Forensic Geology

[Image: The “Trevisco pit,” Cornwall, from which the kaolinite used in space shuttle tiles comes from; photo by Hugh Symonds].

Photographer Hugh Symonds recently got in touch with a series of images called Terra Amamus, or “dirt we like,” in his translation, exploring mining operations in Cornwall.

“The granite moors of Cornwall,” Symonds explains, “were formed around 300 million years ago. Geological and climatic evolution have created a soft, white, earthy mineral called kaolinite. The name is thought to be derived from China, Kao-Ling (High-Hill) in Jingdezhen, where pottery has been made for more than 1700 years. Study of the Chinese model in the late 18th century led to the discovery and establishment of a flourishing industry in Cornwall.”

You could perhaps think of the resulting mines and quarries as a landscape falling somewhere between an act of industrial replication and 18th-century geological espionage.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As Symonds points out, kaolinite is actually “omni-present throughout our daily lives; in paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, kitchens, bathrooms, light bulbs, food additives, cars, roads and buildings. In an extraterrestrial, ‘Icarian’ twist, it is even present in the tiles made for the Space Shuttle.”

Indeed, the photograph that opens this post shows us the so-called Trevisco pit. Its kaolinite is not only “particularly pure,” Symonds notes; it is also “the oldest excavation in the Cornish complex.”

Even better, it is the “quarry from which the clay used for the Space Shuttle tiles came from.” This pit, then, is a negative space—a pockmark, a dent—in the Earth’s surface out of which emerged—at least in part—a system of objects and trajectories known as NASA.

Of course, the idea that we could trace the geological origins of an object as complex as the Space Shuttle brings to mind Mammoth‘s earlier stab at what could be called a provisional geology of the iPhone. As Mammoth wrote, “Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.” These and other products—even Space Shuttles—are terrestrial objects. That is, they emerge from infrastructurally networked points of geological extraction.

[Images: Photos by Hugh Symonds].

In John McPhee’s unfortunately titled book Encounters with the Archdruid, there is a memorable scene about precisely this idea: a provisional geology out of which our industrial system of objects has arisen.

“Most people don’t think about pigments in paint,” one of McPhee’s interview subjects opines. “Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it.” And then the real forensic geology begins:

The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin—it’s still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things—planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups—once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy—our way of doing things. Oh, gad! I haven’t even mentioned minerals like manganese and sulphur. You won’t make steel without them. You can’t make paper without sulphur…

We have rearranged the planet to form TVs and tin cans, producing objects from refined geology.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

What’s fascinating here, however, is something I touched upon in my earlier reference to geological espionage. In other words, we take for granted the idea that we can know what minerals go into these everyday products—and, more specifically, that we can thus locate those minerals’ earthly origins and, sooner or later, enter into commerce with them, producing our own counter-products, our own rival gizmos and competitive replacements.

I was thus astonished to read that, in fact, specifically in the case of silicon, this is not actually the case.

In geologist Michael Welland‘s excellent book Sand, often cited here, Welland explains that “electronics-grade silicon has to be at least 99.99999 percent pure—referred to in the trade as the ‘seven nines’—and often it’s more nines than that. In general, we are talking of one lonely atom of something that is not silicon among billions of silicon companions.”

Here, a detective story begins—it’s top secret geology!

A small number of companies around the world dominate the [microprocessor chip] technology and the [silicon] market, and while their literature and websites go into considerable and helpful detail on their products, the location and nature of the raw materials seem to be of “strategic value,” and thus an industrial secret. I sought the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, which produces comprehensive annual reports on silica and silicon (as well as all other industrial minerals), noting that statistics pertaining to semiconductor-grade silicon were often excluded or “withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data.”

Welland thus embarks upon an admittedly short but nonetheless fascinating investigation, hoping to de-cloud the proprietary geography of these mineral transnationals and find where this ultra-pure silicon really comes from. To make a long story short, he quickly narrows the search down to quartzite (which “can be well over 99 percent pure silica”) mined specifically from a few river valleys in the Appalachians.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As it happens, though, we needn’t go much further than the BBC to read about a town called Spruce Pine, “a modest, charmingly low-key town in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, [that] is at the heart of a global billion-dollar industry… The jewellery shops, highlighting local emeralds, sapphires and amethysts, hint at the riches. The mountains, however, contain something far more precious than gemstones: they are a source of high-purity quartz.” And Spruce Pine is but one of many locations from which globally strategic flows of electronics-grade silicon are first mined and purified.

In any case, the geological origin of even Space Shuttle tiles is always fascinating to think about; but when you start adding things like industrial espionage, proprietary corporate landscapes, unmarked quarries in remote mountain valleys, classified mineral reserves, supercomputers, a roving photographer in the right place at the right time, an inquisitive geologist, and so on, you rapidly escalate from a sort of Economist-Lite blog post to the skeleton of an international thriller that would be a dream to read (and write—editors get in touch!).

And, of course, if you like the images seen here, check out the rest of Symond’s Terra Amamus series.

8 thoughts on “Forensic Geology”

  1. The sci fi TV Series called "Doctor Who" was regularly shot at cornwall because of it's "alien" landscape if i remember correctly. Especially the old episodes from the seventies

  2. I notice that serious issues tend to be skirted on this otherwise interesting site. After all that discussion of minerals, not to discuss, for instance, what are essentially proxy wars with Western companies after African minerals to fuel flippant consumption seems symptomatically complicit, as though BLDGBLOG viewed the world as pure spectacle (Japan's earthquake as an opportunity for a conceit another example).
    I wonder if the genuinely interesting side wouldn't be added to by an attempt to grapple with something beyond spectacle?

  3. I wonder if the genuinely interesting side wouldn't be added to by an attempt to grapple with something beyond spectacle?

    Yes, I would think so – with very few reservations, in fact. I note, however, that you've skewed the playing field a bit in your analysis here by using the word "serious" to refer only to topics that you personally feel political sympathy for – as if discussing the geological origins of Space Shuttle tiles is somehow not "serious," i.e. I wrote this post for its comedic value. On the contrary, I would say that most of the things I cover here are "serious," whether that's the long-term threat of nuclear waste (a mere "conceit" in your calculation), climate change, or, say, the emergence of autonomous construction technologies. These issues might not pop up on your political radar, but I would disagree with your implication that I am thus somehow lost in spatial frivolity.

    Of course, it would be outrageous to reduce the world to pure spectacle, denuded of human suffering or political insight; but I suppose my question back to you involves another, arguably more dangerous risk: don't you think it's also outrageous that we live in a time when tossing off one-liners about "proxy wars" is all it takes to make other people think you're politically engaged?

  4. I don't think I'm asking for quick proofs of engagement, which would be irrelevant. I mention mineral wars only in example of a more general feature: what I wonder is whether the consistent focus on what looks like a rather formal interest in the technological possibilities of building and planning doesn't sometimes risk colluding with a belief that there aren't serious consequences in the lives of the people planning effects. Similarly, for the 'conceit', I had in mind your Seismic Centralisation post. The graphic response of urban to techtonic form would indeed be fascinating, but I wonder whether a focus exclusively on the side of the fascinating forms produced by massive-scale planning, military tactics, slum clearance and natural disaster mightn't encourage the sort of planning vision, purified of human cost, that has blighted uncounted lives.
    So, while I agree that it's sadly easy to appear to be politically engaged without being so, that's not what I'm asking so much as an encouragement to consider the human consequences of planning possibilities that can easily obscure them.

  5. whether a focus exclusively on the side of the fascinating forms produced by massive-scale planning, military tactics, slum clearance and natural disaster mightn't encourage the sort of planning vision

    I share this worry, because, as you correctly suggest, I don't always adequately underline my opposition to some of the very things I describe. What comes across as enthusiasm, awe, and, occasionally, outright support for certain topics is usually nothing of the sort; it's me simply being struck by the incredible hubris and/or impossibly technocratic response to emerging situations (building NAWAPA, for instance, instead of just conserving water, one of the silliest projects imaginable, or launching reflective silver discs into the sky to blot out the sun and thus prevent the earth's temperature from rising).

    However, my other, simultaneous concern, as I mentioned in my previous comment—and with which you seem to agree—is that some of the most dunderheaded thinking imaginable, full of policy non sequiturs and bad ideas ("skyscrapers powered by wind make Dubai the fully green city of the future," say), consistently wins acceptance online as proof that the next generation is engaged in morally clear, real-world thinking, instead of just tossing one-liners around and high-fiving each other at conferences. For instance, if I were to add a sentence to every BLDGBLOG post that said something like "this project, of course, would never address the real, underlying socioeconomic conditions"—which, to be honest, usually strikes me as so obvious that I would be embarrassed to have to point that out to people—then voilà: many readers who currently view BLDGBLOG as vapid, pie-in-the-sky nonsense about things happening billions of years from now, or about cities on the moon, would think, in apparent seriousness, that the "politics" had duly been taken care of. BLDGBLOG had taken a correctly "political" tone, through a performance of moral self-congratulation, and they could thus feel good about themselves again for reading this site. Alas, many people mistake easy bon mots for online political engagement.

    Having said all that: yes, I agree with you that simply block-quoting things from articles about ethically misguided military technology or the spatially interesting side-effects of global market expansionism can too easily come across as enthusiasm for those ideas, not—as I would say is usually the case with me—breathless disbelief that anyone would ever have proposed such things in the first place.

  6. No, the archaeologist is correct, as much as this blog mines negative space and digs caves, it remains superficial:

    "In an extraterrestrial, 'Icarian' twist, it is even present in the tiles made for the Space Shuttle."

    Look, I know you're quoting someone, but you chose to include that quote. Then you one upped your source with "a system of objects and trajectories known as NASA."

    I used to read this blog a lot. Then I cut down my internet time. This evening, I drifted back. I read 2 pages and followed this link. It is exactly the same. "[O]utright support for certain topics is usually nothing of the sort…" I guess nothing is as it seems.

    Gaah, now I can't stop: "which, to be honest, usually strikes me as so obvious that I would be embarrassed to have to point that out to people…" How very META of you, implied 2nd degree needs no mention, you forgot to add: … people too dense to see otherwise. You're saying you don't point out issues because they're so obvious, and mentioning them wouldn't do them justice.

    No, I'm not buying it. You revel in the vocabulary and bon mots for vapid praise and easy escapism. Your outrage is so conveniently confined to ambiguous comment replys that I have trouble believing it is genuine. Maybe it wasn't always so, but let's just say you've gazed too long into the abyss.

    Frankly, I would love/prefer to read a deconstructionist, reality-based blog that sifted the feasible from the fantasy, that dredged out the nuggets or placer deposits, or if you prefer, amalgamated the precious from so much ore, while avoiding the mercurial.

    Just so my contribution here is not entirely negative, here is an article with a tangent about sand sleuthing, with plenty o' drama courtesy of WW2:

  7. i am making my way back through BLDG BLOG (found it just a little over a year go) and it is stupefying the amount of shit posted by randoms that do not engage, heighten thought or creativity or knowledge, but just seems to be a: well could you add a little bit more class-struggle? could you namedrop Zizek so i know you're politically engaged?

    imagination MANIFESTS. period.
    thank you for your site. it is blatantly superficial for someone to claim your "engagement" as superficial. it is very sad and philosophically trite that political engagement is, at a cultural level, equated with seriousness.
    for the veeerryyy serious deconstructionists I point to the surrealists and Colbert and Grant Morrison and Pope Robert Anton Wilson and warn them that dread and anger hang somewhere near the troublesome area where thoughts coagulate and become stagnant, closed-sections of word-triggered reality habitation.

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