Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Case Study No. 0578: The Librarian (Everything and Nothing)

1. Everything and Nothing - accompanying workshop - Introduction
The first in a series of 7 videos outlining the workshop accompanying Everything and Nothing. What is the Poincare Conjecture?

Everything and Nothing is a theatre piece developed by the19thstep about the Poincare Conjecture, which is a result from mathematics. Intent on creating a map of the universe using complex mathematics, the Everyman Explorer encounters Amelia Earhart, who was lost in her 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The pair find themselves in the company of an order-obsessed librarian who isn't quite what he seems, in a time-warped universe controlled by an old radio. You can find out more about Everything and Nothing and where the next performances will be from
Tags: art maths universe poincare conjecture mathematics workshop manifold topology homeomorphic
Added: 6 months ago
From: the19thstep
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[scene opens with a young woman walking on stage and speaking directly to the camera]
KATIE STECKLES: This is the set of a theatre piece by The 19th Step, which is about the Poincare Conjecture, a result from mathematics.
[cut to various scenes from the play]
KATIE STECKLES: [in voice over] Intent on creating a map of the universe using complex maths, the Everyman Explorer encounters Amelia Earhart, who was lost in her 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The pair find themselves in the company of an order-obsessed Librarian who isn't quite what he seems, in a time-warped universe controlled by an old radio.
[cut back to Katie]
KATIE STECKLES: If you want to find out more about the play, you can visit the website. The details are below.
[cut to another shot of Katie]
KATIE STECKLES: In this series of videos, I will explain the maths behind the play, what the Poincare Conjecture is, and what it means. In the play, Amelia Earhart finds herself trapped on an island, without her plane, unable to tell where she is.
[she gestures towards a prop on stage]
KATIE STECKLES: In much the same way, we can imagine an ant who lives on a surface. He doesn't know what shape the surface he lives on is ...
[the camera zooms in on the toy ant as Katie makes it "walk" along the surface of a life preserver]
KATIE STECKLES: All he can do is walk around on it, and observe from his tiny ant viewpoint ... Topology is an area of maths, in which such questions are very important. It's not about numbers or equations or fractions, it's to do with shape. And it gives us tools to be able to tell two shapes apart, even when we can't see the whole thing and we only have local information, like the ant.
[cut to a still image of Henri Poincare]
KATIE STECKLES: [in voice over] The Poincare Conjecture was posed in 1904 by Henri Poincare, and is stated as "Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere." Over the course of these videos, I will explain what each of these words means.
["Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere." appears on screen]
KATIE STECKLES: [in voice over] If you click on them now, it will take you to the right video, or you can watch all of the videos in order and I will explain everything. At the end, there will be a video detailing the history of how the Conjecture came to be proved.

Camera - Roswitha Chesher
Filmed in Bob Kayley Theatre



The 19th Step present a new research performance Everything and Nothing. Mathematicians tell us the universe could have no edges, is the shape of a sphere - or perhaps a doughnut - and is infinitely recurring. But how can we know these things for ourselves? History documents many explorers and navigators as they charted the earth, a pursuit that continues through science and the imagination as we try to imagine the shape of the universe. In Everything and Nothing a librarian is lost forever in a library of hexagons, an aviatrix and her navigator are suddenly and mysteriously lost as they attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, and a reclusive Russian solves a mathematical conjecture after 100 years. Tracing stories that merge fact and fiction, Everything and Nothing combines sound, music and image with mathematics to navigate a strange and sensual path through the universe.



Dorothy Ker spent her summer making 'Everything and Nothing', a piece of mixed-media theatre exploring the mathematics of the Poincare conjecture, as part of a project funded by the EPSRC Partnerships for Public Engagement scheme. Dorothy co-devised and directed the piece, including writing much of the text and composing and directing the music and sound, in collaboration with sculptor Dr Kate Allen from Reading University. 'Everything and Nothing' was performed at Green Man Festival in Wales, then received its theatre premiere at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 11th September. Early research for the project was informed by workshop sessions with Professor Marcus du Sautoy.

In August Dr Kelcey Swain joined the 'Everything and Nothing' project team as a sound collaborator to help create and perform the virtual character of a surreal Librarian inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel. The Music Department research staff have also been joined briefly by topologist Dr Katie Steckles, who has taken up the role of mathematical mentor for 'Everything and Nothing', presenting interactive workshops alongside the production as it tours the UK.



The Poincare conjecture states that every simply-connected, closed three-manifold is homeomorphic to the three-sphere. Mathematicians say that now the conjecture has been proved we have a tool for knowing whether a 3-dimensional space is a sphere or not a sphere, which gives us a means for exploring the possible shapes of our universe from local information. This idea of 'possible shapes of the universe' resonates across disciplines: as artists we are continually exploring and rendering our own topologies and landscapes. Stimulated by the concepts encapsulated by the Poincaré conjecture, Everything and Nothing explores what the fourth dimension could be, what a manifold is, what the three-sphere might look like and how one might navigate the universe. The diverse sources of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel and Amelia Earhart's story of circumnavigation have become powerful partners for developing the concept of a shape or surface we are on but cannot see. Three characters (one a surreal virtual Librarian), each attempting to navigate the universe from a different mathematical perspective, encounter one another in the library, through the airwaves and along the dateline, with outcomes that are at times absurd, at others poetic and sublime. Everything and Nothing is tangible encounter with the Poincaré conjecture at the horizon of our capacity to imagine space, that in itself facilitates a theatre in which mathematics, sound, image and text can be equal partners.

The Librarian (Kelcey Swain)
The virtual character of the Librarian inhabits a library, rather like Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel, that contains every possible book and is at once mathematically perfect and linguistically chaotic. Invisible to the others who find themselves in the library, he is corporeally synonymous with its flickering hexagonal web. He often reads aloud, particularly books about his own universe and how to calculate its inconceivable magnitude, which results in virtuosic recitations of large numbers. His library contains all possible songs as well as all books. His readings include some of the 'possible books', in which he searches for order and pattern through the perpetual play of letters, taking great delight in the resulting linguistic treasures. The Radio from where the Librarian's voice emanates is itself an analogue for the Library: it contains all possible worlds and times. The Everything and Nothing universe is controlled by turns of the radio dial. The texts of the Librarian's three monologues are adapted from Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language.

Everyman Explorer (Chris Brannick)
Everyman Explorer is a mathematician and musician, for whom the two pursuits are at times the same thing, as he explores shapes and dimensions on intellectual, material and tactile levels. He is the enthusiastic amateur who relies on information he can gather to guide his own experiments, quite sure he can piece together a solution if he can only get hold of the right information. He has limitless energy for discovering the shape of the universe and now that the Poincaré conjecture has been solved he believes he can make a map and find his way around it. The problem is that he's having trouble seeing the shape of where he is now. It doesn't make any sense at all as he can't find the exit. The Librarian can't provide a map. In his search he conjures Amelia Aleph as a vehicle for working through the various concepts of the Poincaré conjecture. As he finds his universe merging with hers begins to wonder whether he is dreaming the universe or the universe is dreaming him. In this way, he too is trapped in a Borgesian conceit.

Amelia Aleph (Lucy Stevens)
The lost aviator Amelia Earhart, too, is disseminated through the radio waves - she is also essentially a virtual character. Much of what can be gleaned about the story of her disappearance is known only through fragmented radio transmissions. Everyman Explorer conjures her in his imagination as he searches for the way to understand the shape of the universe, while she is also a manifestation of the Aleph from Jorge Luis Borges' story. The Aleph symbolises all space, is spherical (a sphere 'whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere') and is the whole world/universe, seen from the vantage point of the 19th step of a cellar staircase in a house about to be demolished in Buenos Aires. In Borges's story, the narrator accounts for his vision of the Aleph via a poetic assemblage of symbolic fragments that simulate the sense of an infinity of infinities. Amelia Earhart represents the desire and power to circle the world, to conquer the globe via the map, her unbounded ambition thwarted as she approaches a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean only to miss it and disappear. Like the narrator of The Aleph, she has seen the world in a series of extraordinary images that capture the scale and magnitude of her aerial perspective, a view which is alternately everything and nothing. At the same time she affords infinite scope for speculation and piecing together the story around her disappearance. She is eternally lost on longitude 337 between 2 and 3 July 1937. ** We grasp at the airwaves for evidence of her location from a variety of sources, from the logs of the navy boat sent to guide her, to the the notebook of a 15-year-old girl Betty Klenck who tuned into shortwave radio in Florida, recording everything she heard. In 2011, archaeologists are still attempting to piece together the story of Earhart's disappearance from fragments of materials found on Gardner Island, including the heel of a shoe. An expedition to find her plane on the ocean floor is planned for 2012, the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

Amelia is a navigator. Her maths is mapping, calculating, trigonometry and sextants - the pragmatic maths of identifying locations and making lines between them. She draws straight lines in which to direct her airplane. Time and clock are important to Amelia: in celestial navigation the chronometer is the critical reference-point; time = fuel as she runs low on it; being lost she now has infinite time. She feels that she is forever lost on the dateline, which she was crossing at that critical time when she was trying to radio-navigate the last 100 miles or so to Howland Island and which evidently caused some confusion in reading the nautical almanac. The most plausible theory is that she landed on Gardner Island and spent some days there as a castaway (the injured Noonan perhaps having been washed away with the plane by the tide). On the tiny coral island, her plane lost, her capacity to circumnavigate transfers from the physical realm to the imaginative one. Everyman Explorer, who knows all about the Poincaré conjecture and topology, stimulates her to imagine the shape of the universe using what she knows about the globe, to shift up a dimension. Perhaps she is in fact already in that other dimension.

For each of the trio, in their various ways, there is the sense of being/seeing everything/everywhere, at the same time as being nothing/nowhere. The business of calculating a surreal 'total' library, locating channels in a radio world, crossing the dateline and understanding the topological notions of the Poincaré conjecture all stand in for trans-dimensional travel. Each of the three is lost: each is individually concerned with their own journey, but they encounter one another in the library, through the airwaves and along the dateline, guided by the turns of the radio dial.



We had three characters we wanted to explore and portray in the piece. This page shows how the initial abstract sketches developed into full-blown characters with a motivation and journey to make.

Initial notes:

The Aleph whose universe is Time (texts concerned with memory and dream, mainly Borges poetic texts, ethereal, blurred; materials come from texts and are very individual and sensual; maybe always drawing in white sand/salt)

The Librarian whose universe is Library (inhabiting the Library of Babel, Borges's ideas about the universe; books/pages of books; materials centre on books and pages - plays infinite pages of code/text, mirrors and building an elaborate hexagonal structure; maybe wears hexagonal shoes, ends up inside the CAVE - 3D immersive environment)

The Geometer whose universe is the Mathematical Universe (concrete mathematical ideas imposed on 'empty space'; texts from Poincaré and distilled transcriptions from 'Marcus Explains' videos; materials include blackboard/slate, string, spyscope; makes maps out of pages dropped by Librarian; concerned with pathways and eventually makes three journeys where he goes out one way and comes back the other side).

I'm imagining the overall universe at the start has the 'washed up' quality of the previous draft, but more constructed and 'in swing'. The materials don't get tidied away but used in process of each character progressing their ideas; each character is busy with some kind of material activity of building/constructing, not necessarily facing audience (cameras to show alternative view) and possibly sitting a lot of the time. The Librarian is particularly concerned with hexagons, (but only him) while the others have their own obsessions. Distinct sound worlds for each character. The worlds link up at certain points, with some material performed as an ensemble, but essentially the idea is to weave and counterpoint three distinct strands.


The Librarian character was dormant throughout the time that we have been working with Borges. It took a while for him to 'ripen' and again it was through the merging of different ideas that he came to fruition. Through a Google search we merged George ('Jorge') with another famous librarian Philip Larkin and found George Larkin (depicted here). This suggested an RP radio announcer type, which 'tuned in' to our 1937 'channel' of thinking.

Then, as the radio dimension of Amelia Earhart's story became strong we found the Librarian became synonymous with the radio itself as a 'character' controlling the universe through the airwaves, linking all our characters in a liminal space. The radio has a strong sonic influence and permutational character. Our Green Man version of the piece does away with the actual person of the Librarian entirely and depicts him entirely through the airwaves (voice of Andrew Sparling).

As the curator of Borges's vast but combinatorially calculable library he has an exhausting but exhilirating existence contemplating its immensity.

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