In 1907, the young Albert Einstein published a paper which showed that time and space are fundamentally integrated, and that movement through one affects movement through the other. This destroyed the classical notion that the progression of time is constant and unchangeable. Einstein proclaimed that all objects in the universe are always travelling through spacetime at one fixed speed: that of light. According to Einstein, if someone was able to travel at 99.999% the speed of light for the duration of several days, millions of years could pass for someone else travelling at a relatively slower velocity.

A few years later, Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, determined that the smallest possible unit of time is about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000001 of a second. Albert Michelson measured the speed of light to be 299792458 metres per second, evidently the fastest possible speed in the universe. Midway between these poles of spacetime exists the universe we know, but what happens when one approaches such extreme limits?

HyperCollider is an online project that probes such limits through the use of sound, image, motion and interactivity. It playfully investigates Einstein’s theory of general relativity and its extreme cosmological conclusions which Einstein himself initially refused to believe, dubbed the 'three gates of time' - the big bang, the big crunch, and black holes. It explores the concept of spacetime geometry and creatively visualizes what may happen when velocities approach the speed of light and how spacetime warps around a black hole.

This virtual instrument is a hybrid of an old fashioned pinball machine, gramophone player and a contemporary particle accelerator, using elements taken from early 1900s scientific texts on relativity. The device utilizes the universal constant of the speed of light, much as physicists do when probing the limits of temporal and spatial scales. As in a particle accelerator, the audience, or users, are able to shoot photons of light and other particles into the device at different velocities and observe what happens to them.

Visitors to HyperCollider are given a multi-perspective, non-linear, interactive experience. Each participant is given the option of different viewpoints – outside the device, in the space within the device, and from the particles flying through the space. From such different points of reference, the relative changes in time become clearly evident to the observer. A fluid sense of time is enhanced by action replays at 99.999% the speed of light, while clocks and counters measure the different flows of time for stationary, slow and ultra-fast moving objects. The clocks age and corrode to emphasise these extremes. Also lurking within the depths of the device are the actual equations and formulas devised and handwritten by Einstein; interesting but generally incomprehensible to the layperson.

The work is digitally constructed using 3D modelling software to create a virtual environment in which observers can move about and interact. It allows twenty-four hour access to online users who can log in from varying time zones in different geographic locations.

As this exploration into physics stems from a pop-science perspective, its sound component also refers to popular music relating to the eras the user moves through when interacting with HyperCollider. This serves as an acoustic reference point for movement through time, i.e. starting in the early 20th century when Einstein published his theories of relativity, and potentially ending up in an acoustic environment a million years into the future.

There is an irony expressed in HyperCollider about how science attempts to understand and explain the world around us, but can in fact further mystify it to the uninitiated. As multi-billion dollar particle accelerators are built to explore the fundamental elements of our universe and ourselves, increasingly exotic theories are being spawned to explain it all. Superstrings, ten-dimensional space and multiple universes make Einstein's theories seem old-fashioned in comparison, and they are. Relativity is nearing its 100th birthday, and the worlds of science have become a lot stranger since then.

Chris Henschke
new media artist