An Uncertain Light

On 23 September 2011, Einstein blinked. A team of scientists working at Italy’s Gran Sasso Laboratory emerged from their underground lair, tucked alongside the 10-kilometre autostrade tunnel that threads its way beneath the highest peak in the Apennines, to bask briefly and sheepishly in the glare of press attention from around the world. 

The cause of all this interest? Apparent evidence that subatomic particles known as neutrinos, fired towards their OPERA experiment from the celebrated Large Hadron Collider some 731 kilometres away on the Franco-Swiss border, had arrived some 60 billionths of a second sooner than expected. 

Ordinarily, this might not have created so much as a ripple beyond the rarefied world of the scientific journals, but neutrinos are rather special particles: near-massless nuggets of energy, they travel as close to the speed of light as makes no odds. To reach Gran Sasso from the LHC quite so quickly, it seemed they must have broken that hallowed c, the constant 299, 792.458 kilometres per second at which light itself propagates in a vacuum, and which forms the ultimate speed limit of the universe itself

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c has stood as a cornerstone of modern science since the late 19th century, when astronomers and physicists finally confirmed the remarkable fact that light approaches us with the same speed from all directions, regardless of the relative motions of source and observer. From 1905 onwards, Albert Einstein rebuilt the Universe from the bottom up around this simple, undeniable fact, overturning centuries of Newtonian physics to bring us a strange new cosmos in which space and time are interrelated aspects of a continuum that can be exchanged for one another in extreme scenarios. Looking at situations in which objects approach the speed of light led him to the discovery that energy and mass are equivalent, also negotiable through that mighty equation, E=mc2. 

Einstein’s discoveries shaped the world through the 20th century and beyond. Paving the way for both nuclear power and the bomb, each bringing with it attendant anxieties, they helped to forge the modern hierarchy of global power. Scientifically, they laid the foundations for the quantum physics that brings us increasingly close to understanding the heart of matter itself, yet at the same time carries its own vocabulary of uncertainty and strangeness, exclusion and spookiness, charm and quantum weirdness. Ushering in an age of relativity that we feel today as keenly as ever, they render the question mark in the title of Giles Alexander’s new exhibition doubly appropriate: everything, it seems, is relative.

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Each of these dark, luxurious works resembles nothing so much as a window onto a different world. In some cases, this is exactly what they are – the luminous representations of La Luna, our ever-changing moon, the seemingly placid ringed beauty of Saturn, and the mysterious clouded atmosphere of Titan are the fantastical yet minutely detailed porthole views from a spaceship of the mind. 

At other times, we see through a glass darkly, peering through the murk and reflection into human spaces that shape our experience of the world – the debating chambers of democracy are here, but so are the cloisters and throne rooms of older and more secretive powers. In one case, the title offers us no clue – we find ourselves looking in upon an arcane space and pondering its purpose. And yet the uncertainty cuts both ways – today more than ever, questions hang over the future of many of these long-established power structures.

Elsewhere again, we meet the challenges of modern science head-on. Both Grand Unifyed Theory and The Eye of God cheekily juxtapose the kaleidoscopic structures of the Large Hadron Collider itself, the biggest machine ever built and a temple to the achievements of modern science, with the greater cosmic architecture of images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Eye on the Heavens, meanwhile, offers both a portrait of a great astronomer (Brian Schmidt shared in last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating) and an interpretation of the techniques used in his work. 

The detail in the paintings is stunning – hyperrealistic representations of spaces and objects that we more usually experience through photography. The deep, smooth layers of resin that cover them blur the boundaries still further, imparting a photographic gloss that both removes us from the images, making us work all the harder to interpret them, and inevitably ensures that we are ever-present within them. For such inherently dark images, light is everywhere, bouncing off the surface in unexpected directions – appropriately enough for subject matter that is often inspired by quantum physics, the very act of engaging with the work affects the nature of what we see.

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Since that brief, tantalizing ‘what if?’ moment last September, the scientific establishment has mobilized swiftly to investigate the OPERA discovery. Detailed analysis of the OPERA measurements soon pinpointed possible flaws, and independent experiments failed to provide any further evidence that the neutrinos were behaving unusually.  A new set of measurements being conducted at Gran Sasso this month should settle the matter, but it seems unlikely that Einstein’s Universe will be overturned this time.

And yet there is always a next time. For all the advances in our knowledge of the Universe, there are still fundamental questions to be answered, and uncertainty remains. J.B.S. Haldane may have had it right when, on the cusp of the quantum age, he voiced his suspicion that:

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy. That is the reason why I have no philosophy myself, and must be my excuse for dreaming.”

Giles Sparrow, May 2012

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