Origami, raining glass and world-building in art and science. Or three ways to find a planet.
What with all this Stars Wars mania, I’ve been thinking about the painful struggle both artists and scientists share when discovering new planets.
In science, the discovery of new planets or ‘exoplanets’ – planets that orbit a star other than our Sun – is a strange story… correction, is as strange AS a story. Since 1992 when the first detection of an exoplanet was confirmed, over 3,500 have been discovered.
So why is this a strange story?
Well, for example, when NASA’s Kepler space telescope discovered exoplanet 146b – drum roll please… they realised it was much like Luke Skywalker’s fictional Star Wars home planet, Tatooine, where two suns majestically set instead of one. Is this a case of life imitating art, and can scientists and artists draw on their mutual experiences to help each other’s quest for new worlds?
All fiction too, by definition, creates newly imagined worlds, be they made-up versions of contemporary living (I am currently admiring Ali Smith’s post-Brexit protagonist in Autumn) or full-blown fantastical realms (Ursula Le Guin’s world-building continues to inspire generations of writers). I began to wonder whether as writers we can draw lessons from science that might help us make our fictional worlds more ‘visible’ to our audiences. Stay with me as I attempt to explore this new frontier and to boldly go where…you know the rest.
So, here are three ways to find a planet by using parallels in science to help artists birth their own fictional worlds or let’s: FIND, FILL and FUMBLE. (And yes, I know this sounds like a dodgy tabloid headline).
Firstly, we have to FIND the blasted thing.
Not as easy as one might think for scientists as well as artists. Exoplanets are difficult to see directly from the Earth as they are small and faint and easily lost in the glare of the bright stars they orbit, so scientists often use indirect methods to find them. One of these is called the ‘transit method’, whereby scientists painstakingly measure the brightness of a star over a long period of time, and look for periodic decreases in the brightness of the star that are caused by a planet passing in front of it. I imagine this as something akin to brass rubbing. (Ok, it’s a fair cop, I’m no scientist and will insist on clinging by my fingernails to simplistic metaphors.) You rub back and forth (no innuendos please) not really sure what’s going on, until gradually the full picture is revealed. What pre-exists is excavated through light patterns and literal shadow chasing. Amazing.
To anyone who’s ever struggled with finding their own fictional world, scrambling in the dark, searching vainly but painstakingly for tiny, faint outlines of worlds they are sure exist but can’t quite see, the ‘transit method’ for finding a new world sounds familiar.
We can now say that we writers feel our fellow scientists’ pain. We look for ‘Endoplanets’ within our minds. (I’m not sure if this is a word, but ‘endo’ in Greek means 'inside' and I want to walk into a doctor’s surgery and say I’m a writer suffering from ENDOPLANETITIS which you have to admit sounds like an excruciating medical condition involving the endless search for internal worlds just out of view).
We too often lose our new worlds in the glare of the sun (ie distractions of any kind, like reading blogs when one should be working…). Stephen King talks about the excavation of stories ‘as relics from an undiscovered pre-existing world’. Personally, of late I’ve been excavating varying sizes of prehistoric poo, but I live in hope of discovering my own endoplanet beautiful, whole, and very, very strange.
Next, scientists and artists need to FILL their new planets, flesh them out and bring them to life.
This involves enormous feats of imagination for scientists as well as artists. Neither of us can see our newly discovered world. The brilliant @lewis_dartnell gave a fascinating talk at www.newscientistlive.com on the hunt for alien life. He explained how in astrobiology scientists push the boundaries of what we know is possible on earth, in order to help us conceive of new types of life on exoplanets. So, they study ‘extremophiles’ or species on earth that exist in conditions we’d previously thought impossible to sustain life. They have found organisms that can exist above the boiling point of water or below minus 20 degrees. In turn, this allows them to imagine the possibility of life on exoplanets with more extreme conditions than on Earth.
Of course, a writer’s imagination is born out of their own life experience. But we too, push the boundaries of our knowledge using alternate and sometime extreme versions of our own world in order to imagine other ones. We use what we know to postulate about what we don’t know. Rose Tremain in a survey on writing for the Guardian called it: ‘seeking out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that's going to enhance your understanding of the world.’ It’s this that is probably, albeit unconsciously, always the impetus for writing a book, to investigate what we don’t know through what we do know. In Naomi Alderman’s, The Power, the ‘extremophile’ scenario is an imagined world where teenage girls biologically evolve to a point where they have extraordinary physical strength over men.
Lastly, let’s herald the art of FUMBLING. Oi, you at the back stop sniggering. The chaste art of The Mind Fumble is a much maligned one. The Mind Fumble is allied to FINDING and FILLING but not quite the same. It involves leaps, and falls and broken bones. It involves pushing one’s imagination far, far away. Fumbling our minds outwards and upwards as we seek new frontiers. It must necessarily involve constant failures, re-thinks… fumbling as a state of mind.
Science, of course, also involves constant and often radical re-castings.
For example, it seems that the diversity of exoplanets discovered, have blown up previous accepted theories about planets in a spew of bizarre and downright sci-fi findings. They’ve found big planets with tiny rocky cores, ones that rotate in opposition to their parent stars, huge ones that are as light as balsar wood, and even speedy ones orbiting their parent star in just four days. “We lacked imagination – you get very blinded by what you know, and think that determines what is out there,” says Charles Beicham, Executive Director of Nasa’s Exoplanet Science Institute.
It seems that scientists need imagination as much as artists. How exciting.
Of course, artists too are always trying to make their worlds more visible to their viewers. I’ve had the privilege to watch first hand the genesis of award-winning dance productions by www.akramkhancompany.net and I’ve seen how the story telling in productions like DESH constantly evolve from a dream – where somehow a dancer would interact with a digital jungle or the idea of an upturned dangling ‘sky forest’ – to the spell binding reality of seeing these dreams fully realised.
The best writers and scientists are always in a fumbling state of mind, always looking for answers to their world building problems. So, the inspiring Scientist Abbie Hutty @a_hutty, worked on the Mars Rover and was grappling with problem of designing its plastic casing when she found inspiration from, I kid you not, making the origami centre pieces for her wedding; she was struck by how these folds might solve their Mars Rover design hiccups.
Can you hear it? DJ Planet playing the latest trending track and dance sensation: The Mind Fumble: “Let’s give this up for all those struggling artists and scientists out there trying to find their world MASSIVES.” Obviously, this would be followed by perfect silence as a million artists and scientists origami fold their minds as they try to birth their own endo and exo planets.
Maybe this is all boldly going a bit too far, science and art are, after all, very different. Finding planets without and within the mind are not the same. Yet, I’m still struck by the parallels.
For example, Blue Monster is an exoplanet about the size of Jupiter but over 30 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun.
And it possibly rains glass there.
Scientists need artists to create an artistic impression of Blue Monster and to fully imagine how it might look and feel. Glass rain is a writer’s bread and butter. We make it rain glass everyday, by pulling out from inside ourselves imagined universes that don’t exist.
A wonderful illustration of this is the classic Goldilocks story that has flown into space: scientists are at this very moment studying exoplanets in the so called ‘Goldilocks zones’ or habitable areas around a star that are neither ‘too hot’ nor ‘too cold’ for liquid water (and hence the potential for life) to exist.
Are we living at a time when art and science have peculiar inter-section? Could we be twin stars rising and setting together over are own Tatooine? Both trying to world-build through finding, filling and fumbling?
Anyway, I’m off to paper over my plot holes with my own folding, collapsing mind. You might see me in my chair as I fly through the galaxies in search of Blue Monsters and sideways glass. What, you can’t see me?
I'm invisible to your naked eye, you say?
Well, go do The Mind Fumble then...