[Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].
A gigapixel bathymetric map of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed has been released, and it’s incredible. The newly achieved level of detail is almost hard to believe.
[Images: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].
The geology of the region is “driven not by plate tectonics but by the movement of subsurface bodies of salt,” Eos reported last week. “Salt deposits, a remnant of an ocean that existed some 200 million years ago, behave in a certain way when overlain by heavy sediments. They compact, deform, squeeze into cracks, and balloon into overlying material.”
This means that the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico “is a terrain continually in flux.”
How the salt got there is the subject of a long but fascinating description at Eos.
It is hypothesized that the salt precipitated out of hypersaline seawater when Africa and South America pulled away from North America during the Triassic and Jurassic, some 200 million years ago. The [Gulf of Mexico] was initially an enclosed, restricted basin into which seawater infiltrated and then evaporated in an arid climate, causing the hypersalinity (similar to what happened in the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan).
Salt filled the basin to depths of thousands of meters until it was opened to the ancestral Atlantic Ocean and consequently regained open marine circulation and normal salinities. As geologic time progressed, river deltas and marine microfossils deposited thousands more meters of sediments into the basin, atop the thick layer of salt.
The salt, subjected to the immense pressure and heat of being buried kilometers deep, deformed like putty over time, oozing upward toward the seafloor. The moving salt fractured and faulted the overlying brittle sediments, in turn creating natural pathways for deep oil and gas to seep upward through the cracks and form reservoirs within shallower geologic layers.
These otherwise invisible landscape features “oozing upward” from beneath the seabed are known as salt domes, and they are not only found at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
This is what it looks like inside those salt domes, you might way, once industrially equipped human beings have carved wormlike topological spaces into the deformed, ballooning salt deposits of the region.
Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico is not the only salt-rich region of the United States; there is a huge salt mine beneath the city of Detroit, for example, and the nation’s first nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—which my wife and I had the surreal pleasure of visiting in person back in 2012—is dug into a huge underground salt deposit near the New Mexico/Texas border.
Nonetheless, the Louisiana/Gulf of Mexico salt dome region has lent itself to some particularly provocative landscape myths.
You might recall, for example, the story of Lake Peigneur, an inland body of water that was almost entirely drained from below when a Texaco drilling rig accidentally punctured a salt dome beneath the lake.
This led to the sight of a rapid, Edgar Allan Poe-like maelström of swirling water disappearing into the abyss, pulling no fewer than eleven barges into the terrestrial deep.
As the New York Times reported back in 2013, “in the predawn blackness of Aug. 3, 2012, the earth opened up—a voracious maw 325 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, swallowing 100-foot trees, guzzling water from adjacent swamps and belching methane from a thousand feet or more beneath the surface.”
One resident of the area is quoted as saying, “I think I caught a glimpse of hell in it.”
More than a year after it appeared, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is about 25 acres and still growing, almost as big as 20 football fields, lazily biting off chunks of forest and creeping hungrily toward an earthen berm built to contain its oily waters. It has its own Facebook page and its own groupies, conspiracy theorists who insist the pit is somehow linked to the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles south and the earthquake-prone New Madrid fault 450 miles north. It has confounded geologists who have struggled to explain this scar in the earth.
To oversimplify things, the overall theory—that is, the conspiratorial part of all this—is that the entire landscape of the Gulf region is on the verge of subterranean dissolution. The very salt deposits so beautifully mapped by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management are all lined up for eventual flooding.
As this vast underground landscape of salt dissolves, everything from east Texas to west Florida will be sucked down into the abyss.
It’s unlikely that this will happen, I should say. You can sleep well at night.
In the meantime, the sorts of salt-mining operations depicted here in these photographs have carved their worming, subterranean way into the warped terrains of salt that dynamically ooze their way up to the surface from geological prehistory.
I’m biased, but my wife, Nicola Twilley, had a great feature in The New Yorker’s “Innovation” issue earlier this month, about an emerging type of device known as “sensory-substitution technology.”
For the piece, Nicky met a man named Erik Weihenmayer, a congenitally blind mountain climber—in fact, he is “the only blind person to have climbed Mt. Everest.” Weihenmayer climbs using a device called the BrainPort, held in his mouth; it converts one sense (sight) to another (touch).
A decade ago, Weihenmayer began using the BrainPort, a device that enables him to “see” the rock face using his tongue. The BrainPort consists of two parts: the band on his brow supports a tiny video camera; connected to this by a cable is a postage-stamp-size white plastic lollipop, which he holds in his mouth. The camera feed is reduced in resolution to a grid of four hundred gray-scale pixels, transmitted to his tongue via a corresponding grid of four hundred tiny electrodes on the lollipop. Dark pixels provide a strong shock; lighter pixels merely tingle. The resulting vision is a sensation that Weihenmayer describes as “pictures being painted with tiny bubbles.”
What’s particularly interesting, however, is that these are still just the earliest days of investment and research into what sensory-substitution devices might someday be able to achieve.
They could lead, for example, to the creation of artificial “superabilities,” or synthetic senses that act as a mix between our existing bodily inputs. Through the use of these sorts of devices, Nicky writes, humans “may, depending on the data transmitted through their skin, be able to ‘feel’ electromagnetic fields, stock-market data, or even space weather,” or “enable us to ‘see’ bodies through walls using the infrared spectrum or to ‘hear’ the location of family members using G.P.S. tracking technology.”
I suppose the next question would be to imagine a world in which this is possible—humans feeling space weather or seeing bodies through walls—and then to design the landscape accordingly. Stage sets in which people moving behind walls is part of the action, or outdoor gardens and parks tingling with the pinprick stimulation of otherwise invisible solar flares. Financial analysts high on the fumes of laser printers sit pensively in a dark room feeling stock market data wash over their arms and faces.
Recall, of course, the “Animal Superpowers” project by Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, that allowed human users to “see” the world through the senses of animals, one example of which is pictured above.
I’ve been traveling around London, the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean Sea the past few weeks, doing research for a new book, and thus not really using the internet outside of a bunch of Instagram shots; nonetheless, I thought I’d post some pictures from the trip.
It is a book about crime, policing, and the built environment, and how these forces mutually influence one another, from ancient Rome to contemporary Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the spatial peculiarities of breaking and entering.
There, Annalee Newitz writes that, “Despite its title, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City won’t teach you how to break into houses. It won’t help you outsmart wily cat burglars with ingenious home alarm systems, either. Instead, it explores something a lot weirder and more interesting: Manaugh argues that burglary is built into the fabric of cities and is an inevitable outgrowth of having architecture in the first place.”
In any case, I’d be over the moon if you picked up a copy, and I would love to discuss the book’s many ideas—and people and tools and scenes and histories—in more detail here. However, I’m also aware that I can’t just post about this book over and over—and over—again, so I’ll also get back to regular blogging soon.
It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like KipThorne, 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.
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.)
[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.
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.”
“This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus,” the European Space Agency reported earlier this week.
“As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks—graben—stranded within the resulting trenches,” the ESA adds. “The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.”
We are living in something of a golden age for landscape studies. Over a remarkably short span of time, for example, we’ve learned that there are sinkholes on comets—that is, that comets have undergrounds. They have pores, caves, and tunnels, with sinkholes explosively airing this subterranean world into outer space. These “mysterious, steep-sided pits—one up to 600 feet wide and 600 feet deep,” as National Geographic described them, indicate that “there must be gaps inside.” Picture caves and tunnels evaporating in the darkness, before collapsing in on themselves in a crystalline flash.
Meanwhile, I have always loved the fact that there is a mountain range on Mars named after dead American astronauts, as if the Red Planet is somehow haunted in advance of human arrival by the mythological figures of explorers who never made it there. But this is just one small example of how a radically unfamiliar environment can gradually become known through the process of naming.
As the scientists traced tendrils of reddish brown and speculated as to the rate of melt at the edge of a two-toned ice patch near Pluto’s equator, the impossibly distant world came to life. Fed up with referring to features as, for instance, “the black circle at two o’clock” and “the big white patch,” the team had started to give them names—first nicknames, such as “the heart” and “the whale,” and then unofficial but more formal names drawn from the mythology of the underworld. The whale became Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and a nearby dark smudge was christened Balrog, after the demons of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. An alien landscape had started to become a collection of places: knowable, if not yet known.
In any case, while naming, of course, lends an air of familiarity to alien terrains—or knowability, we might say—the utterly bonkers nature of these landscapes remains extraordinary.
Nicky later revisited the subject, for example, writing that “the reddish patches” seen on Pluto might actually be “the organic material nicknamed ‘star tar,’ a precursor to life”—sludge awaiting sentience—and that “cryovolcanoes—volcanoes that spew slushy methane and nitrogen ice rather than molten rock,” might exist at the planet’s south pole.
There, this slow-moving matrix of frozen elements would circulate amongst other “exotic ices” in the distant cold, surely another kind of “labyrinth of night,” if there ever was one.
Think of what writer Victoria Nelson has called the “polar Gothic,” referring to an era of science-fictional representations of the Earth’s own polar regions as places of psychological menace and theological mystery; now picture weird slurries of nitrogen and star-tar sinkholes in a region named after Cthulhu, and it seems that perhaps the great age of landscape exploration has only now truly begun.
Consider, for example, this tweet by Rob Minchin, referring to the latest geological revelations coming from Pluto, a world of nitrogen glaciers and ice tectonics. “Water ice floats on nitrogen or CO ice,” he explains. This means, unbelievably, that “numerous mountains on Pluto appear to be floating.”
For those of you into road trips, nuclear waste, petroglyphs, 19th-century geographic survey teams, remote military simulations, abandoned rocket fuel facilities, Hollow Earth cults, and more, there is only one week left to catch the Venue exhibition over at SPUR in San Francisco.
Over the course of multiple, discontinuous trips throughout the United States—primarily focused on the West—we visited landfills, military bases, nuclear waste disposal sites, atomic clocks, underground neutrino detectors, the world’s largest organism in the mountains of eastern Oregon, the factory where AstroTurf is made, NASA’s “Mars Yard” in Pasadena, the awesomely eccentric Mercer Museum, an elevator-testing tower, the Central Park bolt, a Navy SEAL museum, and a subterranean radon health spa, to name only a handful.
Incredibly, there are more than 450 artificial caves excavated from the sandstone beneath the streets and buildings of Nottingham, England—including, legendarily, the old dungeon that once held Robin Hood—and not all of them are known even today, let alone mapped or studied. The city sits atop a labyrinth of human-carved spaces—some of them huge—and it will quite simply never be certain if archaeologists and historians have found them all.
[Images: Laser scans from the Nottingham Caves Survey show Castle Rock and the Mortimer’s Hole tunnel, including, in the bottom image, the Trip to Jerusalem Pub where we met archaeologist David Strange-Walker; images like this imply an exhilarating and almost psychedelic portrait of the city as invisibly connected behind the scenes by an umbilical network of caves and tunnels. Scans courtesy of the Nottingham Caves Survey].
“Even back in Saxon times, Nottingham was known for its caves,” local historian Tony Waltham writes in his helpful guide Sandstone Caves of Nottingham, “though the great majority of those which survive today were cut much more recently.” From malt kilns to pub cellars, “gentlemen’s lounges” to jails, and wells to cisterns, these caves form an almost entirely privately-owned lacework of voids beneath the city.
[Image: Map of only the known caves in Nottingham, and only in Nottingham’s city center; map by Tony Waltham, from Sandstone Caves of Nottingham].
As Waltham explains, “Nottingham has so many caves quite simply because the physical properties of the bedrock sandstone are ideal for its excavation.” The sandstone “is easily excavated with only hand tools, yet will safely stand as an unsupported arch of low profile.”
In a sense, Nottingham is the Cappadocia of the British Isles.
The purpose of the Nottingham Caves Survey, as their website explains, is “to assess the archaeological importance of Nottingham’s caves. Some are currently scheduled monuments and are of great local and national importance. Some are pub cellars and may seem less vital to the history of the City.”
Others, I was soon to learn, have been bricked off, taken apart, filled in, or forgotten.
“All caves that can be physically accessed will be surveyed with a 3D laser scanner,” the Survey adds, “producing a full measured record of the caves in three dimensions. This ‘point cloud’ of millions of individual survey points can be cut and sliced into plans and sections, ‘flown through’ in short videos, and examined in great detail on the web.”
[Video: One of very many laser-scan animations from the Nottingham Caves Survey].
While over in England a few weeks ago, I got in touch with archaeologist David Strange-Walker, the project’s manager, and arranged for a visit up to Nottingham to learn more about the project. Best of all, David very generously organized an entire day’s worth of explorations, going down into many of the city’s underground spaces in person with David himself as our guide. Joining me on the trip north from London was Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography; architect Mark Smout of Smout Allen and co-author of the fantastic Pamphlet Architecture installment, Augmented Landscapes; and Mark’s young son, Ellis.
[Image: Artificially enlarged pores in the sandstone; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We met the very likable and energetic David—who was dressed for a full day of activity, complete with a well-weathered backpack that we’d later learn contained hard hats and floodlights for each of us—outside Nottingham’s Trip to Jerusalem pub.
Rather than kicking off our visit with a pint, however, we simply walked inside to see how the pub had been partially built—that is, expanded through deliberate excavation—into the sandstone cliffside.
The building is thus more like a facade wrapped around and disguising the artificial caves behind it; walking in past the bar, for instance, you soon notice ventilation shafts and strange half-stairways, curved walls and unpredictable acoustics, as the “network of caves” that actually constitutes the pub interior begins to reveal itself.
My mind was already somewhat blown by this, though it was just the barest indication of extraordinary spatial experiences yet to come.
[Image: Examining sandstone with Dr. David Strange-Walker; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Wasting no time, we headed back outside, where afternoon rain showers had begun to blow in, and David introduced us to the sandstone cliff itself, pointing out both natural and artificially enlarged pores pockmarking the outside.
The sandstone formations or “rock units” beneath the city, as Tony Waltham explains, “were formed as flash flood sediments in desert basins during Triassic times, about 240 million years ago, when Britain was part of a hot and dry continental interior close to the equator. Subsequent eons of plate tectonic movements have brought Britain to its present position; and during the same time, the desert sediments have been buried, compressed and cemented to form moderately strong sedimentary rocks.”
The city is thus built atop a kind of frozen Sahara, deep into which we were about to go walking.
[Image: A gate in the cliff; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Outside here in the cliff face, small openings led within to medieval tunnels and stairs—including the infamous Mortimer’s Hole—that themselves curled up to the top of the plateau; doors in the rock further up from the Trip to Jerusalem opened onto what were now private shooting ranges, of all things; and, with a laugh, David pointed out shotcrete cosmetic work that had been applied to the outer stone surface.
[Image: Artificial shotcrete geology; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We headed from there—walking a brisk pace uphill into the town center—with David casually narrating the various basements, cellars, tunnels, and other urban perforations that lay under the buildings around us, as if we were traveling through town with a human x-ray machine for whom the city was an archaeologically rich cobweb of underground loops and dead-ends.
We soon ended up at the old jails of the Galleries of Justice. A well-known tourist destination, complete with costumed re-enactors, the building sits atop several levels of artificial caves that are well worth exploring.
We were joined at this point by the site’s director, who generously took time out of his schedule to lead us down into parts of the underground complex that are not normally open to the general public.
Heading downward—at first by elevator—we eventually unlocked a door, stepped into a tiny room beneath even the jail cells, crouching over so as not to bang our heads on the low ceiling, and we leaned against banded brick pillars that had been added to help support all the architecture groaning above us.
Avoiding each other’s flashlight beams, we listened as our two guides talked about the discovery—and, sadly, the willful reburial—of caves throughout central Nottingham.
[Image: Brick pillars below Nottingham; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We learned, for instance, that, elsewhere in the city, there had once been a vacuum shop with a cave beneath it; if I remember this story correctly, the shop’s owners had the habit of simply discarding broken and unsold vacuum cleaners into the cave, inadvertently creating a kind of museum of obsolete vacuum parts. Discontinued models sat in the darkness—a void full of vacuums—as the shop went out of business.
We heard, as well, about a nearby site where caves had been discovered beneath a bank during a recent process of renovation and expansion—but, fearing discovery of anything that might slow down the bank’s architectural plans, the caves were simply walled up and left unexplored. They’re thus still down there, underneath and behind the bank, their contents unknown, their extent unmapped—a fate, it seems, shared by many of the caves of Nottingham.
Rather than being greeted by the subterranean and historical wonder that such structures deserve—and I would argue that essentially all of subterranean Nottingham should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the caves are too often treated as little more than annoying construction setbacks or anomalous ground conditions, suitable only for bricking up, filling with concrete, or forgetting. If the public thinks about them at all, in seems, it is only long enough to consider them threats to building safety or negative influences on property value.
[Images: Learning about caves; photos by BLDGBLOG].
In any case, on our way out of the Galleries of Justice, we lifted up a ventilation grill in the floor and looked down into a small vertical shaft, too narrow and contorted even for Ellis to navigate, and we learned that there are urban legends that this particular shaft leads down to a larger room in which Robin Hood himself was once held… But we had only enough time to shine our flashlights down and wonder.
[Images: Ellis Smout looks for Robin Hood below; photos by BLDGBLOG].
From here, we headed over to our final tourist-y site of the day, which is the awesomely surreal City of Caves exhibition, located in Nottingham’s Broad Marsh shopping mall.
You literally take an escalator down into an indoor mall, where, amidst clothing outlets and food courts, there is an otherwise totally mundane sign pointing simply to “Caves.”
If you didn’t know about Nottingham’s extensive sub-city, this would surely be one of the most inexplicable way-finding messages in mall history.
Here, where we picked our copy of Tony Waltham’s Sandstone Caves of Nottingham pamphlet, from which I’ve been quoting, we learned quite a bit more about how the city has grown, how the caves themselves have often been uncovered (for example, during building expansions and renovations), and what role Nottingham’s underground spaces served during the Nazi bombings of WWII.
[Image: Beneath Broad Marsh shopping mall; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The specific underground complex beneath the shopping mall offers an interesting mix of old tanning operations and other semi-industrial, pre-modern work rooms, now overlapping with 20th-century living and basement spaces that were sliced open during the construction of the Broad Marsh mall.
[Images: Cave spaces beneath the Superstudio-like concrete grid of Nottingham’s Broad Marsh shopping Mall].
That these caves were preserved at all is testament to the power of local conservationists, as the historically rich and spatially intricate rooms and corridors would have been gutted and erased entirely during post-War reconstruction without their intervention.
As it now stands, the mall is perched above the caves on concrete pillars, with the effect that curious shoppers can wander down into the caves through an entrance that could just as easily lead to a local branch of Accessorize.
[Image: A well bucket in the caves beneath Broad Marsh; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Again, we were fortunate to be taken down into some off-limits areas, stepping over lights and electric wires and peering ahead into larger rooms not on the tourist route.
[Images: Lines of lights we switched on in one of the off-limits rooms below Broad Marsh; photo by BLDGBLOG].
This included stepping outside at one point to wander through an overgrown alleyway behind the mall. Small openings even back here stretched beneath and seemingly into the backs of shops; one doorway, a short scramble up a hill of weed-covered rubble, appeared to contain a half-collapsed spiral staircase installed inside a brick-lined sandstone opening.
[Image: A doorway to voids behind Broad Marsh Centre; photo by BLDGBLOG].
At this point, we began to joke about the ease with which it seemed you could plan a sort of speleological super-heist, breaking into shops from below, as an entire dimension of the city seemed to lie unwatched and unprotected.
Nottingham, it appeared, is a city of nothing but doors and openings, holes, pores, and connections, complexly layered knots of space coiling beneath one building after another, sometimes cutting all the way down to the water table.
Incredibly, the day only continued to build in interest, reaching near-impossible urban sights, from catacombs in the local graveyard to a mind-bending sand mine that whirled and looped around like smoke rings beneath an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood.
Leaving the mall behind, and maintaining a brisk pace, David took us further into the city, where our next stop was the Old Angel Inn, another pub with an extensive cellar of caves, in this case accessed through a deceptively workaday door next to an arcade game.
[Images: The Old Angel Inn (top), including the door inside the pub that leads down to the caves below; photos by Nicola Twilley].
Once again, it can hardly be exaggerated how easy it would be to visit or even live in Nottingham and have absolutely no idea that underground spaces such as this can be found almost anywhere. As Tony Waltham points out, “It would be a fair assumption that every building or site within the old city limits either has or had some form of cave beneath it. About 500 caves are now known, and this may be only half the total number that have been excavated under Nottingham.”
In any case, “Although the Old Angel is a ‘modern’ brick building,” as the Nottingham Caves Survey describes the pub on its website, “an investigation of the caves below reveals stone walls belonging to an earlier incarnation. It is likely that there were buildings on this site as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period. Whether the caves beneath are also this old cannot be demonstrated definitively.”
Typical, as well, for these types of pub caves, we found ventilation and delivery tunnels leading back up to the surface, and the walls themselves are lined with long benches, perfect for sitting below ground and, provided you have candles or a flashlight along with you, enjoying a smoke and a pint of beer. As Tony Waltham explains, pub cellars often include “perimeter thralls,” or “low ledges cut in the rock,” normally used for storing kegs and barrels of beer but quite easily repurposed for a quick sit-down.
But I sense I’m going on way too long about all this, especially because the two most memorable details of the entire day were yet to come.
Jumping forward a bit, we left the Old Angel and followed some twists and turns in the street to find ourselves standing outside a nightclub called Propaganda.
Here, David revealed that he has been working on what, in my opinion, will easily be one of the must-have apps of the year. In a nutshell, David has managed to make the subterranean 3D laser-scans of the Nottingham Caves Survey accessible by location, such that, holding up his iPod Touch, he demonstrated that you could, in effect, scan the courtyard we were standing in to see the caves, tunnels, stairways, cellars, vents, storage rooms, and more that lay hidden in the ground around us.
[Images: We test-drive the cave-spotting app; bottom photo by Nicola Twilley].
Ideally, once the Survey’s extensive catalog of 3D visualizations and laser point-clouds has been made available and the app is ready for public download, you will be able to walk through the city of Nottingham, smartphone in hand, revealing in all of their serpentine complexity the underground spaces of the city core.
For anyone who has ever dreamt of putting on x-ray glasses and using them to explore architectural space, this app promises to be a thrilling and vertiginous way to experience exactly that—peering right through the city to see its most ancient foundations.
[Video: A fly-through of the Propaganda Nightclub malting caves].
I, for one, can’t wait to see what David and the Nottingham Caves Survey do with the finished application and I eagerly await its public availability.
[Image: Mark Smout looks for caves in the sky; photo by Nicola Twilley].
I’ll wind up this already quite long post with just a few more highlights.
Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, north from the center of town along the Mansfield Road, contains, among other things, the collapsed remains of a sand mine. Three of the mine’s old entrances are now gated alcoves surrounded by graves, like something out of Dante. They “are the only surviving remnants of the mine,” Waltham writes in his pamphlet.
[Images: Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, where archaeologist David Strange-Walker explained the history of the local landscape].
However, an ambitious plan to carve sizable catacombs, inspired by Paris and Rome, through the sandstone beds of the ancient desert here resulted in the never-completed Catacomb Caves, “probably done in 1859-63,” Waltham suggests. These long arched tunnels, accessible through one of the gates described above, eventually lead to a radial terminus from which branch the unused proto-catacombs.
The air there is cloudy with sand—leading me, several days later, to experience a brief attack of hypochondria, worried about developing silicosis—the walls are graffiti’d, and years of trash are piled on the sides of the sandy floor (which has since taken on the characteristics of a dune sea in places, as 150 years of footfall and a collapsing ceiling have led to the appearance of drifts).
[Images: The Rock Cemetery catacomb gates].
What was so extraordinary here, among many other things, was that, for most of this walk through the catacombs, we were actually walking below the graves, meaning that people were buried above us in the earth. At the risk of overdoing it, this felt not unlike becoming aware of an altogether different type of constellation, with bodies and all the stories their lives could tell held above us in a terrestrial sky like legends and heroes, like Orion and Cassiopeia, as we looked up at the vaulted ceiling, flashlights in hand.
[Image: A door on the street—the black door with bars—leading down into a sand mine; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Serving as something of the ultimate proof that Nottingham is a city of overlooked doors that lead into the underworld, there were two locked doors—one of which (the black door, near the sidewalk) appears in the photo, above, another of which, on a street nearby, leads down into the Peel Street Caves—simply sitting there on the sidewalk that, if opened, will take you down into extensive and now defunct sand mines. David’s laser-scans of these for the Nottingham Caves Survey are absolutely gorgeous, as you can see, below.
For a variety of reasons, I am going to avoid being too specific about some of the details here, but, aside from that, I can only enthuse about the experience of donning our hard hats and heading down several flights of comparatively new concrete steps into a coiling and vast artificial cavern from the 19th century, one we spent nearly an hour exploring.
[Image: Nicola Twilley and Mark Smout head down into the sand mine; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Getting lost down there would be so absurdly easy that it is frightening even to contemplate, and, in case the group of us somehow got split up or our batteries ran out of juice, we joked about—if only we could remember them—the easy techniques for navigating a labyrinth offered in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.
[Image: Many of these way-finding signs are actually incorrect, David explained, and seem to have been painted as a kind of sick joke by someone several years ago; photos by BLDGBLOG].
Avoiding such a fate, however, we found graffiti and men’s and women’s latrines; we popped our heads through holes allowing glimpse of other levels; and we cracked our helmets loudly against the low and rough roof more times than I could count.
And even that doesn’t complete the day. From here, heading back out onto the street through a nondescript steel door, as if we had been doing nothing more than watching football in someone’s basement, we went on to eat pie and chips in a restaurant built partially into a cave; we walked back across town, returning to where we started, talking about the future and seemingly obvious possibility of Nottingham’s caves being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus saved from their all but inevitable destruction (it’s easy to imagine a future in which a tour like the one David gave us will be impossible for lack of caves to see); and we all said goodbye beneath an evening sky cleared of clouds as a late-day breeze began to cut through town.
[Image: Mark & Ellis Smout explore our final “underground” space of the day, the magnificent Park Tunnel; the banded strata clearly visible in the walls show how the tunnel was carved through the dunes of an ancient desert. Photo by BLDGBLOG].
David proved to be a heroic guide that day. His energy never flagged throughout the tour, and he never once appeared impatient with or exhausted by any of our often ridiculous questions—not to mention our tourists’ insistence on pausing every three or four steps to take photographs—and he remained always willing to stay underground far longer than he had originally planned, all this despite having never met any of us before in person and only communicating with me briefly via a flurry of emails the week before.
Meeting David left me far more convinced than I already was that the Nottingham Caves Survey fully deserves the financial support of individuals and institutions, so that it can complete its ambitious and historically valuable work of cataloging Nottingham’s underground spaces and making that knowledge freely accessible to the general public.
Weirdly, England has within its very heart a region deserving comparison to Turkish Cappadocia—yet very few people even seem to know that this subterranean world exists. There very well could be more than 1,000 artificial caves beneath the city, many of them fantastically elaborate, complete with fine carvings of lions and ornate stairwells, and it is actually somewhat disconcerting to think that people remain so globally unaware of Nottingham’s underground heritage.
(For further reading, don’t miss Nicola Twilley’s write-up of the tour on her own blog, Edible Geography; and Tony Waltham’s Sandstone Caves of Nottingham, cited extensively in this post, is worth a read if you can find a copy).
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 “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.
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.
For a project called “Foragers,” design duo Dunne & Raby—who spoke last month at Thrilling Wonder Stories 2—sought a design-based solution to the urgent problem of future food supplies. “The world is running out of food–we need to produce 70% more food in the next 40 years according to the UN. Yet we continue to over-populate the planet, use up resources and ignore all the warning signs,” the designers warn. “It is completely unsustainable.”
Their eventual proposal was not a new type of grain, however, or a more effective cookstove. After all, they point out, “we have not really embraced the power to modify ourselves. What if we could extract nutritional value from non-human foods using a combination of synthetic biology and new digestive devices inspired by digestive systems of other mammals, birds, fish and insects?”
Dunne & Raby thus suggested the wholesale genetic alteration of the human digestive tract, in tandem with the design and adoption of new technical instruments for obtaining food from the larger environment. The human body could thereafter metabolize a highly diverse range of nutrients, from tree branches to algae-filled pond water.
But is this the direction that future food-system design and research should be going?
Nicola Twilley, author of Edible Geography and Food Editor for GOOD, is hosting an interesting question this week as part of the ongoing Glass House Conversations about this very topic. “The design of food has the potential to reshape the world,” Nicola writes, “let alone what we eat for dinner.”
Food—the substance itself, as well as its methods of production and consumption—has always been the subject of tinkering and design. The color of carrots, the shape of silverware, and the layout of supermarkets are all products of human ingenuity applied to the business of nourishment. Today, food is being redesigned more fundamentally and at a faster pace than ever before. This process is taking place in a wide variety of different contexts, with very different goals in mind, from corporate food technologists re-shaping salt crystals to maintain palatability while combating heart disease, to synaesthetic experiences designed by artist-entrepreneurs such as Marije Vogelzang.
Which leads to the week’s question: “In an era when food justice, food security, climate change, and obesity are such pressing issues, should there be public funding for food design R&D, and, if so, who should be receiving it?”
Should the designed future of food, and food systems more generally, be left to private corporations, to public institutions, to university labs, to individual entrepreneurs, to speculative design firms, or to some unexpected combination of all of the above? Further, what specific lines of design exploration should be explored when it comes to the global food supply, whether it’s genetic modification or new forms of preservation? Finally, how should these advances in food be best funded and pursued?
The forum will remain open until 8pm EST on Friday, December 17; be sure to join in, as it should be a good conversation.
Edible Geography has a fun interview up this morning with glacial scientist Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. The interview is remarkable not only for its descriptions of the technicality of drilling, shipping, preserving, and studying ancient ice cores removed from landscapes as far afield as Greenland and Tibet, but also for Mayewski’s confession that unneeded ice cores are sometimes melted down and drunk by the scientists.
“But, you know,” he clarifies, “it’s not as if we have a lot of ice lying around and we drink the water on a regular basis. We are pretty careful to restrict it to pieces that we know we don’t need for any measurements, and that come from places where they could be repeated if need be. We have to be sure that they’re not valuable to anybody. And we only use them for special events—we don’t drink it very often.”
These special events include wedding receptions, where shavings of ancient ice, dropped into water, bubble and pop like champagne, Mayewski explains:
Probably the most exciting thing about it is when you have real ice—that’s where the snow has been gradually compacted and eventually formed into ice, and the density has increased. When that happens, if the ice is old, it will often trap air bubbles in it. Those air bubbles can contain carbon dioxide from ten thousand years ago or even a hundred thousand years ago. And when you put an ice cube of that ice in a glass of water, it pops. It has natural effervescence as those gas bubbles escape. You get a little a puff of air into your nostrils if you have your nose over the glass. It’s not as though it necessarily smells like anything—but when you think about the fact that the last time that anything smelled that air was a hundred thousand years ago, that’s pretty interesting.
Atmospheres trapped for a half-a-million years suddenly freed, as wedding guests inhale these vaporous paleoarchives.