Quick Links

Some midweek reading material…

[Images: Muons beneath the Alps; via and via].

I’m pretty much obsessed with muons—subatomic particles that have been used to map the interiors of archaeological ruins—so I was interested to see that muons have now also been put to work mapping the bedrock beneath glaciers in the Swiss Alps. It is the “first application of the technique in glacial geology,” Eos reports. Even better, it uses underground railway infrastructure—the Jungfrau rail tunnel—as part of its experimental apparatus.

[Image: Mountain, written by Robert Macfarlane].

Robert Macfarlane has written a movie called Mountain, narrated by Willem Defoe. Macfarlane also recently joined Twitter, where he has rapidly accumulated nearly 28,000 followers.

The world’s sand is running out—indeed, “it’s scarcer than you think,” David Owen writes for The New Yorker. As highlighted on Twitter by @lowlowtide, the piece includes this great line: “The problems start when people begin to think of mutable landforms as permanent property.” Sand, and the peculiar economies that value it, has gotten quite a bit of attention over the past few years; among other coverage, a long feature in Wired two years ago is worth checking out.

Researchers at Penn State have figured out a way to generate electricity from the chemical mixing point where freshwater rivers reach the sea. “‘The goal of this technology is to generate electricity from where the rivers meet the ocean,’ said Christopher Gorski, assistant professor in environmental engineering at Penn State. ‘It’s based on the difference in the salt concentrations between the two water sources.’”

Hawaii is experiencing an unusually intense barrage of high tides, known as “king tides.” “For the people of Hawaii, alarm bells are ringing,” Adrienne LaFrance writes for The Atlantic. “King tides like this aren’t just a historic anomaly; they’re a sign of what’s to come… Scientists believe Hawaii could experience a sea-level increase of three feet by the year 2100, which is in line with global predictions of sea-level change and which would substantially reshape life on the Islands. That’s part of why scientists are enlisting volunteers to help photograph and describe incremental high tides across Hawaii.” Read more at The Atlantic.

[Image: Courtesy Places Journal/Zach Mortice].

Over at Places, landscape architect Zach Mortice takes a long look at what he calls “perpetual neglect” and the challenge of historic preservation in African-American burial grounds. Badly maintained—and, in some cases, almost entirely erased—black cemeteries reveal “that the racism and inequality that plague African Americans in life are perpetuated in death,” Mortice suggests. This is “nothing less than a preservation crisis for black burial grounds across the country.”

I recently discovered the existence of something called Betonamit. Betonamit is a “non-explosive cracking agent,” essentially a “non-toxic” powder that can be used for the slow-motion demolition of buildings and geological forms. “When mixed with water and poured into holes 1 1/4″, 1 3/8″ or 1 1/2″ diameter, it hardens and expands, exerting pressures of 12,000 psi. Reinforced concrete, boulders, and ledge[s] are fractured overnight with no noise, vibration, or flyrock.” I’m imagining a truck full of this stuff overturning on a crack-laden bridge somewhere, just an hour before a rainstorm begins, or a storage yard filled with crates of this stuff being ripped apart in the summer wind; a seemingly innocuous grey powder drifts out across an entire neighborhood for the next few hours, settling down into cracks on brick rooftops and stone facades, in sidewalks and roadbeds. Then the rains begin. The city crumbles. Weaponized demolition powder.

In any case, I actually stumbled upon Betonamit after reading a few blog posts on that company’s in-house blog. Atlas Preservation has a handful of interesting short articles up documenting their preservation work, including what might be the oldest gravestone in the United States and the challenges of open-air cemetery preservation. Let’s hope no one goes wandering amongst the tombs with a bucket of Betonamit…

The BBC went into horror-movie mode earlier this month, asking, “what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before? We may be about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” The headline is straight-forward enough, I suppose: “There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up.”

[Images: Courtesy Waxwork Records].

Fans of John Carpenter’s (excellent) 1982 film The Thing might be interested to hear that the original score has been remastered and released on vinyl. The final product is visually gorgeous—and temporarily sold out. Keep your ears peeled for further pressings.

A retired F.B.I. investigator has newly dedicated himself to tracking down lost apple varietals of the Pacific Northwest. They are not extinct; they have simply disappeared into the background, both ecologically and historically. They are trees that have “faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands,” but the apples that grow from them can still be enjoyed and cultivated.

If you are interested in apples and their history, meanwhile, don’t miss the late Roger Deakin’s superb book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees.

[Images: Courtesy Public Domain Review].

Blending into the natural landscape is the subject of a fascinating piece over at Public Domain Review about the early wildlife photographers, Richard and Cherry Kearton. In order not to scare away their subject matter, the Keartons constructed artificial trees, put on short, deliberately misleading performative displays for wildlife, and carved masks that would help camouflage them against the woodlands.

There’s more—always more!—to link to and read, but I’ll leave it at that. For other, ongoing links, I am also on Twitter.

Incidental Detection

[Image: Aura WiFi burglar alarm].

A new home and office alarm system detects disturbances in WiFi to warn residents of potential burglars. The Aura, as it’s known, picks up “disruptions in the invisible radio waves that make up your home’s Wi-Fi network” to determine if someone—or perhaps something—is sneaking around inside, uninvited.

When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.

Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.

Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.

Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.

[Image: GPS satellites, via MIT Technology Review].

There are so many examples of this sort of thing. Recall, for instance, that subatomic particles (or, rather, their absence) can be used to map otherwise inaccessible architectural interiors, or that an experiment in the 1930s designed “to find out what was causing the static that interfered with trans-Atlantic telephone calls” inadvertently kicked off the field of radio astronomy, or the fact that tree rings can be used to detect both sunspots and earthquakes. Or even that LIGO, the gravitational-waves detector, at one point was accidentally being set off by wolves, or that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was picked up as an earthquake by regional seismographs.

Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.

In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.

[Image: Via Outdoor Life].

I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.

Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.

In any case, the CBC has a great write-up about the Aura, if you want to learn more.

Mayan Muons and Unmapped Rooms

[Image: “Guatemala Tikal D8006” by youngrobv].

Easily one of the most interesting things I’ve read in quite a while is how a team of particle physicists from UT-Austin plan on using repurposed muon detectors to see inside Mayan archaeological ruins.
In the new issue of Archaeology, Samir S. Patel describes how “an almost featureless aluminum cylinder 5 feet in diameter” that spends its time “silently counting cosmic flotsam called muons” – “ghost particles” that ceaselessly rain down from space – will be installed in the jungles of Belize.
There, these machines will map the otherwise unexplored internal spaces of what the scientists call a “jungle-covered mound.”
In other words, an ancient building that now appears simply to be part of the natural landscape – a constructed terrain – will be opened up to viewing for the first time since it was reclaimed by rain forest.
It’s non-invasive archaeology by way of deep space.

[Images: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

From the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group website:

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:

A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Referring to a muon detector already at work on the campus of UT-Austin, Patel writes: “The detector sees in every direction, so it also records muon shadows from the adjacent university buildings, and can even identify empty corridors. Silently, with little tending, it takes a monumental x-ray of the world around it.”
“The resulting image,” he adds, “will be almost directly analogous to a medical CAT-scan.”

[Image: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Install one of these things in New York City and see what you find: moving blurs of elevators and passing trucks amidst the strange, skeletal frameworks of skyscrapers that stand behind it all in a labyrinthine mesh.

[Image: A diagram of how it all works; from this PDF by Roy Schwitters].

Patel goes on to relate the surreal story of physicist Luis Alvarez, who used muons “to scan the inside of an ancient structure” – in this case, Khafre’s pyramid at Giza. “Working with Egyptian scientists in the late 1960s,” we read, “he gained access to the Belzoni chamber, a humid vault deep under the pyramid.”
Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, “Alvarez’s team set up a muon detector called a spark chamber, which included 30 tons of of iron sheeting, in the underground room.”
Foreign physicists building iron rooms beneath the pyramids! To search for secret chambers based on the evidence of cosmic particles.

[Image: An illustrated depiction of Luis Alvarez’s feat; view larger!].

Indeed, we read:

Suspicion of the research team ran high – here was a group of Americans with high-tech electronics beneath one of Egypt’s most cherished monuments. “We had flashing lights behind panels – it looked like a sci-fi thing from Star Trek,” says Lauren Yazolino, the engineer who designed the detector’s electronics.

Alvarez’s iron room beneath the monolithic geometry of the pyramid – it’s like a project by Lebbeus Woods, by way of Boullée – apparently took one year to perform its muon-detection work.
One day, then, the team took a long look at the data – wherein Yazolino “spotted an anomaly, a region of the pyramid that stopped fewer muons than expected, suggesting a void.”
There were still undiscovered rooms inside the structure.

[Image: Wiring up the muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Excitingly, when Roy Schwitters sets up his muon detector next to the tree-covered mounds of the Mayan city of La Milpa, he should get his results back in less than six months. Sitting there like a strange battery, the detector’s ultra-long-term abstract photography of the jungle hillsides vaguely reminds me of the technically avant-garde photographic work of Aaron Rose.
Rose has pioneered all sorts of strange lenses and unexpected chemical developers as he takes long-term exposures of Manhattan.
New York becomes less a city than a kind of impenetrable wall of built space.

[Images: Four photographs by Aaron Rose. View slightly larger].

Again, then, I’m curious what it’d be like to install one of these muon detectors in Manhattan: the shivering hives of space it might detect, as delivery trucks shake the bridges and elevators move up and down inside distant high-rises. What would someone like Aaron Rose be able to do with a muon detector?
Are muon detectors the future of urban art photography?
Perhaps it could even be a strange new piece of public art: a dozen muon detectors are installed in Union Square for six months. They’re behind fences, and look sinister; conspiratorialists leave long comments on architecture blogs suggesting that the muon detectors might not really be what they seem…
But the resulting images, after six months of Manhattan muon detection, are turned over as a gift to the city; they are hung in massive prints inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Egyptian wing, and Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers the keynote address.
Or perhaps a muon detector could be installed atop London’s fourth plinth:

The Fourth Plinth is in the north-west of Trafalgar Square, in central London. Built in 1841, it was originally intended for an equestrian statue but was empty for many years. It is now the location for specially commissioned art works.

For six months, a shadowy muon detector will stand there, above the heads of passing tourists, detecting strange and labyrinthine hollows beneath government buildings where sprawling complexes from WWII spiral out of sight below ground.
Or perhaps muon detectors could even be installed along the European coast to discover things like the buried neolithic village of Skara Brae or those infamous Nazi bunkers “that lay hidden for more than 50 years” before being uncovered by the sea. As the Daily Mail reported earlier this month:

Three Nazi bunkers on a beach have been uncovered by violent storms off the Danish coast, providing a store of material for history buffs and military archaeologists.

The bunkers were found in practically the same condition as they were on the day the last Nazi soldiers left them, down to the tobacco in one trooper’s pipe and a half-finished bottle of schnapps.

So what else might be down there under the soil and the sands…?
I’m imagining mobile teams of archaeologists sleeping in unnamed instant cities in the jungles and far deserts of the world, with storms swirling over their heads, running tests on gigantic black cylinders – muon detectors, all – that stand there like Kubrickian monoliths, recording invisible flashes of energy from space to find ancient burial sites and old buildings underground.

[Images: Tikal, photographed by n8agrin: top/bottom].

Perhaps all the forests and deserts of the world should be peppered with muon detectors – revealing archaeological anomalies and unexpected spaces in the ground all around us.
Architecture students could be involved: installing muon detectors outside Dubai high-rises and then competing to see who can most accurately interpret the floorplan data.

[Images: “Sobrevolando Tikal, Guatemala,” photographed by Eddie von der Becke].

Till one day, ten years from now, an astronaut crazed with emotional loneliness, riding through space with his muon detector, begins misinterpreting all of the data. He concludes – in a live radio transmission broadcast home to stunned mission control supervisors – that his space station has secret rooms – undiscovered rooms – that keep popping up somehow in the shadows…
More to the point, meanwhile, you can read a few more things about Roy Schwitters over at MSNBC – and, of course, at the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group homepage.