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Write On Ottawa: Reimagining the cosmos

By Alejandro Bustos on July 2, 2014

What do you feel when you look up at the heavens?  For many people – if not most – contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is a deeply humbling experience.

The universe is so large, and our planet Earth in comparison so small, we can be forgiven for thinking that humanity is mere dust on an infinite cosmic broom.

But is this feeling of insignificance justified?  In his fascinating book Vanishing Stars: Unravelling the appropriation of art by science, Ottawa-based photographer Sanjeev Sivarulrasa offers a radical new way of thinking about the heavens, while simultaneously affirming the value of humanity.

When humans think of the universe they often have an overwhelming sense of being insignificant.

“This feeling stems from a picture of the cosmos as an unimaginably large place and the human being as a random speck of dust whose existence has no special purpose or meaning,” Sivarulrasa tells Apartment613 in an interview.

But this view of the universe and humanity, the talented photographer argues in his book, is not a scientific fact, but rather the emotional response to images that have been taken by telescopes.  For instance, when you look at pictures captured by the Hubble space telescope, you can “see” the overwhelming beauty of the universe.  Yet what does Hubble really “show?”  Sivarulrasa argues that these images are actually artistic representations that have been manipulated by scientists, as opposed to scientific truth.

Why is this important? Well, once we realise that images from space telescope like Hubble are actually works of art, then it becomes possible to create other artistic representations of the cosmos that celebrate humanity.

Photo by Sanjeev Sivarulrasa (Eastern Veil, 2011)

Photo by Sanjeev Sivarulrasa (Eastern Veil, 2011)

“When the question is put directly to them, no serious scientist would suggest that the Hubble images are scientifically valid,” says Sivarulrasa, a former federal public servant who now works full-time as an artist.  “It is well understood within the professional science community that these pictures are used for marketing and public relations. But that information is not brought to the attention of the general public – including millions of children and youth – who see the images as part of science education.”

Specialising in taking images of the heavens, Sivarulrasa’s work sees him take photos from dusk to dawn in provincial parks and remote areas of Ontario and Quebec. He is also a former member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was named “Observer of the Year” by its Ottawa Centre in 2010.

This impressive background allows him to offer an insightful critique into how science portrays the universe.  It also offers a thoughtful analysis on how scientific reasoning is overused, often to detrimental effects.

“The incursion by science and scientific methodology into the humanities, ethics, social sciences etc is now broadly referred to as ‘scientism’,” says Sivarulrasa.  “Scientism is driven by the idea that the scientific method of acquiring knowledge is superior to other forms of truth-seeking, or indeed, that it is the only valid means of seeking knowledge.

“There is a growing critique of scientism in academic circles, some of which I cite in my book. One area where I find scientism particularly amusing is around the concept of romantic love. It is now common on Valentine’s Day to see articles in newspapers where someone with an impressive-sounding scientific title elaborates on how feelings of love are caused by chemical reactions in the brain – it is amusing because we used to see poetry on Valentine’s Day, but now the ‘experts’ on love are supposedly scientists.

“For me, love is a connection between two souls – it has nothing to do with atoms and molecules. Indeed, love is incapable of being studied logically or objectively, because it is a subjective experience, not a physical thing that you can put under a microscope. This is precisely why humans invented things like poetry and art, to explore the subjective realm.”

In addition to his book, Sivarulrasa will be exhibiting 20-plus works this month at the Cube Gallery (1285 Wellington West).  The vernissage-cum-book launch takes place this Sunday, July 6, from 2 to 5 pm, while the exhibit runs until July 27.

Sivarulrasa will also give an informal talk at from 2 to 4 pm on July 20 at the Cube Gallery, where he will display some of the telescopes and equipment that he uses.