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Flying through invisible

By Alex Piazza
apiazza@umich.edu

Picture yourself flying through space.

At each turn, you find yourself immersed in pockets of pink and purple webs that look more like brain neurons than stars or planets.

Piano music and drumbeats echo loudly as you navigate through the bright colors.

“You feel like you’re really there, like you’re in a spaceship flying across the universe,” said Jim Cogswell, professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design.

But you’re not. You’re seated in a dark production studio inside U-M’s Duderstadt Center, surrounded entirely by a 20-foot high screen and dynamic speakers.

Welcome to “Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible,” an unconventional research project that gives audiences an idea of what it feels like to fly through dark matter in our universe.

Cogswell teamed up with an astrophysicist, a musician and a computer scientist to create the unique visualization that premieres May 12-15 in Duderstadt.

“Through art, we can bring the awesome wonder that scientists experience on a regular basis to everyday people,” he said. “We want to make the invisible both visible and audible to our senses.”

Dark matter

Call it the visible universe.

Planets, suns, stars and galaxies—we can see millions of them as we gaze into the night sky. But this makes up only about five percent of the universe. Another 70 percent is dark energy.

Dark matter is invisible, but it makes up about 25 percent of the universe. Scientists worldwide are working to better understand this mysterious substance that we know very little about.

“If we can learn more about dark energy, it would certainly shed more light on how the universe formed and where it’s headed from here,” said Gregory Tarlé, a physics professor at U-M who recruited Cogswell to work on the project.

Although you can’t see dark matter, scientists know it’s there because of its gravitational impact on the galaxies.

“When we look at the universe, we don’t see this dark matter that forms the framework—we instead see the galaxies and stars that illuminate the universe,” Tarlé said. “But one of the ways in which we know there’s dark matter out there is by looking at the structure of the universe and how it formed. In order to produce the structures that we see in the universe today, on the small scales that we see them, you have to have a significant amount of dark matter.”

Tarlé used results from the Millennium Simulation Project, a computer model that simulates the motion of a billion particles of dark matter in the universe and reveals how the particles interact throughout cosmological time.

"I wanted to create something that would instill in people the same awe and the same sense of beauty that we as scientists see on a regular basis," Tarlé said.

With funding from MCubed, a unique funding program designed to spark innovative interdisciplinary research at U-M without traditional peer review, Tarlé assembled an inclusive team of colleagues from across campus to create a dynamic visualization of the Millennium particles, which represent the distribution of dark matter in the universe.

“I wanted to create something that would instill in people the same awe and the same sense of beauty that we as scientists see on a regular basis,” he said.

That’s why Tarlé recruited Cogswell and performing arts technology Professor Stephen Rush. Cogswell handled the visuals, while Rush managed the musical score.

“I’m a visual artist, so I look intensely at the world,” Cogswell said. “This is something that no amount of looking will show us. So even though dark matter is something we can’t see, the concept of building a visual work based on something that is invisible has a nice irony to it.”

The big screen

Last year, the trio, along with U-M graduate students Jason Eaton and Simon Alexander-Adams, as well as postdoc Brian Nord, designed their first flythrough installation.

The initial project included Millennium particles evolved to the present day, whereas the new installation takes audiences on a trek from when atoms first formed all the way to present day, then back again.

At first, audiences will merely see a purple background. But as the flythrough continues, structures begin to form. These structures played a key role in the evolution of our universe.

Scientists now understand these structures formed an invisible net that captured the matter that made up the first stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters. The heavy elements forged in these stars then became the raw ingredients from which our sun, our planet and life came about, Tarlé said.

“You’ve probably heard people say, ‘we come from the stars,’” he said. “Well, this is what they’re referring to. The carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, the phosphorous, the sulfur that makes up our bodies—those elements were forged in a variety of stellar burning processes. And then that material was ejected from the stars and ultimately formed our solar system. We would not be here if it weren’t for the expanded universe and the formation of structure, and dark matter played a big role in that process.”

“This, to me, is way freaking cooler than a paper,” Rush said. “Call me old fashioned, but come on. Take a look at this. The first version has been shown in England, China and 15 other spots across the country. How’s that for dissemination of information?”

Cue the inspiration behind “Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible.”

And unlike most academic research projects, there is no abstract. There is no journal article. And there is no peer review process.

The two-plus years of research that went into creating the installation instead has taken the form of a DVD, a vinyl record and a traveling installation.

“This, to me, is way freaking cooler than a paper,” Rush said. “Call me old fashioned, but come on. Take a look at this. The first version has been shown in England, China and 15 other spots across the country. How’s that for dissemination of information?”

Questions?

  • What?
    • Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible is a visualization of the distribution of dark matter in the universe, based on data from a massive billion-particle computer simulation.
  • When?
    • Noon to 6 p.m. May 12-15
  • Where?
    • Duderstadt Center Video Production Studio, University of Michigan North Campus
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  • Want to learn more about research at U-M?