Date: April 6, 2010

Title: Cosmology and Creation – Many Stories, Many Skies At Perth’s Gravity Discovery Centre


Podcaster: Kylie Sturgess

Links: Skeptic Zone:, Token Skeptic, Australian International Gravity Research Centre

Description: Can art, astronomy, education and religion co-exist? This ideal has become reality, at the Cosmology Gallery at the Gravity Discovery Centre, found at the Australian International Gravitational Observatory site (or AIGO) in GinGin, Western Australia. This is an interview with Professor David Blair, the director of AIGO, at the Physics building at the University of Western Australia.

Bio: Kylie Sturgess is a researcher of gender differences in paranormal beliefs and superstitious behaviors. Published in several skeptic and science magazines, much of her writing can be found on her blog at Podblack Cat. Kylie is currently working as a teacher of Philosophy and Ethics, and can also be heard on the Skeptic Zone Podcast – Australia’s leading skeptical podcast with many interviews conducted by her from around the world.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by no one. Please consider supporting this podcast by sponsoring an episode for only $30 to help us share astronomy with the world. Click the “Donate” button on the sidebar for more information.


Kylie Sturgess: I’m Kylie Sturgess, of the Token Skeptic podcast and the Skeptic Zone podcast – and this is a story about how art, astronomy, education and religion co-exist at a very special observatory in my town.

I’m here with Professor David Blair, the director of the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre. The Australian International Gravitation site is at GinGin, which is about an hour north from where we are right now, in the Physics building at the University of Western Australia.

The Gravity Discovery Centre at the AIGO site is open to the public and draws tens of thousands of visitors – and one fascinating aspect is the Cosmology Gallery. Thank you very much for joining me today, Professor David Blair!

Professor David Blair: I’m pleased to be with you.

Kylie Sturgess: How did the Cosmology Gallery come to be here in Perth?

Professor David Blair: Well, about ten years ago, we started to plan a public education centre, and we did lots of brainstorming and came up with a set of themes for this centre. We wanted to make use of all the special attributes of our site – and these fantastic attributes are the clear sky; a great place for building a gravitational wave detector, because its flat; fantastic biodiversity, it’s one of those wonderfully rich places where every plant looks quite extraordinary and very beautiful.

Then we wanted to have a gallery that we called the Discovery Gallery; we wanted to have a gallery called the Innovation Gallery. The Innovation Gallery was going to be about how Western Australians have made innovations, have invented things of world significance, because often Western Australians don’t know what their people have done. What we wanted to do was empower young people, so we can say, ‘You can do something of world significance’.

But then, also, we wanted to get that sort of inspirational aspect, of why we are astronomers? Why do we want to know this? And try to find some commonality between the traditional owners of our site, who we have a very good relationship with, who are people who are brought up with Dreamtime, who believe in the Waugal, that created the landscape. So, how could we put something together that was about our science, but was also consistent with their beliefs.

I guess I’ve always believed that we didn’t have to be in conflict. I’ve always believed that, I’ve always been interested in religion and in different religions. And I’ve always thought to myself that you couldn’t have one billion Christians being right and the other five billion religions being wrong, or anything of that sort. There had to be some commonality.

So, we came up with the idea – in fact, it’s a slogan, really, that we use for the Cosmology Gallery: ‘Unity through Diversity In a Vast and Awe-Inspiring Universe’.

Kylie Sturgess: Nice!

Professor David Blair: And the commonality is this vastness of the universe, and the human yearning to understand our place in the universe.

So, the unity is our unity of that yearning. All human beings yearn to find their place in the universe; they try to find the answers and they find the answers in different ways.

Nowadays we have tools that have let us find with telescopes, that let us find a more precise answer. Across civilisations, you find a range of answers. I also believe that if you put all those answers together, and let them be seen together, it allows people to understand it, those ideas are stories which are trying to interpret the truth of what people observe, and people will tend not to take them all literally if you see them all together.

We were lucky enough to get funding and to build this amazing place. The funny thing is, when I was a child, when I was about sixteen – it seems crazy when I think of it now, I think it’s really crazy! – I designed a church, I designed a cathedral! And I sent it to the Archbishop and said, ‘Hey, here’s a great design for a cathedral, why don’t you build it?’

Kylie Sturgess: Wow, that’s very forward-thinking!

Professor David Blair: So, I felt I was incredibly privileged that I was in a position to actually do something I’d yearned about as a kid, and to create a place, that could be the venue for getting that inspirational thinking going ahead.

Then we got funding from the Lotteries West, to hire artists from different cultural backgrounds. We had workshops with the artists and talked about the scientific ideas and their own ideas and the fact that all of their artworks were going to be put together and find some commonalities while still staying true to their traditions.

So, the result was that we’ve got this beautiful gallery, and inside it there are Dreamtime images, there’s a wonderful Hindu image; there’s a Buddhist mandala. There’s different images that reflect different cultural traditions. Plus, there’s the scientific history of the universe as we understand it.

Kylie Sturgess: And it’s separated by the floors – I noticed that downstairs there’s Penrose tiling; I believe you had the man himself come to see it!

Professor David Blair: Yes, yes! Plus a bit of mixing around the place, we haven’t been too fixed in how we display that. Then the gallery has a huge dome, the dome itself is the largest buckyball in the world – an icosahedron!

The nice thing about that shape is it’s history! First of all Pythagoras described that shape, when he believed that the secret of the universe was in geometry. Then Leonardo DaVinci drew it. And then Buckminster Fuller patented it – for use in soccerballs! So this is millennium after millennium. But then in 1985, it was discovered in nature! So in a sense, Pythagoras was right, there it was in nature – actually existing, these little Fullerene molecules made out of Carbon, called Carbon 60.

So, that has a beautiful five and six-fold symmetry. To have that over the top, and then underneath the Penrose tiling, which is non-periodic but still has a five-fold symmetry and represents the sort of pinnacle of mathematics today; so we’ve created that connection. And it even features the soccerball and popular culture!

Kylie Sturgess: All represented in one amazing gallery! If people want to find out more about the site and the activities there, where can they go?

Professor David Blair: We have a really good website, but there’s also a nice webage called AIGO, called for the Australian International Gravitational Observatory. Because really, what we’re trying to do is consolidate our educational programs.

We’re going to have a fantastic PhD program there, where we’re going to have four PhD’s, who are working on evaluating the different ways we are teaching and one of the ways that we’re teaching is having kids use a big telescope, to detect gamma ray bursts which we think sources of gravity waves, which we think are black holes being formed in the early universe. By linking up with satellites, we can quickly move our telescope and see these gamma ray bursts which are occuring when the universe was about one billion years old, in other words, more than ten billion years ago, more than twice the age of the earth ago.

So one of the ways we’re trying to excite kids is to let them realise that they can actually see light that was emitted twice the age of the earth ago, and seeing into the past and getting those amazing ideas of astronomy as a part of their actual experience.

Kylie Sturgess: It’s all happening here. Thank you so much!

To find out more, you can visit the Gravity Discovery Centre at The AIGO site is at

Many thanks again to Professor Blair; this theme song is by Milton Mermikides, of You can head to my site at

End of podcast:

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