked a graphic designer friend to prototype the collages. Dr. Thorne was writing prose, but as an experiment the designer divided the text into stanzas. Dr. Thorne had an epiphany. “I’m really polishing the prose and working on trying to make it flow well,” he said. “And I realized that it was actually almost poetry, so I decided to try to turn it all into poetry.”

He drew the line trying to make it rhyme. But some might say that poetry was already there, in Einstein’s mathematics.

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