Cosmic Collisions


The unprecedented observations of two neutron stars merging reported this week mark a new level of insight into cosmic materials, collisions, and processes.  The event was recorded by both the detection of gravity waves warping space-time (as predicted in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) and light emissions at different wavelengths, allowing scientists a clear view into the physics of extremely dense materials (thousands or millions of tons per cubic centimeter) and processes that yield rare dense matter like gold).  Peering into an event occurring 130 million light years away stretches humanity’s ability to sense and explore the cosmos–it is thrilling to think of how big our eyes and ears are becoming!

Science by itself makes observations in conjunction with theories, but it doesn’t interpret, explain, or make the knowledge speak to us on deeper levels. One function of art is to help us not only think about but feel, sense, understand, comprehend, through our senses, the implications of scientific insights.  These observations brought to mind two very relevant collaborations between artists and cosmologists.

When I watched a BBC video of the sound of the neutron stars merging, I thought of Gérard Grisey‘s composition Le Noir de l’Etoile, and his collaboration with cosmologist Jean-Pierre Luminet (also a wonderful writer and poet). Grisey heard a recording of emissions from pulsars, and wrote an hour-long work for 6 percussionists; in performance, they ring the audience, and the pulsar sounds that play are the “guest stars” of the evening.  You can view the original performance here.  Grisey timed performances to coincide with the passage of pulsars in the sky, so that the music was literally tuned to cosmic rhythms.  In his liner notes for the CD, Grisey writes, “When music succeeds in conjuring up time, it finds itself with a veritable shamanic power, that of connecting us to the forces around us,” and compares timing performances with pulsar emissions to solar or lunar rites of past civilizations.  Luminet’s liner notes assert that “Grisey’s music is indeed in the image of the stars: in turns rhythmic, violent, haunting, spluttering, incessantly starting over again…. The universe is not necessarily comfortable, nor is today’s music.  But this is our universe, our music.”

The neutron star merger also brought to mind “Cosmic Collisions,” a recent installation at Charles Jencks‘s stunning artland Crawick Multiverse.  Jencks’s ambitious vision is that “A garden should not only present [a] worldview or cosmology but also heighten our relationship to it, through the senses” (including the sense of humor) (The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, 5).


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Jencks thinks on cosmic timescales, imagining collisions between not only stars but galaxies.  In the video on the Multiverse homepage, he describes the landforms representing our galaxy and the nearby Andromeda galaxy, and reminds us that they will collide, pass through one another, and fold together in an amazing “dance.”


I visited the Multiverse shortly before the Cosmic Collisions installation opened, and had the pleasure of watching Jencks working at the site with Alistair Clark, who is the head gardener of Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and an amazing gardener, stone smith, and land artist in his own right.  Using shards he chipped from the large rock above, I left him a message in stone, along with a note explaining that it had been “a plus” to meet him and see his “A+” level workmanship.

A+ for Alistair



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