Wednesday, January 6, 2016

COSMIC turtles

A graphic cosmic timeline, from the
Big Bang to the present day
(Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)
This year, to coincide with PrintAustin, Art.Science.Gallery is hosting COSMIC, a show of prints about "Origin of the Universe. Evolution of the Universe. String Theory. Dark Matter. Dark Energy. Multiverse. Unification of Space + Time. Our Solar System. Cultural Cosmology." I mean, how could I resist? I've been working in every spare moment to produce two brand new prints for the show. (As it happens, most of my astronomy related prints have appeared in previous exhibits there, so I needed new cosmological material).

My first instinct, the first images I imagined were something like the NASA spacetime diagram shown, which is a graphical representation of a lot of the major concepts of cosmology: the Big Bang, Inflation, the formation of galaxies and so forth and even dark energy and our current accelerated expansion... It's a great use of imagery to communicate science, but it's far too literal. It's a diagram, not a piece of art. So I turned to the figurative, imaginative, metaphorical, to avoid the trap of the literal.

Turtles, All the Way Down, 11" x 14" (27.9 cm x 35.6 cm)
linocut with chine-collé by Ele Willoughby, 2016
In some cultures there are origin myths explaining that the (apparently flat) Earth is in fact supported on the back of the World Turtle (occassionally in conjunction with other beasts). In cosmology - or the astrophysics of the origins of our Universe - there is an expression "turtles all the way down" which relates to a well-known anecdote, and metaphor for the problem of infinite regress. There are many versions of the anecdote. It appears, famously, in Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, amongst other sources. The story goes that a physicist, after explaining the origins of our planet, is confronted by a disgruntled audience member who claims this is nonsense. The Earth is, according to him or her, supported by a great turtle. When the physicist asks about what supports the turtle, the answer is a larger turtle, of course. When the physicist persists and asks what supports this next turtle, why, it's "turtles, all the way down!" of, course. The same problem in epistemology is known as the Münchhausen trilemma, after after the story of Baron Munchausen who claimed to have pulled himself and his horse out of the mire by pulling his own hair, in the ultimate example of bootstrapping. (Incidentally, bootstrapping is a favorite tool of physicists, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is one of my favorite films).

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down!'
— Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988

I've illustrated this expression with a variety of wonderful turtle species using collaged or chine-collé papers to show their various colours. From the top we have an eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum), a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), a black pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii), a painted batagur (Batagur borneoensis), a Oaxaca mud turtle (Kinosternon oaxacae), a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the hint of something larger.

Those who've known me a long time will know that I've illustrated this concept before, I love turtles, am obsessed with origin myths and am rather found of zaratans. I am now wondering what, if anything, is the difference between a zaratan and an aspidochelone (incidentally, also encounted by none other than the Baron Munchausen, of course)?

The second piece I've submitted for COSMIC is Noh Spacetime. So it's metaphors all the way down.
Ele Willoughby, 'Noh Spacetime', linocut 12" x 12", 2015

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