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Gravity Discovery Centre

by Mark Randell
Principal, Human Sciences

The cathedral that science built

The dome of the Cosmology Gallery, visible past an outdoor pendulum exhibit

Two hours northeast of Perth in Western Australia, on a dry, bushy plain seemingly devoid of much interest, in what many people would describe as the middle of nowhere, an amazing complex is rising from the sand. This is the Gravity Discovery Centre, and it is concerned with fundamental questions of physical science. Here, some of the world's best physicists try to detect waves made by gravity. Here also, school children are shown the universe as seen by science and scientists, both theoretically and physically. Here also, multiple cultural views of the origin and nature of the universe will be depicted in major artworks. The Wallingup plain on which the complex rises is, in fact, one of twelve biodiversity hotspots existing around the planet; the plant life is, simply, amazing. This is a unique place, a cathedral and art gallery to Science and The Universe in all its diverse glory.

We don't normally think of scientific endeavours as tourist attractions, but the Gravity Discovery Centre, with the blessing of local indigenous elders, is well on the way to becoming just that (it is geographically on the way to the Pinnacles and New Norcia). And if the delighted squeals coming from the two hundred and fifty strong group of Singaporean school children in the Centre are anything to go by, it is a great attraction.

The gravity complex consists of a number of related functions and well-appointed limestone buildings: Housed largely away from the public gaze is the heart of the enterprise: The Australian International Gravitational Observatory (AIGO). Here, physicists - from many different institutions, academic, government and corporate, both within Australia and overseas - work in collaboration on a fundamental aspect of Einstein's universe: Gravity. The project here is to build, on the plain, an exquisitely sensitive instrument for detecting gravity waves - the ripples made by matter in the surface of space and time that some have called the sounds of the universe. The instrument is called an interferometer, and will be made by reflecting 1000 Watts (soon 1 Million Watts) of laser light in two, ultimately, five kilometre-long straight tubes running at right angles to each other on the sandy plain, and detecting disturbances to the returning light.

The detection of gravity waves - that are known to exist, but have never been seen - will open a new spectrum of interest and application to both science and commerce. No one knew, when radio waves were discovered, that we would eventually be listening to podcasts of radio through miniature machines. Similarly, no one can predict where the detection of the gravity spectrum will take us.

An interferometer requires a great deal of supporting technology, from vibration insulators to efficient vacuum pumps and sapphire clocks, and AIGO has derived much of that from local know-how, expertise and innovation. Indeed, AIGO has become a supplier of key supporting technology to other projects around the world, and some of the supporting technology developed - for instance, the vibration isolators - will be enormously useful in commercial applications.

AIGO is in close cooperation with other gravity wave detection projects around the world - by connecting with them, the group as a whole is able to triangulate its detection of any possible waves to better determine the origin of the signals. In effect, they are using the entire Earth as a gravity wave locator.

Entrance to the Discovery Centre showing level access.

The main building on-site is the Discovery Centre itself. One enters the building through an extensive coil of plastic tubing, wondering what it all means. Later, inside, it is revealed that the tubes form part of an interactive exhibit on the speed of sound, and the largest percussive instrument in the world! The length of the tubing (one kilometre) introduces a long delay to the spoken voice, showing how we experience sound, and, indeed, life, in the past.

Inside the Centre - air-conditioned by the ultra low energy use of an underground aquifer - all is artworks, quirky displays and interactive exhibits: The Universe of Einstein, with all its paradoxes and interest. The Centre gives an endlessly fascinating view of the current scientific conception of how the universe works - a wall-long mural by local school students graphically depicts the progress of the universe from Big Bang to present day.

Some thought has been given to people with disabilities: the complex has wheelchair accessible parking, toilets for the disabled, a wheelchair-friendly lift, level access around all exhibits, rest stops for people with limited mobility, and a self guided audio tour for people with vision impairment.

On the side of the entry wall, the Hand of God as depicted by Michelangelo gives the spark of life to Man; a real spark - produced by a Van der Graf generator - dances in front of the image. Science, it seems to say, has now brought Man to the level of spark generator himself. The question occurs, Does Science make Man God-like?

Perhaps. As the exhibits in the Centre show, Science has brought us a long way in our understanding of the physical laws of the Universe. And yet, ours is by no means the only way to view our home.

Beside the Discovery Centre stands a part of the newest building to rise from the bush, the Cosmology Gallery. The Gallery, when finished, will house artworks that depict the Universe, its origins and structure, as conceived by a number of cultures other than our own. These cultures will include a number of local indigenous cultures (the Nyoongar, Kimberley groups, Torres Strait Islanders), Buddhist, Christian and Hindu cultures and others. The Cosmology Gallery celebrates our common human urge, to wonder about the universe and our existence and place within it.

The Cosmology Gallery is itself a unique building and a work of art, known to visiting cynics as "the revenge of the geodesic dome". The roof of the gallery is a 20 metre dome cast in a shape known as a "buckyball" - the shape of the molecules of the newest form of Carbon discovered, Carbon-60, discovered in 1985. The shape is named after American polymath Buckminster Fuller. This shape, an icosahedron, was first discovered by Archimedes in 3 BC, and later explored by Leonardo da Vinci, Newton and Kepler in their explorations of the workings of the universe. The design of the building thus more than appropriately reflects its contents and the Discovery Centre's focus on deep science. Inside, projectors will put constantly changing images on the dome to illustrate aspects of the current western scientific view of the universe.

The last building in the Gravity complex makes all the theorising concrete - the Cosmos Centre allows scientists and the public to look out at the universe using the largest telescope available to the public in Australia, the robotic Zadko telescope. The Cosmos Centre - the largest public telescope centre in Australia - has a 20 metre long motorised roll-away roof that provides a large viewing area from within the building. Eight telescopes are housed under the roll-away roof (no queuing!) that allow the viewing of low brightness objects such as the Orion Nebula, and the use of computer control to provide specialised education sessions on, for instance, the Moon.

The Cosmos Centre telescopes beneath the panoramic night sky

The Cosmos Centre averaged 40 people per viewing session in its first year of operation. By September, the complex will be the proud owner of a $1 million, science-grade telescope that will have a purpose-built eyepiece that will be moveable. This will allow anyone in a wheelchair to look into the scope. The dome for this telescope has already been built.

The Gravity Discovery Centre complex has a final piece de resistance of building in planning: The somewhat satirically named Leaning Tower of Gingin. The Leaning Tower, connected by walkway to the upper floor of the Cosmology Gallery, will allow students to replicate the experiments of Galileo from a 40 metre steel framed tower leaning at a similar jaunty angle to the famous Leaning Tower of Pizza. The tower, when built, will complete the Gravity complex.

The Gravity Discovery complex, through its cutting-edge science and technology, its interactive displays and superlative artworks, and its recognition of science's place amidst a diversity of human views and other life forms (the flora and fauna of the Wallingup plain) is blazing a new trail in the celebration of science in modern times. Its wholistic approach has already generated success on multiple levels, be it scientific research, technological development or artistic endeavour. It does this in much the same way that cathedrals did this for life in earlier centuries, providing patronage and inspiration for artisans and professional people alike. Here, on the sandy plains of Gingin, a modern Cathedral, to Science.

Experimenting with magnetism and gravity

Contact information

Ms Donna Vanzetti, Manager
Gravity Discovery Centre
Street address: Military Road, Gingin, Western Australia
Postal address: P.O. Box 313, Gingin W.A. 6503 Australia
Phone: (+61 8) 9575 7577
Email: donna@gdc.asn.au

About the author

Mark Randell is a freelance science writer concentrating on scientific projects and research. He has experience in writing for not-for-profit organisations in the disability sector (such as the MS Society) as well as universities, community groups and corporate enterprises. Mark was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in May 2005. He can be contacted for more information by emailing mark@humansciences.com.au

Published: July 2006

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