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Warping Spacetime in Art and Verse

As animals scurrying about the surface of this planet, we find it tremendously difficult to comprehend what is really going on in our universe. Astrophysicists insist that there are freaky, impossibly dense things out there in space that we can't even see, which they call "black holes." They say that the existence of black holes is predicted by the known laws of physics, which behave in strange ways on a scale that is unimaginably huge (they also behave strangely at a tiny scale, it turns out). Since the 2015 detection of gravitational waves—ripples in space-time caused by massive cosmic events like the collision of two black holes—by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO, funded by NSF and co-managed by Caltech and MIT), they say there is actual evidence for these strange objects.

For general peace of mind, it's easier for most of us to envision the night sky as a large tent over the earth full of pinprick holes through which the sun twinkles at night. But this is not what astrophysicists are after. For them, one suspects, ignorance can never qualify as peace of mind.

One such person is Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne (BS '62), Caltech's Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, who has for decades taken up the challenge of explaining peculiar-to-us celestial activities to the general public. To be fair, this is an almost impossible task. When scientists talk about wormholes or cosmic strings, it can feel as though a single electron, conveniently sentient and verbal, is trying to tell other electrons about Chicago. One suspects the audience of fellow electrons might be bewildered. But Thorne insists on finding innumerable ways to make our strange, curving, dynamic universe intelligible to anyone with the patience to listen.

Thorne is not the only one. While Thorne was busying himself luring scientists into an ambitious scheme to detect gravitational waves—predicted by Einstein, who said they were undetectable by humans—an artist in Connecticut was reading Thorne's account of the wacky and wild forces and objects at work in the universe.

"I started collaborating with Kip about six years before I ever met him in person," says Lia Halloran, now chair of the art department and associate professor at Chapman University. "I was in graduate school at Yale for my MFA in painting in 1999. At that time, I was already taking half of my courses in astrophysics. My mother gifted me Kip's book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. Kip created a sort of invitation through this book that I felt was inspiring me to make artwork. In fact, one of the largest paintings in my MFA show was a 5-foot-by-16-foot painting of a wormhole inspired by Kip's book." Halloran, who was artist in residence at Caltech in winter 2022 through the auspices of the Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture, adds, "The way Kip wrote was what I wanted my art to do."

Eventually, Halloran and Thorne met at a party on the Caltech campus, and, as Halloran tells the story, "I elbowed my way over to him and very effusively told him, 'You're such an inspiration! This book did something to me that nothing else has, and it's not the only book I've ever read about black holes! I've been studying it for years and years.'" Halloran invited Thorne to her studio to view her paintings, and a collaboration was born.

For 13 years afterward, Thorne and Halloran worked together to tell, through words and paintings, the story of the strange phenomena and objects of our universe. "Our project began as a little book," Thorne says. "A friend of Lia's with experience in book design placed several of Lia's paintings on one page, alongside my words, which she broke up into stanzas to make the page look more aesthetic. I looked at it and had an epiphany: this could be poetry! When writing in prose, I've put a lot of effort into trying to explain the details of how things work and be as accurate as possible within the constraints of not using mathematics. But with our book now made up of verse and paintings, the goal became not to give fine detail or seek high accuracy but rather to convey the essence of the science."

What began as a little book has become a big one. Titled The Warped Side of Our Universe: An Odyssey through Black Holes, Wormholes, Time Travel, and Gravitational Waves, Halloran and Thorne's tome consists of hundreds of paintings, each tightly integrated into several stanzas of verse. "We really push against the use of the word illustration," Halloran says. "Kip's words get you to one part of the experience and the painting then takes you over. You can't rely on one or the other to understand these things. You must experience them in tandem."

For her paintings in The Warped Side of the Universe, Halloran chose ink on drafting film. "The drafting film has an almost plastic-like feel, and the ink moves around the surface in a very fluid way," says Halloran. "The ink can't soak into the material the way paint does on paper or canvas. Instead it evaporates up and leaves behind luscious ink pools. It has a life of its own. Even if the painting is representational, the materials create a flavor of abstraction."

For Thorne, the experience of collaborating on the book was enriched by the fact that it took place "simultaneously with the LIGO project reaching fruition and seeing gravitational waves, and with the Cornell/Caltech SXS Collaboration's computer simulations of colliding black holes beginning to show us the dynamics of warped space-time that were then verified in LIGO's observations. The book became a vehicle to share the excitement of the insights into astrophysics that occurred during the 13 years while the book was being written."

The Warped Side of the Universe is as Halloran and Thorne hoped, an inviting book. It is a sort of children's picture story for adults. Thorne's verse encourages readers to read more slowly and impressionistically than they might if his words were densely formatted as prose. Already primed by the verse, the paintings further trigger the imagination. They insert a proxy for the reader into the story in the form of Halloran's wife, Felicia, who appears as a space traveler falling into black holes and worm holes, and experiencing the effects of extreme gravitation and space-time warping.

The Warped Side of the Universe will be released on October 31. A Behind the Book event with Thorne and Halloran is scheduled for November 13 at Caltech in Beckman Auditorium and will also be livestreamed. The event is open to all, but registration is required.

Written by Cynthia Eller

Cynthia Eller