The ARTacama Project- Art Meets Science Mapping the Cosmic Microwave Background

Artist And Scientist with cameraMark Devlin is an experimental cosmologist exploring the underlying structure of the universe.  Jackie Tileston is an artist, and Christine Pfister not only heads one of Philadelphia’s most innovative galleries for contemporary art, but also happens to be Switzerland’s Honorary Consul. For a few brief moments, all three came together last week to produce an extraordinary event highlighting the ongoing search to understand the beginning of existence.

While experiments at massive accelerators like the one at CERN try to identify the subatomic particles that immediately followed the Big Bang, experimental cosmologists focus on what can be learned by looking at the broad scope of the universe itself.  For roughly 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was  an opaque plasma in which overheated electrons captured photons making it impossible for light to escapCHRISTINE PFISTER-captione. As the universe gradually cooled, the photons were able to break free and they began to scatter across the cosmos.  The aftermath of that event is visible today as cosmic microwave background radiation, essentially an echo of the Big Bang.  By mapping the patterns of this radiation, it is possible to have an insight into the universe’s evolution.  When we look at the sky, we are looking back in time.  The light that reaches us is essentially a snapshot of something that happened long ago.

Although the first 380,000 years remain a mystery in terms of electromagnetic radiation, there is another possible way to looking into the distant past.   Gravity waves circulated immediately after the Big Bang, and if it were possible to detect them through fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background that we can now detect, it might be possible to infer what happened before the uncoupling of the photons.  As it is, the cosmic background is already helping to identify new galaxies and to spot others that may already have died.  The next targets are dark matter and dark energy.  Barely understood, they are likely to provide valuable clues about our own future.

BLAST platformMark Devlin, who teaches astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania is the principal investigator on two major research projects that do just that.  The first, entitled BLAST (Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope)  involved mounting a large reflecting telescope on a platform suspended from a helium balloon roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower, floating at an altitude of around 35 kilometers over  Antarctica.  The second experiment, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT), which was funded by the National Science Foundation, placed a multimillion dollar camera in an even larger telescope on a 5-kilometer (17,000-foot) high mountain top in Chile’s Atacama desert.  The extreme height of the installation and the absence of moisture in the desert, lets the telescope operate nearly 99% free of any atmospheric interference.  The camera, or receiver, at Atacama has gone through two updates so far. The latest is the ACTpol (Atacama Cosmological Telescope- polarization sensitive receiver), ACTPol mountainwhich is designed to be sensitive to the effects of gravitational lensing of cosmic radiation and  also provides information useful to better understanding dark energy. A third camera, the Advanced ACTpol camera, is currently under development, and will be installed during the winter of 2016.  While satellite-based telescopes like the Hubble don’t have to worry about the atmosphere, they can only see a small slice of the universe. In contrast, the ACTpol camera with its wider aperture is designed to produce a temperature map of the sky.

The introduction of an artistic sensibility began in August 2012, when Mark Devlin instinctively objected to the standard blue paint that manufacturers insisted on using for their telescopes.  On the spur of the moment, Devlin decided to change the paint on the ACTpol camera to a bright yellow.  “It was a bad choice,”  he explains.   Devlin and the ACT team soon decided to convert the gaffe into a teaching opportunity.   The result was a campus competition to turn the camera’s housing into an actual work of art.  Unfortunately, since it was August, there were no students,  but Jackie Tileston, who teaches art at the University of Pennsylvania, volunteered to take up the challenge.  Tileston explained that she had always been interested in abstract art as a way of articulating the inexpressible.  She had already exhibited at the Pentimenti Gallery, and before long, the gallery’s director, Christine Pfister, was also involved. An added impetus for Christine Pfister was that she had previously visited Chile, but had not had enough free time to visit the Atacama desert. She regretted the missed opportunity.  The fusion of art and science became the ARTacama Project.

In the end it was Christine Pfister who had the idea of turning what could have been an amusing   exchange between colleagues into an international event involving a much larger public.  “Scientists and artists are interested in accomplishing what they are working on,” she says. “Sometimes they do not realize that there is a larger ecosphere, and that the public needs to be connected.”   As it turns out, Christine Pfister is not only Switzerland’s Honorary Consul in Philadelphia, but  she also sits on the Executive Committee of the  Consular Corps Association, which represents honorary consuls from 28 countries. Before long, Benjamin Leavenworth, Chile’s Honorary Consul in Philadelphia was also involved. Leavenworth was even more enthusiastic. The realm of science is almost beyond imagination, he noted, “Yet this is the realm where artists work. Artists use other materials to show us other possibilities, other views of the world. ” He added that he hoped that the ARTacama Project could be introduced as an educational event for school children in Chile and Atacama as well as Philadelphia.

The event, under the ARTacama Project banner, introduced an impressive cross section of the public to the cosmic background mapping project, and it was capped off with a rare visit to the University of Pennsylvania’s Experimental Cosmology High Bay Facility, where the platforms for the BLAST balloon experiments are put together.  The audience was impressed.  “I am in finance, not science, ” said one of the participants, “but I have to say that I find this fascinating.”

In fact, the ARTacama Project, evolved behind the scenes from a whimsical art experiment to a deeper learning experience both for the artists and scientists, who clearly appreciated the added dimension.   Simply painting the camera would have required a deeper  investigation into which paints would be most likely to withstand the wear and tear that the camera was likely to be subjected to, but it would also have meant taking the camera out of action at a time when the Atacama team was rushing to get it ready.  Instead, the decision was made to produce a painting that could then be photographed and eventually transferred to a plastic sheath that could be applied all at once.  The best candidate was a new type of plastic wrapping material used to apply decals on racing cars.  The approach made it possible to add the artwork in less than a day, but it also meant that the artist, in this case, Jackie Tileston, had to visualize a flat surface as it would later look when transformed into a PAINTINGcylindrical surface, with various pieces of equipment protruding.  In a way the project mimicked the astrophysicists’ exercise in imagining the shape of the universe, which is thought to be a relatively flat plane, but one that may also bend.   The ARTacama Project, by merging the disciplines of science and art,  had  managed to bring everyone at least briefly onto the same plane.

“This took a lot of support from different people,” says Christine Pfister. “It went way beyond what an artist is likely to know how to do on her own.”  In fact, when the finished wrap was applied, additional paint was needed to cover the original yellow. So far, only around 50 or so scientists, VIPs and curious adventurers have been able to see the camera during visits to the remote mountaintop installation in Chile. When the camera has outlived its usefulness, however, it, or at least its housing, is likely to find itself placed in a museum.  At that point, Jackie Tileston’s intriguing painting, playfully entitled “Radical Measure (not quite random)” will very likely draw attention to the object that marks one of the critical steps in the evolution of our understanding of the origin of everything.

In the meantime, the scientific work at Atacama is producing new insights.  The new ACTpol camera detects minor differences in temperature and polarization through an array of bolometric sensors which compare the readings from outer space to a reference which is near absolute zero and has to be maintained on a constant basis in the camera housing.  The patterns of gravitational distortion in the cosmic microwave background provide clues to what might or might not be there.  In a sense looking at the universe is looking backwards in time.  The camera has come a long way from the work of Samuel Pierpont Langley’s first model, invented in 1878.  Langley’s invention consisted of two platinum strips; one exposed to heat radiation and the other covered with lampblack. The device used the two strips as a wheatstone bridge with a sensitive galvanometer to measure differences.  By 1880, Langley had perfected the apparatus enough to be able to detect the heat of a cow a quarter of a mile away. It eventually enabled him to detect atomic and molecular absorption lines in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Today’s devices are considerably more sophisticated.

One of the remarkable things about the ACTpol camera is that it was designed and built  Ben Schmittmostly by students.  The overall input came from a variety of universities and institutions on five continents. Mark Devlin says that the diversity of the student input created a healthy stream of new ideas and fresh ways to approach the problem.   Benjamin L. Schmitt, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, who is on a fellowship from NASA, the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration, developed the optics, detector arrays and internal electronics.  After receiving his PhD, Schmitt will spend a year studying public policy at the US State Department, before going on to do further research.  With a strong interest in art and especially music, Schmitt was instrumental in launching the art contribution to the ARTacama Project.

Despite projects such as the research at Atacama, much of the universe may remain forever beyond the reach of observation–at least with our current technology, advanced as it is.  Scientists estimate that the universe is nearly 13.8 billion years old. It goes to reason that photons emitted by anything more than 13.8 billion light years distant, ware forever beyond our field of vision.  Estimates are that the diameter of the universe is probably around 92 billion light years, which puts most of it beyond our range. Still Mark Devlin takes that in stride. “Thirteen billion years doesn’t seem like much to me,” he says, “and in fact, it is not.”  Given these facts, is it worth spending millions of dollars on trying to discover what might have happened millions of years ago?  Mark Devlin clearly believes that it is.  He points out that the realization that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, changed mankind’s understanding of our own position relative to the universe. What we learn next may have an even more profound effect.    “As we unravel the mysteries of the universe,” Devlin says in a film describing the BLAST experiments, “astrophysicists have the opportunity to revolutionize what our culture thinks of our place in the universe…It is going to be mind blowing. It will change everything.”


The Pentimenti Gallery’s website

Mark Devlin’s Page at the University of Pennsylvania

BLAST, a film on the balloon flights (downloadable on line) 

Benjamin Schmitt can be reached at [email protected]

A NASA publication on Benjamin Schmitt’s innovative contribution

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