One of the disturbing things about supercomputers is that they make you feel almost omniscient. The virtual universes I create inside them are completely unambiguous. Logic is followed, equations are obeyed. Even randomness it isn’t truly random. It’s all clockwork.
So you can see everything. Every aspect of the virtual universe is characterized by a number. Where is one part of a galaxy? How fast is it moving? How old are the stars there? But the shear amount of information is overwhelming. If I did these calculations by hand it would take me 140 billion years – over ten times the age of Universe. The stack of workbooks would reach from the Sun to the orbit of Pluto. Don’t even ask how much ink I would need, or how many trees to make the books!
Converting this deluge of information into something we can grasp requires creativity. Making movies, creating three dimensional representations of the data, actually seeing the numbers “come to life” on a screen, is also addictive. Initially researchers were skeptical of whether just “looking” at the data would help, but in practice this step has informed the advance of theories over the last twenty years. Seeing the geometry will always inform how you frame the math.
The sheer beauty of some of these “visualizations” is striking. You are also free to run things forward and backwards in time, to zoom-in, to choose another viewpoint or rotate. You can choose your favourite colours and paint the screen with a vibrant wash. Truth be told, choosing colours to faithfully represent data is a black art. There are books written about it.
But sound doesn’t play a role in the birth of these movies. Little thought is given to harmony. Perhaps we just haven’t figured out how to use it properly yet. It is science after all and the pictures usually tell the story. That said, some very creative people have thought about this issue. John Dubinski, a computational astrophysicist, and John Kameel Farah, a composer, collaborated on the Gravitas project: “a visual and musical celebration of the beauty in a dynamic universe driven by gravity.”
Lots of people love the music, which is after all quite a personal thing. I’m a product of the late 80s and early 90s. Coming from the UK, my musical preferences are heavily shaped by rave culture. I may not listen to it now, but the relentless rhythms are burned into my subconscious. Just thinking of the music sparks flashbacks of strobes, lasers and giant screens showing lava lamps.
The forms in my movies, the way the galaxies move, coalesce and grow triggers a connection to these memories—it’s probably tapping into flashbacks of the massive video screens. But when I show these clips to non-scientists I feel a need to add a “trippy” soundtrack. And these movies are trips beyond our wildest imaginations! It is simply incredible that we can envisage how such complex systems as galaxies form through an extension of thought alone.
One movie sparks an intense connection. The movie is several years old now, and no longer scientifically relevant. Yet every time I watch it, the imagery and pace remind me of “Little Fluffy Clouds” by a group called “The Orb”. The music is trancelike, layered melodies that arc and break over one another. The visuals are a perfect match–clouds of dark matter collide, shock and merge with one another. The lyrics even chronicle the movies colours: “Purple and red and yellow and on fire…” While the match requires serendipity, there is also a touch of irony: the Arizona skies of the song also happen to be the best in North America for astronomy.
Another movie (warning big file!) made by a colleague flies effortless through a universe of dark matter. Travelling unimaginably faster than any starship, we get to see the distribution of galaxies on scales that are hard to comprehend. The view of this imaginary universe is one worthy of a deity—God-like is not cliché here. When watching, I can’t help but feel a fleeting sense of omniscience, and one that is perfectly accompanied by Brian Eno’s, “An Ending (Ascent).” Despite being released 25 years ago, and being played countless times, the music still makes me shiver. It is seems somehow ethereal and untouchable. Just like dark matter.
The music doesn’t add any scientific validity to the movies. Some might argue it detracts. But the thought of using a musical overlay that creates a context or even juxtaposes for emphasis, is exciting. After all, music is something that speaks to more people than science. If it helps communicate the sheer wonder of our Universe then why shouldn’t we use it?