Penn science and art at the edge of space

The beauty of the universe is perhaps nowhere quite as readily apparent as in the rarefied air of Chile’s Atacama Desert. More than three miles above sea level, it’s closer to the edge of space than almost anywhere else on the planet. The thin, clear, bone-dry air, devoid of light pollution, makes it an ideal spot for observatories, and now, another way of reflecting on the beauty of the cosmos.

The Atacama Cosmology Telescope is the site of an unusual collaboration between scientists and artists. Mark Devlin, the Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Penn Arts & Sciences, is one of the researchers behind ACTpol, a camera for capturing the data the telescope brings in. Not content with the boring monochrome color scheme the oil-drum sized camera normally sports, he reached out to Jackie Tileston, an associate professor of fine arts at PennDesign. Along with her husband, sculptor Kirk MacCarthy, she crafted a 4-foot-by-10 foot mural to wrap the device.

The piece, titled “Radical Measure (Not Entirely Random),” is inspired by the camera’s lofty mission: to get a better understanding of the first few moments after the Big Bang. Unlike the sweeping galactic vistas produced by telescopes that deal in the visible spectrum (such as those collected by other Penn astronomers through the Dark Energy Camera), the data ACTpol collects is of a more abstract nature, making it a good match for Tileston’s ethereal aesthetic.

“When they first explained their project—in essence, reporting these vibrations from the Big Bang and the origins of the universe, things coming into existence and disappearing again—I said, ‘That sounds like my work!’” Tileston says. “Whether it’s the physical aspect or the metaphysical aspect, I see my work as a metaphor for these ongoing, fluctuating processes. Rather than translating anything literally, I wanted the piece to be evocative of their work, rather than descriptive.”

Cryogenically cooled to nearly absolute zero, ACTpol funnels inbound microwaves down long tubes, where their faint signals can be sensed by antennae. Like light waves, these microwaves are polarized, which means they have an orientation in space. Waves that go up and down can thus be differentiated from waves that go left to right, or some angle in between. Subtle differences in that polarization can give hints to what was happening when that radiation first formed, more than 13 billion years ago.  

The massive research team, drawing on astronomers from more than 25 institutions, has recently posted some of their preliminary findings, with their first full season of observations slated to begin in a few weeks. Once their observations are completed in 2015, they plan on putting the camera—now called the “highest known art installation in the world”—on display in the nearby village of San Pedro de Atacama.

Artacama slide