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A scientific justification for art

For two years in college I lived with art majors and whenever I didn't like a piece of abstract modern art I got cut-down for some absurd thing like being too scientific and not creative enough. I've always looked at it like Feynman, understanding the science behind how the world works gives you a greater appreciation for the beauty of a flower or sunset, and most certainly the cosmos.

You may have seen Josiah McElheny's art before, but cosmologist David Weinberg put a paper on arXiv last week that explains the science behind it. If you haven't seen it before, McElheny (a prominent sculptor) received an art residency at Ohio State University and worked with Weinberg (an accomplished OSU cosmologist) to create an accurate artistic version of the big bang. While the photos make it look like an explosion (not at all how to think of the big bang), they actually have a really cool explanation to accompany the pieces.

The center represents the origin of the universe and the outer edge represents the present day, moving from one end to the other depicts the entire 14 billion year history of the universe.

The sculpture has 230 rods coming off of it, each with its own random length ending in either a group of exquisite glass discs and globes, representing galaxy clusters; or a single lamp, representing a quasar. We must then use our imaginations to picture them surrounding by immense amounts of dark matter, which we know exists based on its gravitational influence on such objects.

The rods emerge from a center sphere, which depicts the surface of last scattering, a dense fog of electrons that made the early universe so opaque it's now the most distant source of light we can see (i.e. the cosmic microwave background radiation). The big bang itself is hidden behind the central aluminum sphere, just as we can't see the actual big bang because of the surface of last scattering.

For scale, each 7.2 inches of the sculpture corresponds to a factor of 2 times cosmic expansion, giving the piece a 1000 fold growth at its outermost point. So, the first galaxies in the piece are suspended on rods 3 feet from the origin, or 100 million years after the big bang.

As the rods get increasing farther from the center, the galaxies get larger and clusters of them emerge, and the galaxies take on increasingly complex elliptical forms.

The actual lights on the end of the rods represent quasars, our universe's brightest objects, which are fueled by supermassive black holes and can be a thousand times brighter than the galaxies they're at the center of. The lamps closest to the center are the faintest because there hasn't been enough time to build these supermassive black holes, the lamps get increasingly brighter as the rods move farther out. The intensity of the lamps decreases again though as the frequency of interactions between the black holes decreased after several billion years.

Weinberg puts it elegantly in the paper:
"Because light travels at a finite speed, astronomical telescopes function as time machines: when we observe distant objects, we see them not as they are today but as they were when they emitted their light. This fortunate feature of physics allows us to build an empirical picture of the history of the universe from observations at the present day. An End to Modernity represents the principal elements of this picture — the Last Scattering Surface, the growth, transformation, and clustering of galaxies, and the rise and fall of the quasar population — in idealized but qualitatively accurate form."

I'm sure most people just see it and think woah! But here's definite proof - having knowledge of science can improve your aesthetic sense.


  1. I agree. I have always been asked "Doesn't knowing the details take away from the experience?" and I always say that it enhances it.


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