An Alchemical Explosion

(Image:Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling spacetime grid represents gravitational waves traveling out from the collision, while the narrow beams show bursts of gamma rays expelled just seconds after the gravitational waves. Ejected clouds of glowing, neutron-rich material swirl around the merging stars. Credit: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

Scientists at LIGO have detected, for the first time, spacetime ripples known as gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. This phenomenon was predicted by Einstein but had not been observed until August 17 2017. All of the previously detected gravitational waves came from merging pairs of black holes which are so dense that light cannot escape their grasp, making such mergers essentially invisible to normal telescopes. While neutron stars appear to create less extreme gravitational force than that generated by black holes, these super-dense stars created by the collapse of supernova, have gravitational fields strong enough to squeeze and break down an entire sun into a ball of neutrons the size of a small city. Unlike a black hole, a neutron star’s gravity is too weak to trap light, meaning the huge burst made from two of them slamming together can be bright enough to be observed from Earth.

The collision of these two neutron stars likely produced a black hole, allowing the observation of the birth of one of these phenomena. It also provides evidence that it is neutron star collisions that forge the universe’s heavy elements including uranium, platinum and gold. The bulk of the universe’s hydrogen and helium was produced in the first moments after the big bang, and most of the lighter elements—oxygen, carbon, nitrogen etc—were formed from nuclear fusion in stars, but scientists were unsure as to the origin of the heavier elements. This new cosmic observation provides evidence that the collision of the universe’s densest stars is the true alchemical forge.

“If you think about it, the universe is sort of a cosmic particle collider, with neutron stars as the particles,” O’Shaughnessy says. “It throws them together, and we now have the opportunity to see what comes out…. This event is a Rosetta stone, giving us real data to connect disparate threads of astrophysics that previously only existed in the mind of theorists or as bits in a supercomputer simulation. It allows us to understand the cosmic abundance of heavy elements. It allows us to probe the squishiness of nuclear matter at extreme densities. It allows us to measure the expansion of the universe…. We are now reaping the reward, a mountain of gold 10 or a hundred times the mass of the Earth, that the universe just gave us.”

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astrophysicist and LIGO team member at Rochester Institute of Technology quoted in Scientific American. (


How to survive as an artist who doesn’t make enough money from their work. Yet. (Eternally optimistic.)

(Cartoon from The Oatmeal. The expression on the guy’s face is exactly the same expression I have when sitting in my studio, although my feet tend to reach the floor

I’ve read a number of times the advice that an artist without an established art career needs to have another source of income for a) practical reasons b) to keep them free from making art decisions based on the hunt for money to pay the bills. Unless you have family money or a huge repository of savings this means that you are going to have to get a job. This is especially true if you live in one of the expensive cities where all the art stuff happens. I say ‘job’ because you don’t want to accidentally end up with a ‘career’. A job can be part-time and can be left behind at the end of the day, a career requires your full commitment which means you’ll have nothing left for your art.

I spent 20 years with a ‘career’, in fact I did my MFA while holding down not just a ‘career’ but also a career in my own business! If you think a career in someone else’s business sucks you dry, then multiple that by 10 to experience the dedication and commitment required to ownership of a business where you are the sole director. No, what an artist needs is a job. Somewhere you can go that you enjoy, or at least don’t detest, that has flexible hours, pays you enough money to live and that will also take you out of your own head for a while so that you don’t go crazy spending hours worrying that you have all this time but aren’t making enough art.

I’m lucky enough that I’ve found what appears to be a very good balance: because I have so much experience from my design career I’m able to work on-call as a contractor in ad agencies. The very problems with the creative industry that have made it increasingly difficult to run a small design business (eg the fluctuation and uncertainty of clients and income) have created the perfect niche for someone like myself to be flexible high-end staff resource for other companies. I have an agent who finds me work, negotiates my rate and who is well aware of my art practice and the fact that I don’t want to work full time. I can go into agencies and take an ‘all care, no responsibility’ approach to the job where I aim to do the best possible job for them, but at the end of the day I don’t need to deal with the clients or chase unpaid invoices.

There was a month or two after I closed my design business and before I started getting regular contract work that I had a lot of spare time to work on new art. Instead of rushing into a frenzy of art production I froze up and became overwhelmed with the fact that I had all this precious, precious time and I wasn’t using it properly! Now that I am working part time I’m somehow more productive, I don’t worry about not making any money and going to work takes me out of myself so that I don’t get stuck in a loop, sitting in my little studio wondering why I’m so useless. I also feel that because I’m not desperate for income I can make the choices with my work that I want to rather than feeling I am grasping at every straw.

There is the other issue of needing money for making and and for travelling to do art things. After speaking at City Gallery Wellington I was invited to speak at Steinhardt NYU! How exciting! Problem was that I only had a month to organise the trip and NYU weren’t paying all my airfares etc Getting anywhere from New Zealand is an exercise in being bled dry, so it’s important to have a fund that you can draw on when you get unexpected awesome invites and opportunities. I now have one.

So go forth artists! Find non-life-consuming-part-time jobs!