No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

Spells Against Autonomy

[Image: From “Autonomous Trap 001” by James Bridle].

By now, you’ve probably seen James Bridle’s “Autonomous Trap 001,” a magic salt circle for ensnaring the sensory systems of autonomous vehicles.

By surrounding a self-driving vehicle with a mandala of inescapable roadway markings—after all, even a person wearing a t-shirt with a STOP sign on it can affect the navigational capabilities of autonomous cars—the project explores the possibility that these machines could be trapped, frozen in a space of infinite indecision, as if locked in place by magic.

[Image: From “Autonomous Trap 001” by James Bridle].

Five years from now, rogue highway painting crews well-versed in ritual magic and LiDAR sigils shut down all machine-vision systems on the west coast…

As Bridle explained to Creators, there should be at least a handful of more examples of this automotive counter-wizardry to come.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Robot War and the Future of Perceptual Self-Deception. See also The Dream Life of Driverless Cars.)

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.”)

Terrain Jam

[Image: “arid wilderness areas” from @witheringsystem].

I’ve long been a fan of generative landscapes—topographies created according to some sort of underlying algorithmic code—and I’m thus always happy to stumble upon new, visually striking examples.

Of course, geology itself is already “generative,” as entire continents are formed and evolve over hundreds of millions of years following deeper logics of melting, crystallization, erosion, tectonic drift, and thermal metamorphosis; so digital examples of this sort of thing are just repeating in miniature something that has long been underway at a much larger scale.

In any case, @witheringsystem is a joint project between Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt, the same artists behind the widely-known “moth generator” and last year’s “Fermi Paradox Jam,” among other collaborations. It is not exactly new, but it’s been tweeting some great shots lately from an algorithmic world of cuboid terrains; the image seen here depicts “arid wilderness areas,” offered without further context.

See several more examples over on their Twitter feed.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac; earlier on BLDGBLOG: British Countryside Generator and Sometimes the house you come out of isn’t the same one you went into.”)

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).

Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.

Archiving “Geomagnetic Spikes” in Everyday Objects

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Ancient clay pottery in the Middle East has inadvertently recorded the Earth’s magnetic field, including evidence of an “astonishing geomagnetic spike.”

“All those years ago,” NPR reported earlier this week, “as potters continued to throw clay, the molten iron that was rotating deep below them tugged at tiny bits of magnetic minerals embedded in the potters’ clay. As the jars were heated in the kiln and then subsequently cooled, those minerals swiveled and froze into place like tiny compasses, responding to the direction and strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at that very moment.”

Archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, one of the researchers on the project, has compared the process to a terrestrial “tape recorder,” and a particularly sensitive one at that: the resulting jars “provide an unprecedented look at the planet’s magnetic field over those six centuries, one that’s much harder to get from rocks.”

These accidental indices also indicate that the Earth’s magnetic field at the time was much stronger than expected; ominously, this “astonishing geomagnetic spike,” as mentioned above, could happen again. Indeed, the jars have “given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices,” Annalee Newitz writes for Ars Technica.

“The researchers note that this geomagnetic spike is similar to another that occurred in the 10th century BCE,” Newitz adds. “Data from the 10th century spike and this 8th century one indicate that such events were probably localized, not global. That said, they write that ‘the exact geographic expanse of this phenomenon has yet to be investigated, and the fact that these are very short-lived features that can be easily missed suggests that there is much more to discover.’”

This vision—of highly localized, mysterious geomagnetic storms frying electronics from below—is not only a great plot device for some burgeoning scifi novelist, it could also almost undoubtedly be weaponized: subterranean geomagnetic warfare against an entire region of the planet, short-circuiting every electrical device in sight.

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Of course, it’s also worth noting that this would still be happening: that is, today’s ceramics should still be “recording” the Earth’s magnetic field, even without any corresponding spike in that field’s strength. An invisible terrestrial forcefield is thus still inscribing itself inside objects in your kitchen cabinet or standing on your breakfast table. Everyday knick-knacks in retail stores around the world are still archives of planetary magnetism.

This also makes me wonder what other types of artifacts—clay figurines from nomadic Arctic tribes, mud bricks from central Africa—might also house geomagnetic records yet to be analyzed by modern technology. So what else might be discovered someday?

I’m reminded of the possibility that space weather—or “fossils of spacetime”—might be frozen into the built environment in the form of GPS glitches: hidden inside minute structural errors in large building projects, such as freeways, dams, and bridges, there might be evidence that our solar system is passing through “cosmic kinks” of dark matter.

In any case, read the original paper in PNAS; see also The New Yorker.

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”).

Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Heat Maps

[Image: From Heat Maps by Richard Mosse, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery].

In a highly timely new show called Heat Maps, opening tonight, February 2, at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, photographer Richard Mosse “charts the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.”

Mosse has documented refugee camps and staging sites using an extreme telephoto military-grade camera that can detect thermal radiation, including body heat, at great distance. The camera is used against its intended purpose of border and combat surveillance to map landscapes of human displacement. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked, and ignored by many.

By attaching the camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, Mosse has scanned significant sites in the European refugee crisis from a high eye-level, creating densely detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point. Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, these images evoke certain kinds of classical painting, such as those by Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, in the way that they describe space and detail. They are documents disclosing the fences, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents, and temporary shelters of camp architecture, as well as isolated disembodied traces of human and animal motion and other artifacts that disrupt each precarious composition and reveal its construction. Very large in scale, Heat Maps reveal intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unlivable conditions on the margins and in the gutters of first world economies.

An accompanying book, featuring brilliant silver metallic inks and a new essay by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is due out this spring, as well.

The exhibition opens today at 6pm; more info at Jack Shainman Gallery.

(Earlier: Saddam’s Palaces: An Interview with Richard Mosse).