PRINCETON - INTERVIEW - Ed Belbruno - The Colors of the Universe:
Microwaves and Art
"To see the world in a grain of sand,
The opening lines of visionary William Blake’s poem, "Auguries of Innocence," come to mind when mathematician and artist Ed Belbruno describes his latest paintings of surprisingly beautiful microwaves.
In early 2007, I interviewed Belbruno about his book, Fly Me to the Moon, in which he describes how one of his paintings provided the solution he was seeking to fly a Japanese space ship to the moon without using fuel.
During that interview, he showed the first of a new series of paintings, where rich, abstract yellow and orange shapes floated in a sea of blue and pale green. To me, they looked like an exotic school of fish swimming in a coral reef.
"No," he said. "They're microwaves radiating throughout the universe."
WRR: How did you become interested in microwaves?
The microwaves that initially interested me are not related to the microwaves we’re familiar with, those that fuel our cell phones and heat our dinners, although they contain the same electro-magnetic radiation. These microwaves come from the most fundamental source: heat left over from the event that created the universe – the Big Bang.
WRR: When did the Big Bang occur?
The field of cosmology puts the Big Bang at roughly 14 billion years ago. From that explosion all the galaxies, including ours, were formed.
WRR: And it’s possible to pinpoint when the universe originated?
Well, the microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang is passing through us all the time and actually it is pretty substantial. For example, if you don’t have cable television and turn your TV to a channel and see the static, then about 2% of that static is due to the microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Very minute variations in this radiation show us something about the makeup of the early universe, about 300,000 years after the Big Bang occurred, which in astronomical terms is just an instant. These variations, on the order of about one part out of 100,000, can be picked up by a NASA satellite about one million miles away in space called WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe), as explained to me by the Princeton University astrophysicist, David Spergel.
It gives a picture of sorts of the very early universe and how its density varied billions of years before our solar system was even formed. It’s an incredible picture of the entire known universe at that time: a map composed of microwave radiation. This helps us pinpoint when the Big Bang actually occurred.
WRR: What is a microwave?
A microwave is a form of electromagnetic radiation that vibrates at a high frequency in space. There are different forms of electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, light waves, infrared waves, etc. Microwaves can be thought of as related to heat. In fact, they can be used to vibrate molecules causing friction which is used to cook food in microwave ovens. These vibrations can also be used to send information used in cell phones. The microwaves saturating the universe left over from the Big Bang were created by heat left over from processes associated with that event.
WRR: What is it about microwaves that inspired you to paint them?
I started painting microwaves about a year ago, but prior to that, about four years ago, I had a conversation with J. Richard Gott, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. We were looking at a map of the universe produced by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has all of the data available about the observable universe.
It was incredibly interesting to see the universe - stars and galaxies - its utter beauty. From this data, Richard made a map of the universe that starts with the Big Bang and ends with the Earth under our feet today. He put this on a long piece of computer paper that is not very wide.
WRR: And he already was familiar with your work as an artist, in addition to your career as a mathematician and scientist.
Yes, and the map was so complicated and grandiose, it blew me away.
He said, “Why don’t you paint this?”
And I thought, why not? So I painted stars and galaxies and planets, a slice of the universe on canvas. It now hangs in the astrophysics library at Princeton.
After I gave him that painting, he suggested I paint microwaves. And I had this knee-jerk reaction where I thought, no, that’s impossible.
WRR: What was it about microwaves that intimidated you?
This field is so rich with data; it takes time to absorb it. It is very intricate -- showing a chaotic structure, which is brought out with the color-coding the scientists use. Where the microwave radiation is most intense, red is used, then yellow for less intense, going to green and then blue for the least intense. What you get is a dazzling map with red splotches sitting in islands of yellow surrounded by green and blue. It is in an ellipsoidal shape and shows the structure of the universe about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. It is so complex that it didn’t seem something I would be able to paint.
Here’s a fact that I find miraculous: In the Bible, Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” implying that it all happened in an instant. Well, if you look at the scientific data, the universe was created in an instant. The data implies that at one point there was nothing, and then in a tiny fraction of a second, the universe was created. In that sense, the Bible is correct.
WRR: Is God a stand-in for the Big Bang?
Honestly, we have no way to understand how it all happened, but out of the Big Bang springs microwave radiation, a by-product of heat. If you look at the dispersal of microwaves on the map of the universe, you are also seeing a distribution of this heat.
The idea is this: When microwaves are zinging all over the place, if you believe the instantaneous creation of the universe theory, it would imply that heat signals are not uniform and there isn’t a gradual degradation of heat. It implies that hot spots occur randomly, as do cold spots. And what you see are sprinkles of reds in seas of yellow sitting in seas of green in a background of blues.
WRR: So, you were slowly warming to microwaves, so to speak.
Yes, about a year ago, I was surfing the web and keyed in the words: microwave background radiation. And up springs the typical ellipsoid map. But then I saw another map, an entirely different one. I took a small piece of it near the middle and blew it up. Lo and behold, it showed features you couldn’t see with a big map. I thought, this looks like an abstract piece Jackson Pollack might paint.
So I set out trying to paint it. Because of the microwaves’ random patterns, I couldn’t use the techniques I usually use, which, until then, had been brush-painting scenes anyone might identify.
I realized that I’d have to re-orient my point of reference. I began throwing layers of paint on the canvas and using my brush like a sculptor, letting the brush move almost on its own. The technique felt right and when I showed a few of these paintings to colleagues and friends, I realized that they connected to the images as deeply as I did.
WRR: What do you feel like when you paint these?
I’m no longer painting from any conscious part of my mind. I’m not thinking about it or directing my mind, but a pattern appears almost like magic. If you want to, you can refer to it as a conduit or channeling experience.
WRR: You recently participated in a group show in Princeton and your paintings drew quite a crowd.
I think people are connecting with these paintings. I believe it’s due to the fact that we are recognizing a part of the universe. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our planet is bathed in microwave radiation. We are bathed in them. So maybe, when people look at these paintings they are unconsciously seeing images that were present from the day they were born, and for that matter, during the evolution of the human race.
WRR: But the paintings often evoke other images.
Yes. Ultimately, the paintings are abstract images that go beyond microwaves. I’ve been told that the microwaves look like dancing beings. It makes me think of the Japanese satellite, Hiten, which is the focus of my book, Fly Me to the Moon. Hiten means Buddhist angel which dances in heaven, and that’s exactly what the microwaves seem to do.
In fact I just painted a seven-foot piece and I thought, let’s try and bring out various scenes. So, when you look at the paintings, you see trees, dancers, a lake. Microwave patterns seem to appear is if they are cosmic fireflies.
It’s been a process of exploration. In the past year, I’ve painted about 20 or 30 images trying to see where they’re going. I’ve only scratched the surface.
WRR: Which is…
Well, I want to do a number of things. I’d like to tie the paintings together in a Jackson Pollock-esque way, keeping the spirit of the color scheme, of the microwaves themselves as the central metaphor.
I’m interested in painting huge canvases – 8 feet long and 15 feet high - spanning the universe. Imagine walking into a room filled with scenes from the universe: microwaves and star-filled skies.
WRR: In the midst of all this, you are still a working mathematician.
I love doing mathematics, working with NASA and talking with people in the space field. Straight mathematics is an art form as well, and publishing research papers benefits the scientific community. So, I’m not ready to give that up, although, I’ve created the space to spend a substantial amount of time on my paintings.
Art is integrated with my lifework, and has gone beyond it. With the microwaves, the art has gone beyond figurative work, allowing me to break new ground. I like to be a prolific reader and web browser and go to museums around the world. In my travels, I’ve never seen anything like these.
. . .