Friday, January 1, 2016

Spacetime, Noh & New Year

 Happy New Year! I hope you had a great New Year's Eve to launch a fabulous new year! Personally, it was a bit quiet; I spent my evening looking after my little guy (who is under the weather), keeping an eye on my feisty, elderly diabetic cat (who had some cat medical drama this week, but who, fingers crossed, may actually be able to come off her daily insulin injections) and printmaking in my pyjamas. My husband was working the late shift... though he magically did arrive in time for us to greet midnight together.

2015 was definitely not my favourite year. I'm old enough to know that the challenging times come and go and there will be a time beyond them. My hope for our next year, is that it is less stressful for us all, and any lessons it has to offer are gentler. Health, happiness, love and adventure for everyone.

I suppose I have been thinking a bit about space and time. Inspired by Art.Science.Gallery's upcoming printmaking show about cosmology, and wishing to avoid being to literal (my first instinct is to produce the sort of diagram you might see in a textbook, rather than art), I finally took a crazy idea from my head and put it on paper. It's all about Noh and spacetime.
Ele Willoughby, 'Noh Spacetime', linocut 12" x 12", 2015
I've tried to be succinct, but I realize, to do so, you would have to happen to have several of my interests in common, and read the same books and so forth. So, here goes nothing. If this is gobledegook to you, please feel free to ask questions!

This is a linocut print on 12" x 12" (30.5 cm x 30.5 cm) Japanese paper with collaged or chine-collé gold paper, of Noh masks on a spacetime diagram. The masks shown are a woman (Onna-men, a young girl Ko-omote mask), man (Otoko-men, specifically a warrior Heida mask) and a demon (Onryo, specifically a jealous Hannya mask).

Years ago I stumbled upon a book about Noh in a used bookstore. I collect masks and am interested in Japanese culture, so I bought, 'Noh, The Classical Theatre' by Yasuo Nakamura. I was very surprised to read how the author described the difference between the men and women characters and the supernatural "beings not of this world" in Phantasmal Noh. The humans live in a 3D world and the otherworldly characters like demons live in a 4D world. As a physicist, I know that we all actually live in a three spatial dimensions with a 4th dimension of time; this would mean that the supernatural Noh characters have access to a 5th dimension - 4 spatial dimensions and time. What surprised me even more, was the explanation of this 4th spatial dimension of spirits which is "not for the purpose of setting up positions in time and space as we know them". Nakamura explains by way of analogy, and his analogy is almost identical to that used by Edwin Abbott in his 1884 satirical novella 'Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions'. This strange little geometrical parable of a book gained fame after Einstein had published his theories of Special and then General Relativity. In hindsight, Abbott's book, which tells the story of how flat shapes one day encounter a sphere, seems like it is foretelling how we in our 3D world are in fact embedded in a 4D reality, and teaching us to think about higher dimensions outside our experience. Both 'Flatland' and 'Noh, The Classical Theatre' explain higher dimensions by imagining first linear creatures trapped on a line and how 2D creatures on a plane could in fact be free to move around them, and then proceeding to describe planar creatures encountering a 3D creature and how its freedom of movement would seem supernatural.

So, I've shown the Noh masks on a spacetime diagram. Special relativity tells us that we can't separate space and time and our world is actually part of a 4 dimensional spacetime continuum. It also tells us that while speed is relative to your frame of reference, the speed of light called c (about 3.00×108 m/s, or 299 792 458 m/s) is the universal speed limit. Nothing can go faster. So to envision this 4D world, we use spacetime diagrams. There's no easy way to draw 4 dimensions on a flat 2D surface, so we use the trick of showing time as the vertical axis, and only showing 2 of the 3 spatial axes on the horizontal plane. Where the axes meet is here and now! Everything below the plane is the past. Everything above the horizontal plane is the future. Everything we know is limited to a volume of spacetime known as a "light cone". This is the cone on the diagram. The slope of the cone gives speed (specifically it's the inverse of the slope, or the distance in space divided by the time); wishing to avoid extra math, we simply scale our units of time such that c = 1. So, the cone makes a 45 degree angle with the vertical and horizontal axes. I've shown the light cone as if it is filled with stars, because remember, it represents everything as we know it, the observable universe. Everything which can possibly have affected us in the past, now, and everything we can possibly affect in the future. Any object or thing or person or planet or what have you has a lifeline - the line it traces through space and time within the lightcone. The slope of the lifelines can never be flater than the lightcone, or the speed can never be greater than c, the speed of light. For the Noh masks, the dotted lines are their lifeline. The man and woman are together and here and now. The woman was a young girl in the past. The man will be a warrior. All the white space outside the light cone is what physicists call "Elsewhere". Elsewhere is unreachable; you would have to be able to go at superluminary speeds - faster than the speed or light - or have access to higher dimensions. So the demon does precisely that; her lifeline goes much too fast and in and out of elsewhere!

Incidentally, according to some flavours of modern cosmology or string theory there may in fact be more than 4 dimensions. So perhaps our Phantasmal Noh characters have access to these dimensions, or maybe they are tachyons - postulated particles with imaginary mass which can go faster than the speed of light. Certainly, this classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century, comes complete with characters not limited by causality.


Katherine Koba said...

I always love your prints but I think this one may be my favorite yet!

minouette said...

Thanks so much Katherine! It's a particularly odd idea which has been knocking around my brain for years and I'm very glad to see that people other than me get it. Cause that wasn't obvious to me.