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Dancing with the stars - astronomy meets choreography at the Sydney Festival



8 January 2014

"I might have thought about cosmic choreography, but I never thought I'd be involved in the creation of a dance work," said Dr Helen Johnston, an astronomer from the University of Sydney, commenting on her role in the development of a Sydney Festival production.

AM I is the creation of choreographer Shaun Parker. His work, which explores the genesis of life, is premiering at the festival.

To realise the project Parker consulted numerous academics, including Dr Johnston, from the University's School of Physics.

"Shaun wanted to know about the formation of the universe, so I explained what astronomers have discovered. By observing the distant universe, and comparing those observations to detailed computer models, we now understand a surprising amount about the evolution of the universe," Dr Johnston said.

"The universe was created in a single instant of time at the Big Bang. While it was originally enormously hot and dense, immediately after this instant the universe began to expand and cool.

"First atomic particles were created from energy, then these particles began to swirl together to form clouds of gas, which collected to form stars and galaxies. As astronomers look out to very distant galaxies, we are looking backwards in time, and can actually see galaxies forming."

Interviewed about creating the work, Shaun Parker said, "The fusion of science and, in this work, artistic form, music and the observation of who we are as humans is something that really compels me."

For Dr Johnston, it was an opportunity to reveal the intricacies of astronomy and science to a new audience: "I was delighted to be involved, as one my passions is to teach people and show them what astronomers have found out about the universe."

Black holes in the centres of galaxies and how galaxies form is one focus of Dr Johnston's research.

"Most galaxies - perhaps all of them - have a supermassive black hole at their centre. Even our own galaxy has a giant black hole in the middle, about a million times the mass of our sun. The bigger the galaxy, the bigger its black hole seems to be.

"The question we'd like to answer is why. Do big galaxies grow big black holes in their centres? Or does a big black hole grow a big galaxy around it? We know both galaxies and black holes grow by sucking in gas: perhaps they both just grow together, feeding on the same infalling material.

"Or perhaps there are more subtle effects at work. I've been trying to address this question by studying galaxies where the central black hole is currently actively devouring material. We see these galaxies as radio galaxies and quasars, and our telescopes can see them at great distances."

Dr Johnston reflected on scientists' involvement in the festival event: "As scientists, we have our own vocabulary. We use words such as energy and motion in a particular way, but of course those words mean something very different to a dancer. It is fascinating to see someone take the ideas you've explained and form them into something very human and recognisable."

What other astronomical insights would Dr Johnston like to see realised onstage?

"There are so many possibilities. So much of what we see in the universe involves motion, with gravity pulling particles in complicated movements. What about the swirling of stars being pulled into a black hole? Or the dance of stars being born in clouds of gas, forming clusters of stars? It would be challenging to pull off but I'd be happy to collaborate!"

AM I starts on 9 January.

The University of Sydney is a leadership partner of Sydney Festival 2014. Find out more about our involvement and what's on campus this January here


Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

Email: 3b3d140f2e096d5a232c3e2957430c220509291b30070a064d6b07563854162d