• Betty Vine

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark


What do astrophysics and textiles have in common? Not much at all. But, a project called Fabric of the Universe demonstrates how the two decidedly different fields can work together in pursuit of novel feats. The project, launched by NASA Einstein fellow Benedikt Diemer and textile artist Isaac Facio in 2014, pushes the boundaries of digital weaving technology. At the same time, it communicates information gleaned from computer simulations of the universe in an artistically insightful way.

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | The Woven Cosmos Exhibition

The creators of the project hail from clearly different backgrounds.

Diemer received a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Chicago. He "specializes in computational astrophysics," which means he runs and analyzes computer simulations. In an interview with ARTpublika Magazine, he explains that his goal is to understand “the particular type of structures that arise in these simulations.”

Isaac Facio, on the other hand, is a conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, who had received formal training in textile engineering and technologies. Currently, he is also an artist-in-resident at Fermilab, a world-renowned particle physics and accelerator laboratory.

Bridging the gap between textiles and astrophysics was no easy task. In an early video, Facio points out: “The only common element that we had was in some terminology that we were using [in describing our own work], and that was in densities, opacities, sheerness, filaments, and nodes.”

So, how did these two professionals — studying in fields that would presumably never overlap — come to work together?

The collaboration was born from the Arts, Science, and Culture Initiative at the University of Chicago School of the Arts. The program offers grants to small groups of graduate students seeking to pursue “independent trans-disciplinary research… in the arts and the sciences.” The initiative has a number of objectives, such as “bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners” and “[fostering] collaborative work that breaks new ground” — goals that “[require] transcending disciplinary boundaries and venturing into unfamiliar territory.”

Diemer and Facio’s project, Fabric of the Universe, certainly accomplishes this and then some. Before we get into the project itself, though, we need a basic grasp of the concepts at play.

First: Dark Matter

In some ways, dark matter is exactly what it sounds like — it’s matter we cannot see. Diemer explains: “The only thing that we know [about] dark matter is that it seems to interact gravitationally. That's how we know about it in the first place — because we see all this excess gravity… in the universe.” In fact, astronomers estimate some 80 percent of the matter in the universe is dark.

Big, dense balls of dark matter are called halos. Halos, Diemer elaborates, “are important because every galaxy that we see in the sky, including the one we live in, actually sits in a… halo.” If we want to understand how humanity came about — “how everything in our visible universe came about — we have to understand how these halos formed, because that's really what determines where and how our matter then comes together and makes galaxies.”

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Halo Layout (3D rendering)

Because we can’t see dark matter — and, by extension, dark matter halos — the only way to really study them is via computer simulation (in this case, called N-body simulations).

But, what is the “data,” as it were, that the simulations manipulate?

“The input to any simulation is always the…physics that you think you know,” explains Diemer. “[It's] some assumption of how these dark matter particles behave.” The assumption he begins with is that dark matter particles “have no collision… They only interact by gravity.”

Second: Early Distribution of Dark Matter After the Big Bang

According to Diemer:

“It's basically uniform… [but] not exactly uniform. It starts out with these tiny, tiny fluctuations in densities so you have spots that are a little denser and spots that are a bit less dense. And those actually come from — if our theories are correct — quantum fluctuations in the very, very early universe. So imagine tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang.”

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Simulation of the cosmic web of dark matter (visualization in collaboration with Philip Mansfield)

So Diemer inputs these assumptions into the simulations and then runs the "simulation forward in time." They explain on their website that “as the simulation speeds through the roughly 14 billion years since the Big Bang, [they] see how gravity causes the dark matter to collapse into a ‘cosmic web’ of walls, filaments… [and halos].”

Third: Weaving Technology

At its most basic, fabric woven on a loom is configured with a warp and a weft. Facio explains: “You have the warp in one direction, the length of the fabric, and the weft is inserted on a perpendicular orientation. It's the material that goes back and forth, interlaced to create cloth — your button-down shirt is probably made in this way.” The result is a basic two-dimensional fabric.

A Jacquard loom offers “individual thread control of the warp,” which allows for much more complexity in the interlacement and large multi-layering in the fabric. (These special features mean weaving technologies have practical applications in engineering, architecture, aerospace, and ballistics, among others.)

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Cosmic Web Weaving, halo studies, 2018

These days, the looms are digitized, controlled by computers. Facio wants to “[push] the technology” farther, for instance by dividing the cloth into sections and controlling all the warps individually, to essentially weave a three-dimensional structure. Of course, these structures have to be woven in a “two-dimensional” configuration, “flat under tension.” But it “pops up into a three dimensional form,” once it’s off the loom — so the challenge is to figure “out how that information is distributed in the space in a way that works with the machine.”

So, to recap:

We can’t see dark matter, but it makes up most of the stuff in the universe. Gravity shapes dark matter into webs and halos, in which galaxies are located. These are studied via computer simulation. And: Jacquard looms allow individual thread control when creating fabric. By dividing it into a large number of sections and layers, it’s possible to weave 3D fabric structures.

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Prototype 3D structure

Combining their mutual expertise on these topics, Diemer and Facio came together to “challenge the limits of conventional weaving techniques by expressing dark matter structures as a textile.” Ultimately, in order to represent dark matter halos, they wanted “to create a weave pattern that, when folded open, changes into a spherical shape.” It’s important to note that this has never been done before. “As far as we know," speculates Diemer, "nobody else has ever attempted or succeeded in weaving a sphere.”

According to their paper, weaving is perhaps the most appropriate artistic technique here “because digitally controlled looms can produce large numbers of thread intersections in an automated fashion." In addition, the filaments of the cosmic web evoke the threads of a woven textile. Finally, “the emergence of digital weaving machines in the early 19th century had a critical impact on the development of computers: Jacquard’s automated weaving machines were among the first devices to use digital input from punch cards, inspiring the earliest concepts of programmable computers...” In other words, “by paving the way for digital data input and output, weaving technology helped enable the very computer simulations [their] work is based on.”

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Phase I

The project has undergone three main phases so far. In the first phase, Diemer says, they focused on creating “basically a direct translation [of the simulation].” Their website explains that they took a “specific section of the simulation, namely a cube around a massive halo, 230 million light years on a side,” then “projected the filamentary structure into [a] 2D pattern” that would “unfold into the correct 3D structure.”

While they considered Phase 1 educational, they were ultimately “pretty unhappy with the results,” admits Diemer. “We realized that we had maybe prioritized—and this is sort of my fault—this fidelity to the simulation data too much.” As such, they narrowed in on a more specific challenge for the next phase. “We actually focused on the simpler weaving question,” he elaborates, which is: “How close can you get weaving a sphere which then sort of resembles these halo shapes?”

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Phase II

As their website suggests, by paying “less attention to the exact positioning of [halos and filaments],” they “achieved better curvature,” and by weaving “in smaller segments,” they had “more fine-grained control over the shape and placement of each halo.” This second phase structure was on display at the Sullivan Galleries in Chicago in the Spring of 2017.

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | The image above shows an installation at Adler Planetarium in Chicago which was on display from March through November 2018.

For the third installation, exhibited at Adler Planetarium from March to November of 2018, they abstracted the process even more. “We took just the positions of the 25 largest halos in one of my simulations and then placed these woven elements in those positions,” Diemer reveals. They got rid of a number of complicating elements from the simulations “to focus on the beauty of those weavings.” The weaving was done “on an industrial Dornier Jacquard weaving machine at the TextielLab in Tilburg, Netherlands.” It’s very large. “It's incredibly loud and fast," Diemer tells ARTpublika Magazine. "You stand next to it and you can't even hear what anyone's saying.”

As for the future, they’re considering an entirely new direction. Diemer says they’re thinking of going “back to square one and… doing something totally different. They want to “consider different techniques, different materials, different ways of doing it.”

Ultimately, this creative journey — which is still ongoing — has allowed them to arrive at destinations that are both scientifically valid and artistically compelling. Visualizations of Diemer’s simulations tend to be limited to 2-D, confined to the computer screen. “The conventional view of looking at these dark matter structures,” he says in a video, “is through two dimensional images that are a slice through some three dimensional volume. And color in these images invariably represents the density of dark matter… It is sort of a slice through a distribution, and so a lot of information is lost in that third dimension.” Some fraction of that lost information is restored in Facio’s three-dimensional weavings. They provide a new perspective to help us visualize dark matter—which is, after all, invisible to the naked eye.

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | Judith and Benedikt developing weave drafts at the Textiellab

Diemer points out that scientists are always looking to do outreach in order to educate and involve new audiences. Plus, he says, there are so many “different [ways that] people learn. Some people really learn mathematically or some scientifically, and some people learn by a language. Some people really learn visually and through art, and to them something like this may be much more influential.”

Facio agrees. “I think making it approachable is a really wonderful aspect of this… I do think the work that Benedikt is doing [and] the work that is happening at Fermilab, [these] are things everyone should know about because it's really important… for humanity, for meaning, for understanding.” And it’s important to his own professional growth, in that it’s given him the opportunity to push these weaving technologies in truly unprecedented ways. “I'm learning what my role may be and what I'm trying to make with artwork,” he says. “It’s that sharing moment or making sense of it or bringing it to a human level in a certain way. I mean, we're certainly not going to be doing particle physics together, but there's a lot that we can invent and a lot that we can discover in [this] process.”

The same is true of collaboration between any branch of art and science — not just astrophysics and weaving. In their paper, Diemer and Facio write: “Artists and scientists share the desire to find and answer new questions and to push current knowledge and methods to their limit.” Likewise: “While any work of art must be judged on its own merit… art, as much as science, seeks to say something true about the nature of existence.”

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe: How astrophysics and textiles are helping researchers shape dark matter | A weaving machine at the Textiellab

The nature of existence in this case, of course, is all about dark matter — how we live inside a big ball of stuff we cannot see. As Diemer says: “These massive structures that we live in, like galaxies, were actually… [created by] something smaller than an atom, essentially randomly fluctuating one way or another.” For all the information you might glean from looking upon the labyrinthine threads of Fabric Of the Universe, you are sure to be struck by one fundamental truth: What a miracle it is to even exist at all.

Note* All images are the creative property of the researchers.

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