A Universe that Hangs on Either Side of Nothingness

An explanation of the original visualisation

Elsewhere I've described briefly something about the visual dynamics that generate the patterns in the artwork (here) and the symbolism and meaning within the work (here).

This page explains the thinking behind the first piece in the series, In the Beginning (2008), with specific reference to the metaphorical allusions that were applied to the work.

The Genesis of In the Beginning

The primary purpose of In the Beginning was to express visually something about what I imagine as the underlying structure of reality.

Briefly, the work uses a metaphor in which a square grid of uniform black dots represents the deepest, most fundamental and basic level of the physical universe, where nothing exists other than the simplest possible fluctuations in 'nothingness' itself (represented by the uniform dots).

Complexity and structure comes into existence when the grid of dots interacts with itself, creating intricate forms that contain their own internal structure, as exhibited in the image at the top of the page.

The explanation in more depth

At the lowest level of physical reality - below the atoms that form the elements of our universe, below the electrons, protons and other subatomic particles that form those atoms, below the quarks that form those subatomic particles - lies a state of 'nothingness', a level at which nothing exists.

This level of nothingness is impossible to visualise, so we have to resort to woefully inadequate metaphor. One way to imagine the state of nothingness is to see it as being like the absolutely flat surface of an infinitely vast ocean in which there is nothing above the surface and nothing below the surface: the only thing that exists is the surface itself, the interface between above and below. Another way to imagine it is as an infinitely large sheet of some form of insubstantial material that has no thickness at all - something that is there but that doesn't exist.

Now imagine that on the surface of this ocean of nothingness or sheet of nothingness a 'disturbance' occurs.

Employing metaphor, the disturbance can be visualised as a 'ripple' meandering across the surface of the endless flat ocean of nothingness or across the infinite sheet of nothingness.

The words 'disturbance' and 'ripple' are in inverted commas because at the level of nothingness involved there can be nothing to create a disturbance as we understand it. Time, space matter and energy do not exist at this level.

Below is a visualisation of the disturbance as a ripple on a straight line, where the straight line represents the flat surface of nothingness.

It is important that there is only one such ripple or disturbance that has occurred in the vastness of nothingness, as, being at a level of nothingness it is hard enough to summon up a single disturbance, let alone several.

As I will explain, it is this single ripple that gives rise to all of the phenomena within the universe.

The ripple in the image above can be seen to form a wave that rises above and drops below the flat line of nothingness. The consequence of this is that in terms of energy (or rather, what is analogous to energy at this rarified level) the ripple adds nothing and takes away nothing from the level of nothingness, as the peak and the trough cancel out (as shown in the 'energy' graph of the ripple below). So, even though there is a ripple, the sum total of its existence neither adds nor subtracts from the all pervading nothingness.

As I mentioned a moment ago, it is this ripple that gives rise to all of the phenomena in the universe - however, because the ripple neither adds nor subtracts from the nothingness it can be said that the universe straddles the line of nothingness rather than 'rising up from it' - in other words it can be conceived that 'the universe hangs on either side of nothingness'.

How does the simple ripple manage to generate a whole universe?

In the image below, the ripple is represented by a gray line on the empty whiteness of the page.

The metaphorical ripple is perhaps endlessly long (because at the level of nothingness there is no end to the nothingness), and there is nothing to stop the ripple meandering freely across the entire surface of nothingness.

In its meanderings the ripple will inevitably cross itself, as shown in the image below. Where it does so it interacts with itself, creating a secondary disturbance - analogous to the way that ripples or waves in water interact when they cross each other. This secondary disturbance is represented in the image by a black dot.

As the single ripple twists and turns it intersects itself multiple times, creating a proliferation of secondary disturbances. Thus it is that multiple phenomena (the secondary disturbances) can be generated by a single initial phenomenon (the ripple).

It is these secondary disturbances that I want to concentrate on now, so in the image below the dots that represent the secondary disturbances have been isolated from the ripple that created them.

When two secondary disturbances, represented by the dots, are generated in such close proximity that their areas overlap the disturbances interact in the overlapping area - as indicated by the colour in the image below.

Because each secondary disturbance in the overlapping pair is a point at which the underlying ripple crosses itself, the overlapping disturbances are in fact a multiple overlapping of the single ripple, so the interaction between the disturbances is actually a compound interaction of the ripple, subject to the same principles as the simple single interaction of the ripple.

Depending on the parameters of the interactions, these compound interactions may be interactions in which the disturbances reinforce each other (thus creating a new, higher level of complexity as indicated by the 'new colour' in the image above), or they may cancel out (as indicated by the white 'space' in the image below).

This second manifestation of complexity, in which the dots that represent the disturbances cancel out, is in some ways more interesting than the manifestation in which a new level of complexity - a new colour - is created, because it creates a greater degree of complexity (in the form of a complex shape) without the addition of a new quality of complexity (the colour).

It is the increase in complexity at this level that is explored in the artwork In the Beginning.

In the Beginning takes as its foundation a simple regular grid of dots as a visual representation of the disturbances that are generated only a few degrees of complexity above the underlying nothingness that lies at the foundation of physical reality. This grid could be interpreted as a visual metaphor for the base layer of 'the fabric of the universe'.

In this image the dots representing the disturbances are not randomly positioned as in the earlier image but are arranged in a regular grid. This is primarily for metaphorical purposes, as a representation of simplicity, however the layout could equally represent an inherent ordering of the dots due to a natural process that is analogous to (but not the same as) the way that a single layer of spheres such as balls would naturally form a regular array when fitted tightly into a confined space (which may apply if an infinite number of disturbances had to fit into the expanse of nothingness, even though the expanse of nothingness is infinite itself).

In the array shown above there are no interacting dots to form secondary disturbances, so the effect is a uniform, continuous conformity or continuum of black dots.

In order to create interacting dots (as shown in the images below) a second array of dots, identical to the first, is inserted directly into the same space as the first array and is then offset so that the two arrays are not coincident with each other. (These two arrays of dots should ideally be thought of as occupying the same space or level as each other, although when observing the artwork it's very hard not to interpret them as being separate arrays one above the other.)

The interaction between the arrays of dots instantly generates a number of highly complex and intricate patterns, with all of the areas where the black dots of the two arrays coincide cancelling out to leave white.

As can be seen in the configurations shown above, the emergent patterns seem to contain multiple discrete overlapping 'entities' that each possess their own individual radial symmetry - in fact, no part of the internal structure of the interacting arrays is not part of several such entities at once. The entities often seem to 'bubble' in and out of existence as the layers move relative to each other in the videos (or as the eye scans the images in the static vesions). These entities are 'artefacts' - forms that are not present in the original structure but that have been created as a by-product of a process.

The complexity exhibited by the entities seems highly disproportionate compared to the simplicity of the two arrays of identical, uniform and simple dots that generated them.

It is this manifestation of great complexity resulting from the interaction of simple forms that I see as a metaphor for the creative process that underlies the structure of the universe. The two simple arrays of dots are a metaphor for the underlying fabric of the universe, with the emergent artefacts being the quarks, subatomic particles and other entities that 'pop into existence' to give the universe its structure and form.