Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

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Black Hole Blues (and other songs from outer space)

With a title like that, I thought I was attending a musical event right in the middle of the Sydney Writer’s Festival.

Black Hole Blues is music, but not as we know it Jim.

I arrived and there was Adam Spencer, interviewing a woman I’d never seen before with an inter galactic background.

Janna Levin, the interviewee, is an astrophysicist; a theorist who had authored several scientific books. And she was talking about gravitational waves. Which chimed a small bell in the back of my head. I had heard of gravitational waves : theoretical, thought of as undiscoverable and then a few years ago they had been found.

Her book was about the improbable theory and discovery of gravitational waves. To add a soundtrack, she played the sounds of black holes colliding and the waves themselves. I thought she had smuggled in a Moog synthesiser. But no, these were the sounds themselves. Apparently they are available as ringtones!

But Janna Levin was telling the story : a story over 50 years old and involves three men : Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne (better known as the scientific advisor to Interstellar) and Ron Drever. These crazy guys thought that Einstein’s theory predicting gravitational waves was correct and that they could detect them.

But to do so required an extremely sensitive interferometer , the LIGO : which is a laser beam suspended in a vacuum.Janna Levin mentioned that the LIGO was so sensitive that it detected normal natural phenomena easily, and then gravitational waves.  It was no easy feat to fund the detector,  build it,  test it and then wait for an event (another 50 years perhaps).

But detect gravitational waves, they did. The LIGO detected a wave released by the collision of two black holes. It was the second largest release of energy in the universe after the Big Bang. And Janna Levin, played its soundtrack : an electronic wave that doesn’t break.

 

This story was absolutely fascinating as I knew small details of the story but not the incredible luck they encountered when they detected that wave.

Science has its stories too.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

I should have known about Srinivasa_Ramanujan, the subject of the Man Who Knew Infinity. It is the story of an unknown genius who turned mathematics inside out. But even my mere degree (a statistics major) is not required to appreciate this film.

It is Ramanujan’s story that is utterly compelling. An unlearned man, he teaches himself mathematics and then exceeds his peers. For him, mathematics is an elegance, something which I encountered but once. It was when my secondary school teacher described step-by-step how integration and derivation worked. And at that time I realised that I was not witnessing science but something more than that.

And this is the conflict of the film : art versus science. Ramanujan is an artist, a pure creative and his brilliance takes him to an alien environment, the closeted world of academia. For his peers encourage him to write to Cambridge, and after considering him to be a possible hoax, the mathematician G.H. Hardy invites him to stay and study.

Ramanjuan leaves wife and family and journeys to England to continue his dream.  And there begins a fractious relationship between a man who demands all theories be proven (Hardy) and another who has theories bequeathed to him (Ramanujan). Played against the backdrop of the events that led to World War 1 and the war, itself, their collaboration seems unnecessary and irrelevant. Yet despite their conflicts, they do end up working together and actually unearth theories which are only now being fully applied.

Jeremy Irons as Hardy plays the true rationalist who is totally confronted by Ramanujan’s talent. For Hardy, this relationship changed his life and perspective and challenged his rational and atheistic beliefs. Dev Patel, plays a very shy, introspective, spiritual man that truly believes that knowledge is revealed to those who open themselves to it.

For me, that was what I took from this film: artists (even mathematicians) are a conduit to creativity.

This Teleconference Has Been Postponed…

At last! Another opportunity to catch up on the backlog of outstanding work.

A teleconConference Call Phoneference! I dialed in, entered the meeting identification, my pin and spoke my name.

Then I placed my phone in hands-off mode and muted myself.

I knew I was safe because:

  1. I wouldn’t be asked to contribute
  2. I had very little to contribute
  3. I didn’t want to contribute
  4. I had a document to compose.

As people signed into the teleconference, I started to listen absently. As it continued, my attention wandered even more. Meanwhile people were dropping in and out. This meeting I thought was starting to resemble Tripp & Tyler’s  A Conference Call In Real Life.

But once the momentum resumed, I every so often stopped what I was doing and jot down a few notes. I thought to myself this was a very unfocused conversation indeed. Perhaps a facilitator or mediator might help. Besides nearly everyone else was on a higher level than me. And as I discounted that idea chaos struck.

My phone began to blare hold music. I looked carefully at the console. No. None of the lights were flashing. I still was on mute and still connected to the conference.

As the participants realised what had happened, a dull and boring meeting had become a hunt for a culprit. Much like school roll call, one by one we re announced ourselves over the continuing hold music. I took two attempts as I had unmuted and then muted myself.

One person failed to respond. He had received another phone call mid conference. And in answering that call  had placed the current call (us) on hold. He had to be contacted as soon as possible to continue the conference and save our sanity.

One of the participants suggested calling him. Which sounded contradictory until he added the words “on his mobile.” The meeting collectively held its breath (as best you can over Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries) and waited for the call to put through. No. He wasn’t answering his mobile either.

Which meant a physical intervention was required. Somebody must find this person and physically remove him from his phone. We waited a few minutes until this was organised.

“Are you near his desk? “Can you see him?” “Can you catch his attention?”

No to all questions.

“Can you go to his office and speak with him?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”

Once more we collectively held our breath (Ride of the Valkyries is a long piece of music) and waited.  Upon his return the hold music still continued. The culprit was in his office on the phone and couldn’t be disturbed (in another teleconference).

This teleconference will be postponed until a later date and time…

 

Waiting for The Sequel

A Not So Crowded TrainOn a not-so-crowded train. She is the only one standing. Back pressed against the only space that is neither seat nor door. Light brown curly but wiry hair, clear open face, same colour eyes (my best guess as far as I can see), all fully engrossed and engaged.

The bumps and lurches of the train don’t bother her. She just doesn’t lose balance. She sways slightly to the rhythm of the carriage. She is not dancing though. Perhaps inwardly.

Her head is bowed. As if in prayer or contemplation.  And her forehead is smooth. Her face serene. And I watch to see if she will raise her head. It’s not just to look at her face.  For I’m curious as to her quiet calm and innate peace. Now she is even more fully engrossed and engaged. With her hands held up in front of her.

Not a newspaper. Not a smart phone. Not a magazine. Not even one of those slate-sized flickering whispering mini TVs.

For a second, time stops and everything around her is removed. So much so that I stop and wonder and look again.  Yes, now I know what it is. It’s like she’s behind a lectern. She’s reading. A tattered dog-eared hardback with yellow threads fraying the red cover. No title that I can see. The Story

I wait to see if she’ll read what holds her so aloud.

For the last person that held out a book like that let me read it.

And I wanted to read it aloud : it was that good…a children’s book too…

Perhaps I’m waiting for the sequel.

Beyond The Steps

There must be another world beyond the steps
One where people descend to disappear
Or another from which they’ve made the climb
From this  temporal world to another one

Blue Steps

Blue Steps


In the meantime I watch them sit
And shuffle in their place until settled
And wait as they forget all breath
Until they are called back again

Perhaps in that other world
People whirl and spin so free
And dance and sing without fear
But what do they send back here?

I Can Talk To Strangers

I like to talk to strangers. It’s fun. But my mum and dad don’t like it. They told me not to.

When I asked why, they said bad things could happen to me. When I asked what the bad things they wouldn’t tell me.

I didn’t like that. I kept doing it. They kept stopping me.

Then I found out how smart my mum and dad are. Everybody still tells me not to talk to strangers. Well almost everybody. Mum and Dad stopped telling me.

I still talk to strangers. I still like it. Strangers say funny things. I ask them questions. Sometimes they tell me stories.

Sometimes my mum and dad laugh too. When I’m grown up I’ll know how to talk to strangers when mum and dad aren’t around.

Lost Underfoot

I looLiftarn_Adult_and_child.svgked up. All I could see were legs. Masses of moving legs. I looked down. I saw shoes and thongs and skirts and legs and trousers. But were they attached to anything? I didn’t know. I felt even smaller. It was like a centipede that’s been shopping was walking over me!!

I couldn’t see faces or arms. I couldn’t see that high. I just held on and let myself be dragged through them. I held tight to my show bag too.

Then the hand holding me let go. I didn’t know which leg to grab. They all looked alike. But none of them were mine. Mine was gone. And the crowd moved me on.

Walking Through Pendulums

A few weeks ago, I checked out Sydney Biennale‘s the Embassy of the Real at Cockatoo Island. Cockatoo Island is a now heritage listed former factory and shipyard and is fascinating in its own right.

Cockatoo Island Sydney

Cockatoo Island Sydney

But what I found fascinating were some of the exhibits of the Embassy of the Real including the dirigible on the left.

 

But then I walked through pendulums. Created by William Forsythe, Nowhere and Everywhere At the Same Time, a n open factory floor was filled with suspended plumb bobs (pendulums) slowly swinging from fishing lines. Mostly in the same direction and mostly in unison.

Walking Through Pendulums

Walking Through Pendulums

Which sounded innocuous at first and then looked foreboding upon second thought : I didn’t really want to be hit by those things.

Despite my misgivings, I nodded to the attendant and entered the open space. I really felt that I would spend the next few minutes or so dodging, ducking and weaving. But I was wrong.

The effect for me was like walking through light rain. It was as if I couldn’t get wet as I avoided each and every raindrop. And yes avoided the people going forward and backward. But for some reason that extra imposition wasn’t a worry at all.  And time stood still, until I found the exit.

In truth my overall sense of the experience was meditative : choosing your own destiny no matter what happened. I left with a gentle quiet surprise which still returns to me!

And perhaps some pendulums did change their swing for me?

The Daughter – Movie Review

The Australian movie The Daughter is like a wedding present, something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Based on Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck, it tells a story both familiar and unfamiliar through a cast of well known actors including Sam NeillGeoffrey Rush,  Miranda Otto and Anna Torv followed by  Paul Schneider and Odessa Young as Hedvig : the daughter.

We first glimpse the setting. An almost pristine alpine country town facing an existential crisis : the loss of its main industry. We drawn to the isolation of the location and through that the growing uncertainty of its characters. Similar to the film Somersault, scenes show nature’s expanse and then focus upon the tenuous and fearful mini worlds created and inhabited by the daughter in the film.

The film centres upon a man who returns to his family. After many years he is a stranger to his father and the now dying town. However, he reconnects and rekindles an old friendship. In the midst of that renewal, he discovers a secret  which could imperil that friendship, his relationship with his father and his father’s impending marriage.

Unfortunately, that discovery occurs in the middle of his own personal tragedy. In the midst of that tragedy, the man chooses to reveal the secret. For me, it evoked the following choice : if destruction is visited upon you, should you continue it in others even in the name of truth?

But once that secret is known, there is a desperate race to hide that secret. But it is revealed with tragic consequences. Once the crisis is met, the raw emotion of acting is spell binding. But the ending left no one in the audience’s satisfied. Setting aside that, this is a beautiful, evocative and emotional film.

From Melbourne to Sydney

One often says of oneself as a child, this is where I grew up.  But to me, at least, one doesn’t realise that one has grown up until one leaves that place and returns.

Yes I grew up in Canowindra (New South Wales). I grew up too in Kiama (New South Wales). And then Canberra and Brisbane (although I will never make it as a Queenslander!). And now that I have returned to Sydney that I realised I had grown up some more in Melbourne. And for that much like Mary Queen of Scots feels towards Calais I will be forever grateful.  For Melbourne will be forever in my heart.

 

That’s not to say I have lessons to be learned. I’ve learnt about the love and honesty (sometimes searingly so) of family and the support whether near or far of friends. I’ve learnt about friendship found false and true. I’ve learnt more about my own heart. I’ve learnt about resilience and faith. I’ve learnt how true it is that the universe both conspires to hinder you at every turn and consummate your hidden wishes once you turn towards it.

 

The last year or so has been difficult, financially, career wise, mentally and spiritually. Yet in the midst of those not so good times there was joy to be found, comfort within myself and people around me ultimately leading to a path of hope. The secret for me at least was to find out what was most important to me and step by step (in fact fingernail hold by fingernail hold) move towards it everyday. And in doing so, I had to be prepared to lose everything to gain that hope. For faith isn’t mere belief or suspended disbelief: it’s progress towards an unseen goal with absolute certainty that it’s the correct course with absolutely no certainty that it will happen.

 

But in the past four or so weeks I’ve seen my close family again, changed jobs, moved house, gained a glimpse of a new direction professionally and continued a current direction personally.  But I still have much to learn and still so far to journey.

 

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