Converstion with Andrew Tomkins, Ph.D.

Elizabeth (June 21, 2016):

Hi Andrew,

Here's the first of several questions/musings I'd like you to respond to:

“[Slava] Epstein noticed that when he stained his microbes with fluorescent dyes and placed them under a microscope they looked just like constellations in deep space.” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/miracle-microbes)

At the age of six, I asked my father:  “What if a spec of dirt – that we can’t even see – is a universe within our own? What if I step on it by accident?” Each cosmos, I have always wondered, could be filled with smaller ones and vice versa. Most of these worlds I will never see due to their unimaginable hugeness or smallness, but I told my father on that day decades ago that "I know they are there."  (paraphrased from one of my writings)

Visual connections and relationships between the macro and micro worlds have always fascinated me. I am not religious, but I am often struck dumb by these relationships. Your work stretches from the microscopic to the cosmic. Do you see relationships between the microscopic and the cosmic? When did these first occur to you?

 

They Come From Outer Space

Elizabeth Addison
August 2016

The visual connections and functional similarities between the microscopic and the cosmic realms provoke a sense of the divine. Under a microscope, atomic particles, microbes, and the capillary structure of a leaf evoke constellations and nebulae of deep space to aerial views of cities and towns. Conversely, galaxies, planets, and meteorites can appear as the hugely scaled doppelgangers of tiny wildflowers, grains of pollen or a virus cell.

The universe’s inherent paradoxes of scale and time have influenced my core being since early childhood. I clearly recall a discussion with my father when I was six years old and after I had made an unsuccessful attempt to run away. My father took me on a “cool down” neighborhood walk and talk, just the two of us. “What’s on your mind?” he asked, and we found ourselves talking about our physical and metaphorical place in the universe. I remarked how big and how miniscule I felt all at once. “What if that spec of dirt is a universe of its own? What if I accidentally step on it?” I asked, pointing to a distressed patch of grass by the sidewalk. Each cosmos, I wondered, could be filled with smaller ones and vice versa. Where do I fit in these? How long do they last or live? Most of these worlds I would never see due to their unimaginable hugeness or smallness, but I was convinced they existed.

Scale can be contextualized by what we know already – our height, our age, the width of a hair, the span of a day. For the past two years, I have been taking a closer and deeper look at my world through a macro camera lens and a digital microscope. While in this process, I discovered striking, almost monumental images published by Andrew Tomkins, Ph.D. from Monash University in Australia. At first, I couldn’t quite place them – were they cancer cells or distant moons? It turned out that they were ancient fossilized micrometeorites, only a hair’s width in size.

As a visual artist, I found them very beautiful and compelling in their oddness. Their surfaces are wrinkled like a brain and they have, for me, distinct personalities.  These fascinating micro orbs, in Dr. Tompkins’ research, had stories to tell and unlocked secrets about Earth’s early atmosphere and origins. I reached out to the author and asked permission to use his micrometeorite images. Not only did Dr. Tompkins let me play with them, but we began a conversation engendering insight into scale and time at the threshold of art and science... and the value of staying true to your earliest inspirations. I want to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Tompkins for providing images and insights that helped nurture the development of this work.

 Andrew (June 23, 2016):

Hi Elizabeth

I have a distinct memory of sitting in our lounge room when I was about 8 years old, looking at images of the Horsehead Nebula in Orion and other night sky wonders in National Geographic. Back then, reading about how far away they were, I was amazed at the scale and beauty of the universe and so the memory stuck vividly. Since then I always had an interest in space, but had few opportunities to cultivate that interest. As a kid I had lots of different interests and the one that my dad helped me cultivate was geology; I collected lots of minerals and my dad helped by taking us on field trips to find gold and sapphires and gemstones. So when it came to deciding what to study at university, it was always going to be geosciences. After many years of study, receiving my PhD, and starting to teach geology to the next generation of undergraduates, I found a large meteorite whilst running a geological mapping camp. Suddenly I had in my hands a way to study the earliest years of our solar system's history; I could use geology to study space. By cutting a thin sliver of the meteorite, I could use a microscope, even an electron microscope, to study the minerals that formed around our infant Sun 4.56 billion years ago. Not only was I starting to look at something much larger in size - how planets form - I was looking much further back in time, all by looking down a microscope. Now that numerous planets have been found around thousands of stars, we can use what we see in meteorites and micrometeorites to think about how planets  across the universe formed; perhaps they were forming as long as 13.5 billion years ago.

Elizabeth (June 26, 2016):

Hi Andy,

Thank you for your en point and poetic response. It's wonderful, and brilliant, how you have carried out your childhood fascination on such a unique and ground-breaking (pun somewhat unintentional) path. I'd like to ask a couple more questions, interview-style, over the next few weeks, if that's o.k. Also, feel free to suggest, ask or answer your own questions.

Question 2: Not only do you explore the concept of "scale", investigating the microscopic to learn about the making of our universe, but you also investigate time. Geological processes, for instance, occur over profoundly vast stretches of time. Has your research sparked any insights into the scale of time, its linearity, or non-linearity? 

As an artist's aside... 

In my SF Bay Area art community, there is a preponderance of Social Practice Art which I also participate in. However, my path compels me to investigate the universe including moments of awe/wonder, as in your watershed moment with the Horsehead Nebula images. I wish I had stayed on a science path, but life gives choices or a jerk of the arm. My last creative investigation was also at the nexus of art and science. It was in response to a dream about an impact crater that led me to visit its real life counterpart (Meteor Crater in Arizona). I researched terrestrial impacts as a corollary and it was fascinating to discover that the scientific community did not accept "alien" impacts until about 75 years ago, is that correct? It blew me away that life, as we know it, is likely due to impacts. Even though it takes profound expanses of time for most geological processes – and for living systems to arrive at some sort of equilibrium – my investigation led me to understand how quickly that can change i.e. with a huge impact event. I have always been fascinated by cataclysmic events, their destructiveness and, simultaneously, creative power. I can't decide if it makes me feel like my existence is designed or random, short or long.

Andrew (July 12, 2016):

The scale of time and that of the universe are both gigantic and hard to get your head around. It's interesting to relate the age of the Earth and its various geological events to something that you know about. So the Earth is 4.567 billion years old (or at least that's when it started to form), whereas I'm 44 years old. This means I could have lived my life's experience 103.8 million times in the period that the Earth has been around. That's pretty amazing to put it in the context of human lifetime - it makes you realise that our existence is so fleeting, and yet some of us have the capacity to profoundly change the Earth by our scientific inventions.

Elizabeth (July 27, 2016):

Hi Andrew,

Scale certainly can be brought into focus, or at least hinted at, using what we know already – our height, age, the width of a hair, the span of a day. Are your fossilized micrometeorites visible to the naked eye? How/when were they discovered? And where do they come in on the timeline of our Earth?

Also, I find the micrometeorites incredibly beautiful and compelling in their oddness. Their surface is like a brain and they have, for me, distinct personalities. How do you see them visually, as forms?


Andrew (July 28, 2106)

Hi Elizabeth - See below

Are your fossilized micrometeorites visible to the naked eye? How/when were they discovered?

Yes, but barely, they are about the width of a human hair. Micrometeorites can be up to a few mm across though.

 

And where do they come in on the timeline of our Earth?

These particular micrometeorites fell about 2720 million years ago and became embedded in limestone sediment that was forming at the same time. But micrometeorites have been constantly falling to Earth since it first formed. Much much more was accumulating on the early Earth compared with today.

 

Also, I find the micrometeorites incredibly beautiful and compelling in their oddness. Their surface is like a brain and they have, for me, distinct personalities. How do you see them visually, as forms?

They are actually a lot like spherical snowflakes in the scientific sense. Snow flakes have those beautiful structures because the ice crystallises from water vapor very quickly. Crystals of any material that forms quickly tend to have intricate shapes like that. Its the same with the micrometeorites - they cooled very quickly in the upper atmosphere allowing complexly intergrown crystals to form. This sort of crystal form has a very high surface area compared to, say, an octahedral diamond crystal (google it). Brains also have high surface area structures because that's the bet way to store and process lots of information. So it makes sense that they look alike.

Looks like the imagery is coming along nicely 🙂

Thank you for the surface area insights. Contemplating similar surface structures between inorganic space travelers, diamonds, and brains is mind boggling and mind opening. These comparisons have my thoughts drifting to reef die-offs during at the CreatceousoTertiary boundary, and how coral and reef ecosystems reemerged in a slightly different form to fill a similar niche with a similar form... if I understand this correctly. Patterns, visual repetition of forms, and functional similarities – regardless of scale or time, inorganic or living – takes me to a place of awe and in the shadow of the sublime. As I mentioned earlier, I am not religious, but I suppose what drives my creative investigations is a quest for the sublime. 

In my case, it's unintended journeys that bring me to the threshold of the actual and spiritual, seen and unseen, and compel me to explore the liminal. 

Question to you: How does liminality (see excerpt below) apply to, or appear in, your research, if at all. This may be my last question for you unless the gallery is interested in something further. I encourage you to be totally "out there" with any insights or philosophy you want to share, as well. I will work with a writer to smooth out our conversation for those who might be interested at the exhibition. The opening reception is October 8 near Berkeley, CA. I am also happy to send images, printed materials to you and your team. 

From my MFA Thesis:

The words sublime and liminal are children of the same Latin root, limen. It means lintel or threshold. Liminal, a middle state, refers to something, which is intermediate between two qualities, classes (http://lucian.uchicago.edu) or states of being such as in the liminal state between life and death, (http://www.merriam-webster.com) or dreaming and wakefulness... On the other hand, the word sublime describes in its transcendent state. Interestingly, its transitive verb definition implies something Alchemical, “to render finer.” However, it more frequently refers to something “lofty, grand, or exalted ... tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur)...” (http://www.merriam-webster.com), like a view from a mountaintop.

Michael Kimmelman [Arts writer for NYTimes and author] frames his own quest for the sublime within the story of a pilgrimage to France in his essay, "The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective". He hiked the gentle Mont Sainte-Victoire near Aix, France, because he wanted to walk in Cézanne’s shoes. He wanted to see for himself what Cézanne had seen and painted in his many iterations of Mont Sainte-Victoire. ...Kimmelman mused about the elusiveness of the sublime in today's world.

I guess I'll take the philosophical approach in trying to do both at the same time...

For myself, and for many scientists, the reason for pursuing our way of life is that there is something special about taking seemingly disconnected pieces of knowledge and information, and bringing them together to explain something about the world that has never been known before. When we're able to do that well it makes you feel quite sublime. But it also lifts the whole world to a higher place - the definition of sublime really - and science has been doing that piece by piece for hundreds of years. It's great to be part of that. When you make a scientific discovery there is a liminal period, which lasts for just a few seconds sometimes, when you go from not seeing, to seeing how it all fits together coherently. This is the light-bulb moment that one hears about - the moment when you can suddenly see. Knowing that you're the first person in history to realise that one little thing about the world is in the background; you don't think about it much at all, but it underscores that sense of sublimeness.

Interestingly, it's quite difficult to teach that to undergraduate students, both the sense of sublimeness (one has to experience it), and the skill of pulling apparently disconnected knowledge and information together. Very little in our education system prepares people to able to do that. This creates a very large disconnect between an undergraduate degree and a PhD, and probably explains the quite high dropout rate for the latter.