LIMITS OF COGNITION: ARTISTS IN THE DARK UNIVERSE

1 03 2009

By ROGER F MALINA

Discoveries in cosmology reveal that 97% of the energy and matter content of the universe is in a form that is of an unknown nature, called dark matter and dark energy. For all of human history, our species has been studying only the same kind of matter that it is made of (baryonic matter), and this matter and energy is a minor constituent of the world. The human senses are very badly designed to investigate the total content of the world.

Science and technology have led to the development of a large range of different kinds of instruments to allow us to perceive parts of the world below the thresholds of our unaided senses. Other kinds of instruments allow us to access parts of the world that emit energy of a kind that our senses cannot even detect in principle. There seems to be an innate human urge to continue exploring current limits of our perceptual systems, building new cognitive territories. Such a urge would presumably have survival advantages for the human species resulting in a selective advantage during human pre-history. Now they provide the ground for development of new human cultures.

The role of artists is essential in helping us develop the kinds of intuitions, new metaphors, explanatory concepts, and linguistic elements that are needed as we explore the new extreme territories, from micro to macro scale. As scientists continue to extend the limits of perception and cognition, artists have an important role in shaping the science of the future and new possibilities for art-science collaboration exist..

New generations of artists are sufficiently trained in science to begin to contribute actively to the exploration of these extreme environments. Artists in residence, such as the one co sponsored by the Leonardo organization at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, are helping to provide platforms for new art-science collaborations. Through such collaborations we can imagine that the experience of extreme environments will become culturally appropriated with the development of new languages, analogical and metaphorical frameworks and indeed new intuitions that will frame our imagination and artistic and scientific futures.

INTRODUCTION

Some instruments allow us to see in more details part of the world we know about, but others reveal unsuspected territories, that we did not know existed. We are in an exciting time in astronomy right now because new telescopes have revealed the existence of new kinds of matter and energy, called dark energy and dark matter. Astronomers now believe that the kind of matter we are made from only takes up about 3% of the universe we live in.

This poses a new conundrum, that all of science until now has only been focused on 3% of the matter that makes up the world, leads to a discussion of the scientific and cultural imagination. New ideas come from inside the minds of each of us, framed by dreams and desires many of which are born when we are young. The new ideas that scientists have need to be constrained with the way that the world is, but often we are locked into certain ways of imagining that keep us from finding good explanations for new discoveries. Artists can help in the re imagining that becomes necessary; sometimes such re framing can lead to new insights that prove to be useful in the work of scientists and engineers. In turn artists create art that is “resonant” with the world we live in and our daily lives and aspirations, laying the seeds of new dreams and desires. Ideas flow between minds in many different ways, through collaboration, inspiration and conversation.

We are in an exciting time in the arts and sciences because of the emergence of a new generation of artists, artists that are scientifically and technically savvy. I call these artists “New Leonardos” because they work in the tradition of Leonardo Da Vinci. If you look at the “digital sketchbooks” of these artists you will find drawings from nature and sketches for art works side by side with technical calculations, dream descriptions followed by lines of computer code needed to make their artworks, and sometimes ideas for scientific or technical inventions.

MY OWN SCIENTIFIC TRAINING AND BACKGROUND

My own technical background is relevant to the way that I approach this discussion. I obtained my first degree in Physics at MIT but the determining experience for me was through independent student research in an x ray astronomy group. The field of X ray astronomy was just opening up and there was competition between the research groups. This competition was translated through the design and construction of new kinds of instruments, and then launching them into space on high altitude, or sounding, rockets and satellites. There I learned of the close coupling between new scientific discovery and new technology, or what is often called “techno-science”

I went on to a PhD in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. There I became the coordinator for Professor Bowyer’s sounding rocket groups, working with the team to build new kinds of x ray and extreme ultraviolet telescopes that we launched on rockets from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It is hard to describe the thrill of building a new device and then being the first to be able to see a previously unknown part of the universe. Yet in a real sense this scientific cognition is the creation of the instruments built to make them.

I went on to lead the UC Berkeley team that built the first space observatory for NASA to map the sky in the extreme ultraviolet band ( the light intermediate between x rays and the ultraviolet) This required our team developing new kinds of optics, telescopes, filters, spectrographs, measurement and visualization techniques. This observatory, the extreme ultraviolet observatory, EUVE, successfully mapped the sky and catalogued over 1000 stars visible at that color of light, mapped some of the diffuse glowing gas surrounding the solar neighborhood. After ten years work building the observatory we were rewarded with the true thrill of discovering mapping and studying parts of the local universe never studied in this way before.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE UNIVERSE

I now work in the field of observational cosmology, studying the universe on the largest scales of space and time. There are two major recent discoveries that are beginning to upset many of our pre received ideas.

The first has come by the study of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Einstein predicted that gravity from massive objects would bend light. Astronomers have now been able to see this effect when light from behind a galaxy passes by the galaxy on its way towards us. The light goes by that galaxy, and the gravitational field of the galaxy works like a large lens. Using the distortion of the image cause by gravity, astronomers are able to calculate how much mass is in that cluster of galaxies. The big surprise is that there must be about 10 times more mass in the cluster than can be accounted by just adding up the mass that emits light. This “missing mass” is called dark matter and there are now many attempts to learn more about it. Today this dark matter is a complete mystery, except that we can see it bends light like ordinary matter and it attracts our kind of matter with the same law of gravitation.

The second discovery has come from studying the large scale structure of the universe. The best model for the universe today is that it began in a big bang roughly 14 billion years ago and then expanded until the present. As the universe expanded, the matter cooled and formed stars, galaxies, and planets and life. Astronomers have now developed a number of ways of mapping the universe and its expansion. If only gravity was acting one would expect the universe’s expansion to be slowing down due to the force of gravity. Yet it appears that during the past 5 billion years, the expansion has been accelerating. It is as if there is something is acting against gravity, pushing everything apart. Astronomers now estimate that something like 70% of the universe must be in some kind of dark energy with a “repulsive” effect to account for what is seen. But the nature of this dark energy is currently unknown.

This is very unsettling; some scientists are now saying that there is something fundamentally wrong about how we think the universe is built; perhaps we need to modify our theories of gravity. And to understand we need not only new instruments, but fresh thinking about the physical forces that govern the world and how things fit together.

THE MYSTERIOUS EFFECTIVENESS OF INSTRUMENTS

As a scientist I work as an instrument builder. Other scientists work in different ways interpreting data and comparing it to models, developing theoretical ideas and testing them. All of my scientific projects have been involved working with large teams of scientists, engineers and managers to design and build new kinds of instruments, space observatories.

The physicist Eugene Wigner has written of the amazing effectiveness of mathematics as a language to describe and model the real world. As an instrument builder I am struck by the mysterious ways that instruments we build allow us to understand the world around us. Not only do instruments allow us to get more detail on parts of the world that we already know about, but sometimes new instruments reveal part of the universe that we didn’t even know existed. Certain kinds of knowledge just cannot be obtained until an engineer has invented the right device.

We think that we are flooded with information about the world with our senses. But in fact our senses are the most effective filters ever devised. They filter out almost all the energy and information that reaches our body, letting through only the bare minimum we need to survive in our daily life. In a real sense the history of astronomy, and many other observational sciences, over the last three hundred years has been the story of overcoming the information censorship of the human senses. Astronomers have devised new tools to amplify our senses (telescopes working at the same wavelengths of light detectable to our eyes), to augment and extend our senses ( microphones on the surface of Mars, but also x ray telescopes and radio telescopes able to see forms of light we are blind to). Our robotic rovers even allow an extension of “touch’ through robotic arms operated at a distance and “taste’ through remote chemical analysis. Science is a continuous exploration of new, extreme and initially hostile territories for which we were not designed as a species.

Today scientists and engineers are also developing new senses that are not based on amplifying or extending our existing human senses, but rather on detecting other forms of energy such as gravitational waves and particles such as neutrinos. These forms of energy are even conceptually undetectable by the human sensory design. For instance we are not the right “size” to be able to detect gravitational waves that are kilometers in scale, or to intercept neutrinos that can travel through the earth before reaching us. We live for too short a time to see events that only happen once every ten million years. We have a very biased, self referencing, way of looking at the universe.

Our survival as animals depends only on the ability to sense, and deal with cognitively, a very small portion of our immediate environment. Yet we reason fearlessly by extrapolating for this very unrepresentative portion of the world to the most distant parts of the universe and to the smallest atomic scales. Our intuitions have been trained on the wrong kind of experience to deal with the new kind of phenomena we encounter. This is one of the reasons that we have trouble grappling with quantum mechanical realities that particles can behave both as waves and particles, or that one can not know with ultimate precision two quantities linked through the uncertainty principle. At our physical scale these phenomena do not exist, and hence our language and cognitive structures are ill matched to their description or reasoning about them. Our notions of causality are based on the intuition and expectations that we acquire by interacting physically as children in a world accessible through the filters of our senses and commensurate with our physical nature. As we enter new territories of scale, time, perception we must acquire new intuitions and expectations, and it is here that artists can contribute to building new ways of interacting in these territories.

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WE CAN ONLY INVENT WHAT WE CAN IMAGINE

Jules Verne is credited with the aphorism that “What one person can imagine, another can invent”, and indeed Jules Verne’s science fiction is crediting with inspiring many scientists and engineers of the last century. For instance my father Frank Malina credits Verne’s novel “From the Earth to the Moon” to laying the seeds of dreams that led him to purse a career building rockets. La Fontaine stated it slightly differently with “ Chacun tourne en realites autant qu’il peut ses propres songes”. To turn these dreams into projects we need descriptions, language, metaphors,.

Where do we get our new ideas, how do we form the intuitions that guides our hypothesis making? I think we live in a very exciting time because there is a new generation of artists who are very scientifically literate and technically inventive. Some of the artists have parallel careers in science or engineering, patenting technologies, developing new ideas that in turn influence others. In a very real sense we are in a “New Renaissance” with new “Leonardo Da Vincis”s at work.

The journal Leonardo that my father Frank Malina started in 196, is still published 40 years later and is produced by two non profit organizations Leonardo in San Francisco and Association Leonardo in Paris. These organizations are dedicated to documenting the work of artists involved with science and technology, but also to stimulating collaboration between artists, scientists and engineers. Over 40 years Leonardo has published the work of more than 6000 artists and researchers. If there were a city with all these people and their families, the city would be home to about 40,000 people; this would be a larger community that that which was involved in the Renaissance in Florence and then Other European cities which changed the world at that time, another time when art and science were in creative friction.

There are new Leonardos alive and working today. These include for instance Canadian artist Char Davies. She creates work in virtual reality that is very beautiful and striking, but also helped build a large software company and has invented new computer interfaces. Ken Goldberg is both a professor of industrial engineering and an artist working with nano technologies, and with tele-robots. French choreographer Kitsou Dubois has flown on numerous “ zero gravity” training flights with cosmonauts, and collaborated with physiologist to understand how changing gravity affects perception. The sculptor Stelarc and the Australian group Tissue Culture have worked with biologists creating sculptural forms from living tissue, he has also worked with roboticists to build him self a third hand; he is the only human being to know what it feels like to have three hands. David Dunn and James Crutchfield collaborate as a sound artist and as a complexity theorist modeling the complex interactions of beetles, trees and forest fires. There are numerous other examples like these.

Almost every field of science and technology is now being appropriated by artists, as documented by Steven Wilson in his Leonardo Book “Information Arts”. Through their work the scientific and cultural imaginations are being confronted, new ideas, myths, metaphors and images are being formed. I am convinced that the work of the new Leonardos will in turn inject new ideas into the imagination of young people, and that this will change the science and engineering of the future.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The future of science and engineering are open questions. There are many possible routes that science could take, and many kinds of inventions that could be invented. There is nothing pre ordained about this. The future depends not only on funding decisions of governments and companies, but on the deepest dreams and desires in each one of us. In turn the discoveries we make and the tools we invent, affect in subtle and profound ways the kind of people we are. We know that we are building an unsustainable civilization. We are about to have to uproot our ways of doing things to end our reliance on fossil fuels, control population growth and environmental degradation. Instead of a world increasingly at peace, globalization is instead a world with many wars and conflicts, and threats to our survival. We need the coupling of science and art to help us explore these new initially hostile territories, and through this create new connections between common sense and common science.

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