The Warped Side of Our Universe

Out in the depths of space lie phenomena beyond our understanding. They lie in the realm of quantum gravity, the insides of black holes, wormholes, and gravitational waves. Kip Thorne (BS 62’, Blacker) and Lia Halloran explore these topics through the mediums of verse and art in their new book, The Warped Side of Our Universe.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with Thorne and Halloran for the Tech in anticipation of their talk at Caltech on Monday the 13th. They were both incredibly passionate about this project and I was honored to be able to talk to them about it.

The project began 13 years ago as an article for Playboy magazine with words by Thorne and art, including some paintings featuring Halloran’s wife, Felicia, by Halloran. However, the article was rejected by Playboy because the depictions of Felicia were not up to their “Femlin standard”. However, even after the rejection, the project grew and grew. While originally the book was written in prose, seeing the words side by side with the art inspired Thorne to write the book in more verse form.

The project evolved and grew a lot over the 13 years into its final form, a 250-page book presenting some of the deepest mysteries of our universe in an accessible manner accompanied by captivating artworks. The science is presented at a level that it can be understood by people without a background in physics and Thorne and Halloran hope their book reaches a wide audience and inspires them to look up at the stars with a newfound curiosity.

The book weaves together cutting-edge science about gravitational waves (the topic which won Thorne and 2 others a Nobel prize in 2013) and a more intimate telling of some of the science. By using Halloran’s wife Felicia as a model in many of the images and as the subject in several stories describing the effects of various phenomena, the book gains a more personal and intimate touch that is not common in the genre.

The book combines science and art in a way they don’t normally meet. However, for Thorne, this combination is not unusual, and he says he likes to think about problems more intuitively and artistically, and equations are simply a result. Thorne says “when I’m working as a physicist, I don’t think in terms of mathematics. Mathematics is slow; it is cumbersome; it is truth; and, in some very deep sense, solving equations is slow, whether I do it analytically or on a computer. And so, for me, I think in terms of pictures. The pictures embody the mathematics.” The use of verse and art in this book then helps give the reader a more intuitive understanding of the physics.

During the process of writing the book, Halloran made over 600 paintings. The art and the verse would form a sort of feedback loop with the art influencing the words and the words influencing the art meaning many of the pieces had several drafts. Halloran even flew over LIGO to better be able to draw the complex. The art is made with a similar process to watercolor on a sort of drafting film that water doesn’t sink into. Halloran said the medium itself contributed to the process of creating the book. “It kind of gave us a third thing. Kip has an idea of how things should be. I have an idea of how things should be. And then there’s the materiality of the paint.”

For Halloran, the hardest part of creating the book was deciding when to end it. The whole book was an iterative process and grew from just an article so she found deciding when and where to end it to be difficult. “It was hard to not continue to want to make more paintings.”

For Thorne, the hardest part was writing in verse. This was his first large project written in verse and he said he struggled sometimes finding the rhythm and meter to the verse. I asked if he had any plans to write more poetry in the future and he said he had many other projects to do first before even thinking about writing more poetry.

There is much we don’t know about the universe, wormholes – if they exist, could be full of quantum fluctuations, atoms zipping into existence for a split second and exiting just as fast. We don’t yet know if we will ever find wormholes or what we would find in them. _The Warped Side of Our Universe _explores these questions in an incredibly engaging and beautiful way that brings advanced physics concepts to life.