Touching a black hole in Amsterdam-Noord

22 September 2020

Gravity expert Samaya Nissanke of Nikhef and the UvA is one of the scientific advisors behind a spectacular video installation in the new light museum Nxt Museum in Amsterdam North. In a huge immersive mirror room, in a whirlwind of light around a black hole, the visitor can almost physically feel what it’s like to distort space and time.

A magical experience, says Nissanke after a first visit. ‘This work can involve a whole new audience in the ideas about space time and black holes,’ she says. Her four-year-old child incited his parents to a wild dance, in order to make the light swirls even more ferocious.

Nxt Museum opened its doors in August. The museum in a former industrial building takes visitors past and through a series of light and video installations that are interactive and react to presence or movement. Here and there, the museum also makes visitors think about, for example, the advancement of facial recognition in everyday life.

In the interactive installation Distortions of spacetime by the London design collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, the spectator is like an imaginary celestial body. His presence on a projection screen itself causes light concentrations and vertebrae which are then absorbed in the maelstrom of matter around a black hole.

The light swirls and swirls through the distorted spacetime around the hole. The mirrors on walls, floor and ceilings make this an overwhelming visual experience. Esoteric ambient music reinforces this even further.

The performance ends abruptly in complete darkness when the swelling black hole swallows up the dizzying spectator. All not a literal science, emphasizes Nissanke, who previously worked with musicians on an electronic opera about black holes. “But astonishingly beautiful and even soothing.”

Distortions of spacetime was developed a few years ago for the Manchester Science Festival, and has been adapted and refined ever since. The first versions also featured clashing black holes, and the spacetime waves that are Nissanke’s scientific specialty. Now the viewer himself almost literally clashes with the unimaginable.