Gravitational Lensing, Interstellar Cinematography, and the Future of Magical Warfare in Space

[Image: An example of gravitational lens effects, via Wikipedia.]

Over at WIRED, Daniel Oberhaus, author of the recent book Extraterrestrial Languages, takes a look at some proposals from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program. “Among this year’s NIAC grants,” Oberhaus writes, “are proposals to turn a lunar crater into a giant radio dish, to develop an antimatter deceleration system, and to map the inside of an asteroid. But the most eye-popping concept of the bunch was advanced by Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who wants to photograph an exoplanet by using the sun as a giant camera lens.”

There is much more specific information in Oberhaus’s piece—about gravitational lensing, etc. etc.—but the following detail is killer. “Unlike a camera lens,” we read, “the sun doesn’t have a single focal point, but a focal line that starts around 50 billion miles away and extends infinitely into space. The image of an exoplanet can be imagined as a tube less than a mile in diameter centered on this focal line and located 60 billion miles away in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. The telescope must align itself perfectly within this tube so that you could draw an imaginary line from the center of the telescope through the center of the sun to a region on the exoplanet.”

Cameras in space, waiting to be discovered—or where astronomy and cinematography become the same pursuit.

Seen this way, the solar system is more like a maze of optical effects, a topology of entangled image-tubes and horizon lines, of gravitational mirages streamed from one side of the galaxy to the next, torqued, lensed, and ribboned into geometric shapes we then struggle to unknot with the right billion-dollar instrumentation.

Along those lines, recall this excellent post on Xenogothic following last year’s unprecedented “photo” taken of a black hole. According to Xenogothic, this curious anti-photo depicting the absence of light reveals “the true, formless nature of photography and our photographies-to-come… The further out into the imperceptible universe we reach, the quicker we must get used to seeing images which are ostensibly not-for-us.” Imaging black holes is art history by other means.

[Image: Black hole, via Xenogothic.]

In fact, all of this reminds me of one of my favorite museums in the world, the National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy, which begins its history of cinema with a display of circular mirrors, anamorphic paintings, perspectival diagrams, and other optical tricks that, in the proper historical context, seem indistinguishable from magic. The birth of “cinema,” we might say, occurred when someone distorted light with mirrors; its origins are rooted in illusion and reflection, not projection and electricity.

In any case, imagine magicians of the near-future, performing for audiences aboard relativistic spacecraft, making stars disappear by manipulating image-tubes in the voids between planets. Gravitational lensing will pass from a niche science into popular spectacle.

And then, of course—the inevitable next step in a Christopher Priest novel—these magical effects of stellar camouflage, Xenogothic’s “photographies-to-come,” will become weaponized, militarized, transformed into tools for catastrophically redirecting light through space and extinguishing distant worlds.

From an optical effect in the prehistory of cinema to relativistic gravitational lensing in the abstracts of NASA to future galactic conquerors casually folding closed their image-tubes and making entire planets disappear.

Cities of the Sun

[Image: Ningbo, China, via Google Maps].

Although I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you agree with the author’s critique of planning regulations, there is a fascinating post over at NYU’s Marron Institute. It was originally published back in 2014, but I just saw it the other day thanks to a tweet from Nicola Twilley.

There, Alain Bertaud describes a planning rule from 1950s China: “In the 1950s,” Bertaud writes, “China established a regulation requiring that at least one room in each apartment receive a minimum of one hour of sunshine on the day of the winter solstice, December 21.”

As an architectural constraint, this is actually quite amazing: it needn’t inspire identical towers with identical windows all pointing in the same direction, but could very easily lead to a riot of creativity and innovation, pushing architects to imagine increasingly clever structural and material means for opening even the deepest megastructural interior to winter sunlight.

In a sense, I might say, it is not the regulation’s fault if architects come to the table with a yawning and lackluster response. While this is admittedly an anachronistic comment, given what little I know about city planning in China’s state-driven economy of the 1950s, my larger point is simply that even extreme design constraints can be implemented with subtleness and creativity.

[Image: Guangzhou, China, via Google Maps].

Bertaud continues: “even though the rule no longer applies, its impact on the spatial structure of Chinese cities remains.” This kicks off a kind of forensic examination of Chinese urban form, with the goal of finding the sun of the winter solstice shining somewhere at each city’s regulatory core.

First of all, right away stuff like this is incredible: it is urban-planning analysis as astronomical inquiry, or, more abstractly speaking, it is the suggestion that, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the world we’ve built for ourselves, there are traces of older rules or beliefs that still make their presence known.

This is why things like apotropaic marks are so interesting, for example, not because you have to believe in the occult, but because these marks reveal that even superstition and folklore have spatial effects, and that these beliefs have influenced the design and construction of thresholds and hearths for centuries. Even apparently secular architecture has irrational patterns of belief built into it.

[Image: Beijing, China, via Google Maps].

In any case, the solstice-planning rule “boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: distance d between buildings is determined by the height of building h multiplied by the tangent of the angle α of the sun on the winter solstice at 11:30 in the morning using solar time.” It is “a mathematical formula linked to the movement of the sun,” which, for Bertaud, falsely lent it the air of science, creating the illusion that this approach was rational—in short, that it was a good idea.

One interesting emergent side-effect of the rule, however, is that, by necessity, it had different spatial effects at different latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth. Chinese urban form became a kind of diagram of the Earth’s relationship to the solar system: the distances between buildings, the layouts of rooms inside those buildings, the locations of windows inside those rooms, all taking their cue from a celestial source.

Like a careful study of Stonehenge, you could reverse-engineer the precise location of the sun on a specific day of the year from the layouts of Chinese cities.

But is such poetry really worth it, economically and spatially? Bertaud certainly thinks not. Check out the original post for more.

(The images in this post were arbitrarily taken from Google Maps purely based on locations referred to by Bertaud’s post; they should not be seen as visual evidence of the 1950s planning law discussed here.)

Mirror displacements


I ran across this image at SPROL, and immediately thought of Robert Smithson’s “Yucatan Mirror Displacements,” in which Smithson put mirrors on the ground and in the trees throughout the Yucatan, and then photographed the resulting inversions of sky, land, earth, heaven… left, right, etc.

[Image: Robert Smithson, from “Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1-9,” 1969].

And though the first image, above, is actually an array of solar power generators, the machines it pictures rearrange and visually disrupt the landscape in such an exciting way that I’m tempted to suggest they should be installed everywhere just for the visual effect.
Thousands of these things on the roofs of every building downtown, installed in the smoky corners of clubs, part fractal-mirror-machine, part-echo-wall. Rotating inside jewelry shops, turning everything into a seamless, through-linked chain of exact-faceted geometric self-similarity.
Install ten thousand of these in the sky, rotating above Manhattan: babies will wake-up from afternoon naps and see sparkling heavens of mirror-bright skies flashing like cameras, reflecting towers, clouds, seas, rivers, a world made alive through reflective technology.
There’s something oddly attractive – even Greek-mythological – about a mirror that can store the sun’s energy: it can copy the sun, in other words, or imitate it. It’s a kind of rearing-up of the son, the prodigal copy – a return of the repressed – to slay and replace the source, the original.
In fact, imagine a retelling of the Narcissus myth, updated for the 21st century, populated entirely with solar-powered technology and written by Jean Baudrillard – and you’d get something like these mirror-displacing reflection machines.