Hard Drives, Not Telescopes

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

More or less following on from the previous post, @CrookedCosmos is a Twitter bot programed by Zach Whalen, based on an idea by Adam Ferriss, that digitally manipulates astronomical photography.

It describes itself as “pixel sorting the cosmos”: skipping image by image through the heavens and leaving behind its own idiosyncratic scratches, context-aware blurs, stutters, and displacements.

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

While the results are frequently quite gorgeous, suggesting some sort of strange, machine-filtered view of the cosmos, the irony is that, in many ways, @CrookedCosmos is simply returning to an earlier state in the data.

After all, so-called “images” of exotic celestial phenomena often come to Earth not in the form of polished, full-color imagery, ready for framing, but as low-res numerical sets that require often quite drastic cosmetic manipulation. Only then, after extensive processing, do they become legible—or, we might say, art-historically recognizable as “photography.”

Consider, for example, what the data really look like when astronomers discover an exoplanet: an almost Cubist-level of abstraction, constructed from rough areas of light and shadow, has to be dramatically cleaned up to yield any evidence that a “planet” might really be depicted. Prior to that act of visual interpretation, these alien worlds “only show up in data as tiny blips.”

In fact, it seems somewhat justifiable to say that exoplanets are not discovered by astronomers at all; they are discovered by computer scientists peering deep into data, not into space.

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

Deliberately or not, then, @CrookedCosmos seems to take us back one step, to when the data are still incompletely sorted. In producing artistically manipulated images, it implies a more accurate glimpse of how machines truly see.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: We don’t have an algorithm for this.”)

The Coming Amnesia

[Image: Galaxy M101; full image credits].

In a talk delivered in Amsterdam a few years ago, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds outlined an unnerving future scenario for the universe, something he had also recently used as the premise of a short story (collected here).

As the universe expands over hundreds of billions of years, Reynolds explained, there will be a point, in the very far future, at which all galaxies will be so far apart that they will no longer be visible from one another.

Upon reaching that moment, it will no longer be possible to understand the universe’s history—or perhaps even that it had one—as all evidence of a broader cosmos outside of one’s own galaxy will have forever disappeared. Cosmology itself will be impossible.

In such a radically expanded future universe, Reynolds continued, some of the most basic insights offered by today’s astronomy will be unavailable. After all, he points out, “you can’t measure the redshift of galaxies if you can’t see galaxies. And if you can’t see galaxies, how do you even know that the universe is expanding? How would you ever determine that the universe had had an origin?”

There would be no reason to theorize that other galaxies had ever existed in the first place. The universe, in effect, will have disappeared over its own horizon, into a state of irreversible amnesia.

[Image: The Tarantula Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

It was an interesting talk that I had the pleasure to catch in person, and, for those interested, it includes Reynolds’s explanation of how he shaped this idea into a short story.

More to the point, however, Reynolds was originally inspired by an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 called “The End of Cosmology?” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

That article’s sub-head suggests what’s at stake: “An accelerating universe,” we read, “wipes out traces of its own origins.”

[Image: A “Wolf–Rayet star… in the constellation of Carina (The Keel),” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

As Krauss and Scherrer point out in their provocative essay, “We may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

“What will the scientists of the future see as they peer into the skies 100 billion years from now?” they ask. “Without telescopes, they will see pretty much what we see today: the stars of our galaxy… The big difference will occur when these future scientists build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies outside our own. They won’t see any! The nearby galaxies will have merged with the Milky Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all the other galaxies will be long gone, having escaped beyond the event horizon.”

This won’t only mean fewer luminous objects to see in space; it will mean that, “as a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the expanding universe will become irreproducible.”

[Image: The “interacting galaxies” of Arp 273, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

The authors go on to explain that even the chemical composition of this future universe will no longer allow for its history to be deduced, including the Big Bang.

“Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics,” they write, “will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.”

In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.”

[Image: “The Christianized constellation St. Sylvester (a.k.a. Bootes), from the 1627 edition of Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are many interesting things here, including the somewhat existentially horrifying possibility that any intelligent creatures alive in that distant era will have no way to know what is happening to them, where things came from, even where they currently are (an empty space? a dream?), or why.

Informed cosmology will, by necessity, be replaced with religious speculation—with myths, poetry, and folklore.

[Image: 12th-century astrolabe; from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

It is worth asking, however briefly and with multiple grains of salt, if something similar has perhaps already occurred in the universe we think we know today—if something has not already disappeared beyond the horizon of cosmic amnesia—making even our most well-structured, observation-based theories obsolete. For example, could even the widely accepted conclusion that there was a Big Bang be just an ironic side-effect of having lost some other form of cosmic evidence that long ago slipped eternally away from view?

Remember that these future astronomers will not know anything is missing. They will merrily forge ahead with their own complicated, internally convincing new theories and tests. It is not out of the question, then, to ask if we might be in a similarly ignorant situation.

In any case, what kinds of future devices and instruments might be invented to measure or explore a cosmic scenario such as this? What explanations and narratives would such devices be trying to prove?

[Image: “Woodcut illustration depicting the 7th day of Creation, from a page of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Note the Aristotelian cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, below, with God and His retinue of angels looking down on His creation from above.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

Science writer Sarah Scoles looked at this same dilemma last year for PBS, interviewing astronomer Avi Loeb.

Scoles was able to find a small glimmer of light in this infinite future darkness, however: Loeb believes that there might actually be a way out of this universal amnesia.

“The center of our galaxy keeps ejecting stars at high enough speeds that they can exit the galaxy,” Loeb says. The intense and dynamic gravity near the black hole ejects them into space, where they will glide away forever like radiating rocket ships. The same thing should happen a trillion years from now.

“These stars that leave the galaxy will be carried away by the same cosmic acceleration,” Loeb says. Future astronomers can monitor them as they depart. They will see stars leave, become alone in extragalactic space, and begin rushing faster and faster toward nothingness. It would look like magic. But if those future people dig into that strangeness, they will catch a glimpse of the true nature of the universe.

There might yet be hope for cosmological discovery, in the other words, encoded in the trajectories of these bizarre, fleeing stars.

[Images: (top) “An illustration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, from the 1579 edition of Piccolomini’s De la Sfera del Mondo.” (bottom) “An illustration (influenced by Peurbach’s Theoricae Planetarum Novae) explaining the retrograde motion of an outer planet in the sky, from the 1647 Leiden edition of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera.” Images and captions from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are at least two reasons why I have been thinking about this today. One was the publication of an article by Dennis Overbye earlier this week about the rate of the universe’s expansion.

“There is a crisis brewing in the cosmos,” Overbye writes, “or perhaps in the community of cosmologists. The universe seems to be expanding too fast, some astronomers say.”

Indeed, the universe might be more “virulent and controversial” than currently believed, he explains, caught-up in the long process of simply tearing itself apart.

[Image: A “starburst galaxy” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

One implication of this finding, Overbye adds, “is that the most popular version of dark energy—known as the cosmological constant, invented by Einstein 100 years ago and then rejected as a blunder—might have to be replaced in the cosmological model by a more virulent and controversial form known as phantom energy, which could cause the universe to eventually expand so fast that even atoms would be torn apart in a Big Rip billions of years from now.”

In the process, perhaps the far-future dark ages envisioned by Krauss and Scherrer will thus arrive a billion or two years earlier than expected.

[Image: Engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri].

The second thing that made me think of this, however, was a short essay called “Dante in Orbit,” originally published in 1963, that a friend sent to me last night. It is about stars, constellations, and the possibility of determining astronomical time in The Divine Comedy.

In that paper, Frederick A. Stebbins writes that Dante “seems far removed from the space age; yet we find him concerned with problems of astronomy that had no practical importance until man went into orbit. He had occasion to deal with local time, elapsed time, and the International Date Line. His solutions appear to be correct.”

Stebbins goes on to describe “numerous astronomical references in [Dante’s] chief work, The Divine Comedy”—albeit doing so in a way that remains unconvincing. He suggests, for example, that Dante’s descriptions of constellations, sunrises, full moons, and more will allow an astute reader to measure exactly how much time was meant to have passed in his mythic story, and even that Dante himself had somehow been aware of differential, or relativistic, time differences between far-flung locations. (Recall, on the other hand, that Dante’s work has been discussed elsewhere for its possible insights into physics.)

[Image: Diagrams from “Dante in Orbit” (1963) by Frederick A. Stebbins].

But what’s interesting about this is not whether or not Stebbins was correct in his conclusions. What’s interesting is the very idea that a medieval cosmology might have been soft-wired, so to speak, into Dante’s poetic universe and that the stars and constellations he referred to would have had clear narrative significance for contemporary readers. It was part of their era’s shared understanding of how the world was structured.

Now, though, imagine some new Dante of a hundred billion years from now—some new Divine Comedy published in a trillion years—and how it might come to grips with the universal isolation and darkness of Krauss and Scherrer. What cycles of time might be perceived in the lonely, shining bulk of the Milky Way, a dying glow with no neighbor; what shared folklore about the growing darkness might be communicated to readers who don’t know, who cannot know, how incorrect their model of the cosmos truly is?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the Dante paper).

Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

Predatory Planetarium

[Image: Glow worms inside Waitomo Cave; photo by Jason Roehrig, via KQED].

Carnivorous glow worms catch their prey “by mimicking the night sky,” KQED reports. Think of it as a surrogate astronomy enacted to disorient other species, leading to their deaths—a predatory planetarium of creatures acting like someone else’s stars.

“The strategy is simple,” KQED explain. “Many of these insects, including moths, navigate by starlight. They keep the celestial bodies at a constant angle to fly in a straight line. ‘That works fine when the moon and stars are real,’ said Dave Merritt, a biologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, ‘but when the source is close they end up spiraling into it.’” When the moon and stars are real!

What a peculiar existential position to be in, needing to determine whether the night sky itself is—or is not—a decoy meant to lure and trap you.

Read more over at KQED.

(Vaguely related: The Bioluminescent Metropolis).

L.A. Recalculated

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

London-based architects Smout Allen and I have a project in the new issue of MAS Context, work originally commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and closely related to our project, L.A.T.B.D., at the University of Southern California Libraries.

Called L.A. Recalculated, the project looks at Greater Los Angeles as a seismically active and heavily urbanized terrain punctuated by large-scale scientific instrumentation, from geophysics to astronomy. This is explained in more detail, below.

Between the drawings and the text, it’s something I’ve been very enthusiastic about for the past year or so, and I’m thrilled to finally see it published. I thus thought I’d include it here on the blog; a slightly edited version of the project as seen on MAS Context appears below.

L.A. Recalculated
Commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Los Angeles is a city where natural history, aerospace research, astronomical observation, and the planetary sciences hold outsized urban influence. From the risk of catastrophic earthquakes to the region’s still operational oil fields, from its long history of military aviation to its complex relationship with migratory wildlife, Los Angeles is not just a twenty-first-century megacity.

Its ecological fragility combined with an unsettling lack of terrestrial stability mean that Los Angeles requires continual monitoring and study: from its buried creeks to its mountain summits, L.A. has been ornamented with scientific equipment, crowned with electromagnetic antennae, and ringed with seismic stations, transforming Los Angeles into an urban-scale research facility, a living device inhabited by millions of people on the continent’s westernmost edge.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. Recalculated can be seen as a distributed cartographic drawing—part map, part plan, part section—that takes conceptual inspiration from the book OneFiveFour by Lebbeus Woods. There, Woods describes a hypothetical city shaped by the existential threat of mysterious seismic events surging through the ground below. In order to understand how this unstable ground might undermine the metropolis, the city has augmented itself on nearly every surface with “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments,” he writes, “measuring light, movement, force, change.”

In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux. Architecture becomes a means for giving shape to these existential investigations.

Twenty-first-century Los Angeles has inadvertently fulfilled Woods’s speculative vision. It is less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. is also a graveyard of dead rocket yards and remnant physics experiments that once measured and established the speed of light using prisms, mirrors, and interferometers in the San Gabriel Mountains (an experiment now marked by historic plaques and concrete obelisks). Further, Los Angeles hosts both the Griffith and Mt. Wilson Observatories through which the region achieved an often overlooked but vital role in the history of global astronomy.

Seen through the lens of this expanded context, Los Angeles becomes an archipelago of scientific instruments often realized at the scale of urban infrastructure: densely inhabited, with one eye on the stars, sliding out of alignment with itself, and jostled from below with seismic tides.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

The surface of Los Angeles is both active and porous. A constant upwelling of liquid hydrocarbons and methane gas is everywhere met with technologies of capture, mitigation, and control. In our proposal, wheeled seismic creepmeters measure the movement of the Earth as part of an experimental lab monitoring potentially hazardous leaks of oil and tar underground.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

The speed of light was accurately measured for the first time just outside this city of sunshine and cinema. Using complex scientific instrumentation assembled from rotating hexagonal prisms, mirrors, and pulses of light, housed inside small, architecturally insignificant shacks in the mountains behind Los Angeles, one of the fundamental constants of the universe was cracked.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

In the heart of the city, atop the old neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, erased to make way for Dodger Stadium, we propose a series of 360º planetariums to be built. These spherical projections not only reconnect Los Angeles with the stars, constellations, and distant galaxies turning through a firmament its residents can now rarely see; they also allow simulated glimpses into the Earth’s interior, where the planet’s constantly rearranging tectonic plates promise a new landscape to come, a deeper world always in formation. The destroyed houses and streets of this lost neighborhood also reappear in the planetarium shows as a horizon line to remind visitors of the city’s recent past and possible future.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

As the city changes—its demography variable, its landscape forever on the move—so, too, do the constellations high above. These shifting heavens allow for an always-new celestial backdrop to take hold and influence the city. A complex architectural zodiac is developed to give a new narrative context for these emerging astral patterns.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

Seismic counterweights have long been used to help stabilize skyscrapers in earthquake zones. Usually found at the tops of towers, these dead weights sway back and forth during temblors like vast and silent bells. Here, a field of subterranean pendulums has been affixed beneath the city to sway—and counter-sway—with every quake, a kind of seismic anti-doomsday clock protecting the city from destruction.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

All of the oil, tar, and liquid asphalt seeping up through the surface of the city can be captured. In this image, slow fountains attuned to these percolating ground fluids gather and mix the deeper chemistry of Los Angeles in special pools and reservoirs.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

The endless jostling of the city, whether due to tectonic activity or to L.A.’s relentless cycles of demolition and construction, can be tapped as a new source of renewable energy. Vast flywheels convert seismic disturbance into future power, spinning beneath generation facilities built throughout the city’s sprawl. Los Angeles will draw power from the terrestrial events that once threatened it.

28_la_recalculated_08[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

Through sites such as Griffith Observatory and the telescopes of Mt. Wilson, the history of Los Angeles is intimately connected to the rise of modern astronomy. The city’s widely maligned landscape of freeways and parking lots has been reinvigorated through the precise installation of gates, frames, and other architectural horizon lines, aligning the city with solstices, stars, and future constellations.

• • •

L.A. Recalculated was commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, with additional support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks to Sandra Youkhana, Harry Grocott, and Doug Miller.

Meanwhile, check out the closely related project, L.A.T.B.D.. Broadly speaking, L.A.T.B.D. consists of—among many other elements, including narrative fiction and elements of game design—3D models of the architectural scenarios described by L.A. Recalculated.

A Window “Radically Different From All Previous Windows”

LIGO[Image: The corridors of LIGO, Louisiana, shaped like a “carpenter’s square”; via Google Earth].

It’s been really interesting for the last few weeks to watch as rumors and speculations about the first confirmed detection of gravitational waves have washed over the internet—primarily, at least from my perspective, because my wife, Nicola Twilley, who writes for The New Yorker, has been the only journalist given early access not just to the results but, more importantly, to the scientists behind the experiment, while writing an article that just went live over at The New Yorker.

It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and David Reitze, among a dozen others, all explained to her exactly how the gravitational waves were first detected and what it means for our future ability to study and understand the cosmos.

All this gloating as a proud husband aside, however, it’s a truly fascinating story and well worth mentioning here.

LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a virtuoso act of precision construction: a pair of instruments, separated by thousands of miles, used to detect gravitational waves. They are shaped like “carpenter’s squares,” we read, and they stand in surreal, liminal landscapes: surrounded by water-logged swampland in Louisiana and “amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors” in Hanford, Washington.

Ligo-Hanford [Image: LIGO, Hanford; via Google Earth].

Each consists of vast, seismically isolated corridors and finely calibrated super-mirrors between which lasers reflect in precise synchrony. These hallways are actually “so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they had to be raised a yard off the ground at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curved beneath them.”

To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, [Rainer Weiss, who first proposed the instrument’s construction] suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles, the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam was now covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any before it, and it would require delicate tuning, in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.

LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever created by human beings, and its near-magical ability to pick up the tiniest tremor in the fabric of spacetime lends it a fantastical air that began to invade the team’s sleep. As Frederick Raab, director of the Hanford instrument, told Nicola, “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector.”

Because of this hyper-sensitivity, its results need to be corrected against everything from minor earthquakes, windstorms, and passing truck traffic to “fluctuations in the power grid,” “distant lightning storms,” and even the howls of prowling wolves.

When the first positive signal came through, the team was actually worried it might not be a gravitational wave at all but “a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time.” (They checked; it wasn’t.)

Newton[Image: “Newton” (1795-c.1805) by William Blake, courtesy of the Tate].

The big deal amidst all this is that being able to study gravitational waves is very roughly analogous to the discovery of radio astronomy—where gravitational wave astronomy has the added benefit of opening up an entirely new spectrum of observation. Gravitational waves will let us “see” the fabric of spacetime in a way broadly similar to how we can “see” otherwise invisible radio emissions in deep space.

From The New Yorker:

Virtually all that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy… “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” [David] Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.”

Interestingly, in fact, my “seeing” metaphor, above, is misguided. As it happens, the gravitational waves studied by LIGO in its current state—ever-larger and more powerful new versions of the instrument are already being planned—“fall within the range of human hearing.”

If you want to hear spacetime, there is an embedded media player over at The New Yorker with a processed snippet of the “chirp” made by the incoming gravitational wave.

In any case, I’ve already gone on at great length, but the article ends with a truly fantastic quote from Kip Thorne. Thorne, of course, achieved minor celebrity last year when he consulted on the physics for Christopher Nolan’s relativistic time-travel film Interstellar, and he is not lacking for imagination.

Thorne compares LIGO to a window (and my inner H.P. Lovecraft reader shuddered at the ensuing metaphor):

“We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”

Go read the article in full!

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, “PAN (Unknown; USA-207),” from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, “Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars.”

Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity’s longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet’s surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called “star trail” photos, where the Earth’s rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen’s photo “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)”—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, “is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit.”

To do so, he uses “observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.”

The image that opens this post “depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as ‘PAN.'”

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for “Palladium At Night,” but “this is one mysterious bird,” satellite watchers have claimed; it is a “mystery satellite” with “an unusual history of frequent relocations,” although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, “PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don’t actually need Paglen’s deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen’s work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.

An Occult History of the Television Set

The origin of the television set was heavily shrouded in both spiritualism and the occult, Stefan Andriopoulos writes in his new book Ghostly Apparitions. In fact, as its very name implies, the television was first conceived as a technical device for seeing at a distance: like the telephone (speaking at a distance) and telescope (viewing at a distance), the television was intended as an almost magical box through which we could watch distant events unfold, a kind of technological crystal ball.

Andriopoulos’s book puts the TV into a long line of other “optical media” that go back at least as far as popular Renaissance experiments involving technologically-induced illusions, such as concave mirrors, magic lanterns, disorienting walls of smoke, and other “ghostly apparitions” and “phantasmagoric projections” created by specialty devices. These were conjuring tricks, sure—mere public spectacles, so to speak—but successfully achieving them required sophisticated understandings of basic physical factors such as light, shadow, and acoustics, making an audience see—and, most importantly, believe in—the illusion.

A Magic Lantern for Watching Events at a Distance

What’s central to Andriopoulos’s argument is that these devices incorporated earlier experimental instruments devised specifically for pursuing supernatural research—for visualizing the invisible and showing the subtle forces at work in everyday life. In his words, these were “devices developed in occult research”—including explicitly “televisionlike devices”—that had been invented in the name of spiritualism toward the end of the 19th century and that, only a decade or two later, “played a constitutive role in the emergence of radio and television.”

[Image: From Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s 1834 study of technical phantasmagoria, via Ghostly Apparitions].

In Andriopoulos’s words, this was simply part of “the reciprocal interaction between occultism and the natural sciences that characterized the cultural construction of new technological media in the late nineteenth century,” a “two-directional exchange between occultism and technology.” New forms of broadcast technology and belief in the occult? No big deal.

So, while the television itself—the object you and I most likely know as the utterly mundane fixture of family distraction sitting centrally ensconced in a nearby living room—might not be a supernatural mechanism, it nonetheless descends from a strange and convoluted line of esoteric experimentation, including early attempts at controlling electromagnetic transmissions, directing radio waves, and even experiencing various forms of so-called “remote viewing.”

The idea of a medium takes on a double meaning here, Andriopoulos explains, as the word refers both to the media—in the sense of a professional world of publishing and transmission—and to the medium, in the sense of a specific, vaguely shamanic person who acts as a psychic or seer. The medium thus acts as an intermediary between humans and the supernatural world in a very literal sense.

Indeed, in Andriopoulos’s version of television’s origin story, the notion of spiritual clairvoyance was very much part of the overall intention of the device.

Clairvoyance—a word that literally means clear vision, yet that has now come to refer almost exclusively to a supernatural ability to see things at a distance or before events even happen—offered an easy metaphor for this new mechanism.

Television promised clairvoyance in the sense that a TV could allow seeing without interference or noise. It would give viewers a way to tune into and clearly see a broadcast’s invisible signals—with the implication that an esoteric remote-viewing apparatus with forgotten supernatural intentions is now mounted and enshrined in nearly everyone’s home.

[Image: A “moving face” transmitted by John Logie Baird at a public demonstration of TV in 1926 (photo via the BBC)].

I’ll leave it to curious readers to look for Andriopoulos’s book itself—with the caveat that it is quite heavy on German idealism and rather light on real tech history—but it is worth mentioning the fact that at least one other technical aspect of the 20th-century television also followed a very bizarre historical trajectory.

Part Tomb, Part Church, Part Planetarium

The cathode ray—a vacuum tube technology found in early television sets—took on an unexpected and extraordinary use in the work of gonzo Norwegian inventor Kristian Birkeland. Birkeland used cathode rays in his attempt to build a doomed scale model of the solar system.

I genuinely love this story and I have written about it elsewhere, including both here on BLDGBLOG and in The BLDGBLOG Book, but it’s well worth retelling.

In a nutshell, Birkeland was the first scientist to correctly hypothesize the origins of the Northern Lights, rightly deducing from his own research into electromagnetic phenomena that the aurora borealis was actually caused by interactions between charged particles constantly streaming toward earth from the sun and the earth’s own protective magnetic field. This produced the extraordinary displays of light Birkeland had seen in the planet’s far north.

However, as Birkeland fell deeper into an eventually fatal addiction to extreme levels of caffeine and a slow-acting hypnotic drug called Veronal, he also—awesomely—became fixated on the weirdly impossible goal of precisely modeling the Northern Lights in miniature. He sought to build a kind of Bay Model of the Northern Lights.

[Image: Kristian Birkeland stares deeply into his universal simulator (via)].

As author Lucy Jago tells Birkeland’s amazing story in her book The Northern Lights, he was intent on producing a kind of astronomical television set: a “televisionlike device,” in Andriopoulos’s words, whose inner technical workings would not just broadcast actions and characters seen elsewhere, but would actually model the electromagnetic secrets of the universe.

As Jago describes his project, Birkeland “drew up plans for a new machine unlike anything that had been made before.” It resembled “a spacious aquarium,” she writes, a shining box that would act as “a window into space.”

The box would be pumped out to create a vacuum and he would use larger globes and a more powerful cathode to produce charged particles. With so much more room he would be able to see effects, obscured in the smaller tubes, that could take his Northern Lights theory one step further–into a complete cosmogony, a theory of the origins of the universe.

It was a multifaceted and extraordinary undertaking. With it, Jago points out, “Birkeland was able to simulate Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and the Zodiacal Light. He even experimented with space propulsion using cathode rays. Sophisticated photographs were taken of each simulation, to be included in the next volume of Birkeland’s great work, which would discern the electromagnetic nature of the universe and his theories about the formation of the solar system.”

However, this “spacious aquarium” was by no means the end of Birkeland’s manic (tele)vision.

[Image: From Birkeland’s The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903, Vol. 1: On the Cause of Magnetic Storms and The Origin of Terrestrial Magnetism (via)].

His ultimate goal—devised while near-death in a hotel room in Egypt—was to construct a vacuum chamber partially excavated into the solid rock of a mountain peak, an insane mixture of tomb, church, and planetarium.

The resulting cathedral-like space—think of it as a three-dimensionally immersive, landscape-scale television set carved directly into bedrock—would thus be an artificial cavern inside of which flickering electric mirages of stars, planets, comets, and aurorae would spiral and glow for a hypnotized audience.

Birkeland wrote about this astonishing plan in a letter to a friend. He was clearly excited about what he called a “great idea I have had.” It would be—and the emphasis is all Birkeland’s—”a museum for the discovery of the Earth’s magnetism, magnetic storms, the nature of sunspots, of planets—their nature and creation.”

His excitement was justified, and the ensuing description is worth quoting at length; you can almost feel the caffeine. “On a little hill,” he scribbled, presumably on his Egyptian hotel’s own stationery, perhaps even featuring a little image of the pyramids embossed in its letterhead, reminding him of the ambitions of long-dead pharaohs, “I will build a dome of granite, the walls will be a meter thick, the floor will be formed of the mountain itself and the top of the dome, fourteen meters in diameter, will be a gilded copper sphere. Can you guess what the dome will cover? When I’m boasting I say to my friends here ‘next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber in the world.’ I will make a vacuum chamber of 1,000 cubic metres and, every Sunday, people will have the opportunity to see a ring of Saturn ten metres in diameter, sunspots like no one else can do better, Zodiacal Light as evocative as the natural one and, finally, auroras… four meters in diametre. The same sphere will serve as Saturn, the sun, and Earth, and will be driven round by a motor.”

Every Sunday, as if attending Mass, congregants of this artificial solar system would thus hike up some remote mountain trail, heading deep into the cavernous and immersive television of Birkeland’s own astronomy, hypnotized by the explosive whirls of its peculiar, peacock-like displays of electromagnetism, shimmering cathedrals of artificially controlled planetary light.

[Image: Cropping in on the pic seen above (via)].

Seen in the context of the occult mechanisms, psychic TVs, and clairvoyant media technologies of Stefan Andriopoulos’s book, Birkeland’s story reveals just one particularly monumental take on the other-worldly possibilities implied by televisual media, bypassing the supernatural altogether to focus on something altogether more extreme: a direct visual engagement with nature itself, in all its blazing detail.

Of course, Birkeland’s cathode ray model of the solar system might not have conjured ghosts or visualized the spiritual energies that Andriopoulous explores in his book, but it did try to bring the heavens down to earth in the form of a 1,000 cubic meter television set partially hewn from mountain granite.

It was the most awesome TV ever attempted, a doomed and never-realized invention that nonetheless puts all of today’s visual media to shame.

(An earlier version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).


Although the Earth itself will be coming to its fiery and magmatic end in 7 billion years’ time, its nighttime skies will be undergoing an extraordinary slow-motion light-show: the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies.

An animation released last summer by NASA, called “What the Night Sky Will Look Like Over the Next 7 Billion Years” and embedded above, depicts the glowing filaments of these two galaxies, like plate tectonics in space, crashing together, gravitationally distorting one another, and then merging in a featureless cloud of light.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

In his weird, brilliant, and unimaginably dense book The Invention of the Zero poet Richard Kenney exclaims, “Imagine, all new constellations! …a seethe / and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

But such skies are not merely the domain of speculative poetry, as they are, in fact, on their way, roiling toward us in billion-year-long collisions that we, as a species, will never see the true light of.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

I’m reminded of an essay by geologist Steven Dutch, at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, called “The Earth Has A Future,” originally published in the May 2006 issue of Geosphere.

Advocating what he calls a “futurist approach” to the planetary sciences, Dutch points out that “a million years is relatively short in geologic terms. For example, even the fastest plates, moving on the order of 15 cm/yr, will have moved only 150 km in a million years, enough to have very significant local geological effects but scarcely enough to be casually noticeable on a globe.”

However, Dutch’s “futurist approach” to landscape studies becomes particularly fascinating when he turns his attention upward, to the sky, looking out beyond the Earth to what stars and their constellations might look like in roughly one million years. Dutch predicts, for instance, that “distant star patterns like Orion should be recognizable” for several hundred thousand years, “but many constellations will have changed noticeably.”

In other words, the sky is always—even now—adrift, already fulfilling Kenney’s “seethe and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

But that’s just a million years. Multiply that by seven-and-a-half thousand, and the heavenly distortions torquing through the skies above us become magical even to contemplate.

(Related: Pruned‘s Proposal for an Ideas Competition Seeking Design Proposals for a Pavilion for Viewing the Coming Intergalactic Collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way).

Landscape Futures Super-Trip

I’m heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.

[Image: The Very Large Array].

This will be an amazing trip! Our stops include the “world’s largest collection of optical telescopes,” including the great hypotenuse of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, outside Tucson; the Very Large Array in west-central New Mexico; the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, aka the “lunar greenhouse,” where “researchers are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown without soil on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival”; the surreal encrustations of the Salton Sea, a site that, in the words of Kim Stringfellow, “provides an excellent example of the the growing overlap of humanmade and natural environments, and as such highlights the complex issues facing the management of ecosystems today”; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, with its automated scanning systems used for “robotic searches for variable stars and exoplanets” in the night sky, and its gamma-ray reflectors and “blazar lightcurves” flashing nearby; the Grand Canyon; Red Rocks, outside Sedona; the hermetic interiorities of Biosphere 2; White Sands National Monument and the Trinity Site marker, with its so-called bomb glass; the giant aircraft “boneyard” at the Pima Air & Space Museum; and, last but not least, the unbelievably fascinating Lunar Laser-ranging Experiment at Apache Point, New Mexico, where they shoot lasers at prismatic retroreflectors on the moon, testing theories of gravitation, arriving there by way of the nearby Dunn Solar Telescope.

[Image: The “Electric Aurora,” from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].

The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge’s study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator’s essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.

That book documents a forthcoming exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, featuring work by David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White & Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken, and Liam Young.

Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I’ll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, “an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies,” organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.

That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, Landscape Futures Super-Dialogue, and Landscape Futures Super-Media).

The “star thing that holds the summer”

Just in time for the summer solstice, I thought I’d post this hand-drawn, shamanic map of the “Barasana cosmos.”

[Image: The Barasana Cosmos, via PrimatePoetics!].

“Constellations are here mapped as identities from Barasana mythology,” we read. “The Pleiades, or Star Woman, is shown here as the ‘star thing that holds the summer.'” As a brief aside, the Pleiades are known in Japan as Subaru—which explains that carmaker’s astrally inflected logo. So, if you’re driving a Subaru, there’s a kind of ethno-astronomical star chart emblazoned on the front grill of your car.

In any case, the image seen above comes from a recent series of short posts, looking at hand-drawn cartographies from peripheral cultures around the world, posted on the excellent blog PrimatePoetics! (whose exhilarating manifesto reminds us that “we still have at least 30,000 years to go before our existence in history will be of equal duration to our existence in prehistory,” and whose blog thus hopes to document “the transmutation of the ape into a conversationalist”).

That blog’s ongoing interest in ethnocartography extends from this “Yage Map” and a handful of “Amazonian Maps” (including the Barasana map, above) to the “Ojibwa Migration Map,” the “Arawete Village Map,” the “Aboriginal Water Map,” the “First Contact Eskimo Driftwood Map,” a “Valcamonica Topographic Rock Carving,” and many, many more examples that should not be missed.