Have cosmos, will travel

How do you pack a galaxy into a suitcase? Ask sculptor Rob Fisher. He took a hint from Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, who cast their silvery net across the sky and caught some stars.

For him, an MIT-trained artist, modern technology provides the net and, as he says, ''The cosmos becomes a sea of dreams, swirling events, whose forms become metaphors of our life and time on earth.'' He mentally connects myriad forms, such as the model of DNA, holograms, spiraling inflation, exponential equations in this sea of events.

He sees the core and arms of a spiral galaxy as modeling ''the construct of our cities and suburbs, of family and friends, our home and neighborhood, our society and the world, our problems and the problems of mankind.''

That's quite a vision, rather too large for hand baggage. In fact, Fisher's completed sculpture, ''Galaxy,'' occupies the 80-foot-high atrium of an office building in Quincy, Massachusetts. It consists of steel cables hung from the ceiling and weighted by steel tubes, with small brass tubes positioned at various places along the cables, catching sunlight, moonlight, or lamplight.

One sees a shimmering galactic image created by the reflected light of the brass bits. Different points of view from inside and outside the building give different aspects of the image, sometimes the whole spiral, sometimes a whirling density, sometimes a disk seen edge-on.

The network of cables in which the image is caught refers, in Fisher's mind, to ''scintillation images woven, or rather electronically printed, onto the fabric of our television screens.'' Every brass tube in ''Galaxy'' would be equivalent to each pixel (electronically activated dot) of the television screen. But how to place those dots on a three-dimensional screen of cables?

Working all that out was a mathematical problem. Enter the computer. With it, Fisher studied a multitude of photographs of galaxies - mainly from Hubbell's astronomical atlas - distilled their millions of stars into a manageable eight thousand data points, and played with these points to arrive at a workable image on the display screen. The eight thousand points were eventually culled to leave one thousand in a spiral pattern which the sculptor could tilt and turn and look at from all angles.

Imagine juggling a galaxy, having once caught it in such a net. How does one feel, manipulating vast pieces of the universe to get at the essential form of so much dusty nothingness? One certainly has to reckon with the points of light and their relationships to one another. And to oneself. It all becomes rather a metaphysical adventure, giving a new perspective on our world.

But getting down to the nuts and bolts of making a dream come true on a human scale and in tactile form is something else. That, of course, is what sculpture is all about. But Rob Fisher adds that his sculpture is also about problem-solving.

The biggest problem he and his collaborator, Ray Masters, had to solve was how to get the computer to juggle the image. Masters had written computer programs of architectural and engineering design, which they were using, but it took some doing to adapt them for handling so much more data.

Then came the problem of fitting the galaxy into the building, once the general form of the galaxy was settled. This is where the architectural design programs came in. The end result was projections of how the galaxy would look within the building and from without, as well. The picture on this page is a copy of one of the several final computer display images used for construction of the sculpture. In other words, instead of making a model out of wire and brass, Fisher and Masters made a more purely visual model with the computer.

That done, Fisher was able to calculate with the computer the precise positions and sizes of the steel cables and weights, and brass tubes, how much material he needed, costs, and so forth. Thence to working drawings for the construction crew and on to installation.

If cable were bought near the site, that left the brass bits to be made nearer to home, packed in a suitcase, and carried to Quincy. And there you have it.

''Galaxy'' looks just the way the computer said it would, glinting in the sunlight. The moon illuminates it at night when no other lights are on, truly giving one the sensation of moving out into infinite space. The cosmic sea of dreams takes on a new reality.

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