The Age of Horror

[Image: “Clouds, Sun and Sea” (1952) by Max Ernst, courtesy Phillips.]

There’s an interesting space where early modern, mostly 19th-century earth sciences overlap with armchair conjectures about the origins of human civilization. It’s a mix of pure pseudo-science, science-adjacent speculation, and something more like theology, as writers of the time tried to adjust new geological hypotheses and emerging biological evidence—Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, etc.—to fit with Biblical creation myths and cosmogonic legends borrowed from other cultures. Was there really a Flood? If humans are separate from the animal kingdom, how did we first arrive or appear on Earth?

It is not those particular questions that interest me—although, if I’m being honest, I will happily stay at the table for hours talking with you about the Black Sea deluge hypothesis or the history of Doggerland, two of the most interesting things I’ve ever read about, and whether or not they might have influenced early human legends of a Flood.

Instead, there are at least two things worth pointing out here. One is that these sorts of people never really went away, they just got jobs at the History Channel.

The other is that impossibly long celestial cycles, ancient astronomical records, the precession of the Earth’s poles, and weird, racist ideas about the “fall of Man” all came together into a series of speculations that seem straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Take, for example, Sampson Arnold Mackey and his “Age of Horror.”

[Image: Diagram from The Mythological Astronomy in Three Parts by Sampson Arnold Mackey.]

As Joscelyn Godwin writes in a book called The Theosophical Enlightenment, Mackey—a shoemaker, not an astronomer—was fascinated by “the inclination of the earth’s axis and its changes over long spans of time. Astronomers have known at least since classical times that the Earth’s axis rotates once in about 25,920 years, pointing successively at different stars, of which the current one is Polaris, the North Star. One result of this cycle is the ‘precession of the equinoxes,’ according to which the spring-point of the sun moves around the twelve signs of the zodiac, spending about 2160 years in each sign.”

Of course, the assumption that these signs and stars might somehow influence life on Earth is the point at which astronomy morphs into astrology.

Godwin goes on to explain that—contrary to “most astronomers” of his time—Mackey assumed the Earth’s precession was dramatic and irregular, to the extent that, as Mackey speculated, “the earth’s axis describes not a circle but an alternately expanding and contracting spiral, each turn comprising one cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, and at the same time altering the angle of inclination by four degrees.”

The upshot of this is that, at various points in the history of our planet, Mackey believed that the Earth’s “inclination was much greater, to the point at which it lay in the same plane as the earth’s orbit around the sun.”

This sounds inconsequential, but it would have had huge seasonal and climatic effects. For example, Godwin explains, “At the maximum angle, each hemisphere would be pointed directly at the sun day and night during the summer, and pointed away for weeks on end during the winter. These extremes of light and dark, of heat and cold, would be virtually insupportable for life as we know it. In Mackey’s words, it was an ‘age of horror’ for the planet.”

[Image: Diagram from The Mythological Astronomy in Three Parts by Sampson Arnold Mackey.]

The flipside of this, for Mackey, is that the Earth would have gone back and forth, over titanic gulfs of time, between two angular extremes. Specifically, his model required an opposite extreme of planetary rotation in which “there would be no seasons on earth, but a perpetual spring and a ‘golden age.’ Then the cycle would begin again.”

None of this would have been recent: “Mackey dates the Age of Horror at 425,000 years in the past, the Golden Age about a million years ago, and its recurrence 150,000 years from now.”

Nevertheless, Godwin writes, “It was essential to [Mackey’s] system of mythography that the Age of Horror should have been witnessed and survived by a few human beings, its dreadful memory passing into the mythology of every land.”

For Mackey, the implications of this wobble—this dramatic precession between a Golden Age and an Age of Horror, between the darkness of Hell and the sunlight of Paradise—would have been highly significant for the evolution of human civilization.

In other words, either we are coming out of an age of eternal winter and emerging slowly, every minute of the day, every year of the century, into a time of endless sunlight and terrestrial calm, or we are inevitably falling, tipping, losing our planetary balance as we pass into near-permanent night, a frozen Hell of ruined continents and dead seas buried beneath plates of ice.

[Image: The August 2017 total eclipse of the sun, via NASA.]

One of the weirder aspects of all this—something Godwin himself documents in another book, called Arktos—is that these sorts of ideas eventually informed, among other things, Nazi political ideology and even some of today’s reactionary alt-right.

The idea that there was once a Hyperborean super-civilization, a lost Aryan race once at home in the Arctic north, lives on. It’s what we might call the cult of the fallen Northener.

[Image: “Cairn in Snow” (1807) by Caspar David Friedrich.]

What actually interests me here, though, is the suggestion that planetary mega-cycles far too long for any individual human life to experience might be slowly influencing our myths, our cultures, our consciousness (such as it is).

My point is not to suggest that this is somehow true—to say that astrologers and precession-truthers are right—but simply to say that this is a fascinating idea and it has within it nearly limitless potential for new films, novels, and myths, stories where entirely different ways of thinking emerge on planets with extreme seasonal inclinations or unusual polar relationships to the stars.

[Image: From Pitch Black, via Supernova Condensate.]

Think of the only good scene in an otherwise bad movie, 2000’s Pitch Black, where the survivors of a crash on a remote human planetary outpost discover an orrery—a model of the planet they’re standing on—inside an abandoned building.

Playing with the model, the survivors realize that the world they’ve just crashed on is about to be eclipsed by a nearby super-planet, plunging them into a night that will last several months (or weeks or years—I saw the film 20 years ago and don’t remember).

Just imagine the sorts of horrors this might inspire—an entire planet going dark perhaps for centuries, doomed by its passage through space.

[Image: Adolph Gottlieb, courtesy Hollis Taggart.]

In any case, the idea that the earliest human beings lived through something like this hundreds of thousands of years ago—an imminent night, a looming darkness, an Age of Horror that imprinted itself upon the human imagination with effects lasting to this day—would mean that what we think of as human psychology is just an angular epiphenomenon of planetary tilt. Call it orbital determinism.

(Very vaguely related: a planet without a sun.)

Tone Fields Larger Than Stars

[Image: From “Probing Cosmic-Ray Transport with Radio Synchrotron Harps in the Galactic Center,” by Timon Thomas, Christoph Pfrommer, and Torsten Enßlin.]

The above image, as described by Susanna Kohler over at AAS Nova, depicts an ultra-large-scale magnetic “harp” near the center of our galaxy, emitting radio waves. The black lines apparently “span several light-years.”

As Kohler writes, where the parenthetical comments are her own, “a team of scientists argues that this cosmic music is caused by a massive star or a pulsar (a magnetized neutron star) plunging through an ordered magnetic field in the galactic center. As the star crosses (moving upward, in the image above) bundles of field lines, it discharges high-energy cosmic rays that travel in either direction along the bundles, emitting radio waves.”

It’s a kind of cosmic theremin—an instrument where the “musician controls volume and pitch using her hands to interfere with electromagnetic fields generated by the device”—a huge and ancient instrument playing itself in space.

Dimming to Explode

[Image: Betelgeuse, before dimming; photo by ESO, M. Montargès et al, via NASA.]

There are many interesting things about the dimming of Betelgeuse, a giant star in the constellation of Orion’s belt—perhaps a sign that the star is on the verge of exploding in a giant supernova—including the fact that I remember talking about this very scenario in a poetry workshop more than two decades ago. Here we are, still waiting for that light.

[Image: Betelgeuse, during dimming; photo by ESO, M. Montargès et al, via NASA.]

Betelgeuse, of course, is more than 700 lightyears from Earth, which means that it could very well have exploded centuries ago—it could, technically speaking, not even be there anymore, and wasn’t there for your parents or their parents—but the light from that catastrophe simply hasn’t reached Earth. We are always out of synch with the stars we think we’re seeing, unwitting recipients of dead news from above.

Delayed explosions, stars that are no longer there, constellations made of ghosts: the death–or not—of Betelgeuse is the metaphor that gives on giving, as evidenced by the fact that, even in my own lifetime, the topic has come up once again.

But what’s also so interesting about this sort of news is its juxtaposition between human timescales and astral ones, or human awareness colliding with cosmic time more generally: the implication that the universe is capable of extraordinary events that, in the long-term scheme of things, are actually extraordinarily common, but, from within the limits of a human lifetime, even the lifetime of an entire animal species, appear so rare as perhaps never to be encountered. To never be witnessed or even thought possible. There are things that happen only every 100 million years, every billion years, yet here we are right in the middle of it, unaware of strange gravitational inversions or churning, stroboscopic tides of light, of impossible stars and energy forms stranger than all mythology. Black chemistries in space, awaiting catalysis.

There could be physical processes as regular as clockwork pinging off like fireworks—constant, dead rhythms pulsing through the cosmos every two billion years—but our species will never see, hear, or know, because we simply never overlap.

We inhabit the same universe but not the same time.

Strange Precipitation

It’s not only snow falling from the sky this winter, but microplastics, a holiday season marked by petrochemical drifts accumulating on our windowsills and roadsides.

European researchers have found much more than just plastics, in fact, snowing down on our shoulders: “Acrylates/polyurethanes/varnish/lacquer (hereafter varnish) occurred most frequently (17 samples), followed by nitrile rubber (16 samples), polyethylene (PE), polyamide, and rubber type 3 (13; ethylene-propylenediene rubber).”

That’s plastic, rubber, varnish, lacquer, and polyethylene—a true precipitation of the Anthropocene—snowing from the sky, as if we’ve embalmed the weather. Zombie snow.

Meanwhile, it seems as if snow itself is being redefined by these studies. For example, every winter, terrestrial landscapes are buried not just by crystals of frozen water, but by the remains of dead stars.

In what would read like a poem in any other context, ScienceNews reports that “exploding stars scattered traces of iron over Antarctic snow.” In other words, metallic fragments of dead stars can be found sprayed across ice at the bottom of our world.

This has cosmic implications:

The result could help scientists better understand humankind’s place in space. The solar system resides within a low-density pocket of gas, known as the local bubble. It’s thought that exploding supernovas created shock waves that blasted out that bubble. But the solar system currently sits inside a denser region within that bubble, known as the Local Interstellar Cloud. The detection of recently deposited iron-60 suggests that this cloud may also have been sculpted by supernovas, the researchers say.

Sculpted by supernovas. We exist within that space, once carved by the detonations of stars whose metallic remains snow down onto dead continents, forming drifts—someday, entire glaciers—of plastic, rubber, polyethylene, and more.

(Image: Snow, via the Adirondack Almanac. Related: Space Grain.)

Wandering Cliffs

[Image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS, via New Scientist].

Bringing to mind the landscape paintings of Peder Balke—or maybe Hokusai is more appropriate—entire cliffs seem to “wander” across the surface of Comet 67P.

“The hills may not be alive, but they are moving,” New Scientist reports. “The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has small cliffs that migrate across the landscape for months at a time,” apparently moving toward—not away from—the sun “at a rate of between 3 and 7 centimetres an hour.”

“The cliffs, or scarps, in question are only between 1 and 2 metres tall,” we read, “but on a comet the size of 67P, which is just 4 kilometres across at its longest point, they aren’t negligible—cliffs of a similar scale on Earth would be about 3 kilometres high.”

Frozen waves of geology, marching toward the sun in space.

Imagine a novel about a landscape photographer sent to record such sights, and the things she sees, the weird remoteness of it all, the camp sites and technical difficulties, where exposure time and depth-of-focus becomes an interplanetary concern, the ground pulsing continuously beneath her feet in a slow tide, a creeping sludge, that will never reach completion.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

International House of Wobbling

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory was designed in 1899 as part of a ring of similar facilities around the world, all constructed at the same latitude.

[Images: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Each building was installed at its specific location in order to collaborate in watching a particular star, and—as revealed by any inconsistencies of measurement—to find evidence of the Earth’s “wobble.” This was part of the so-called “International Latitude Service.”

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The building seen here basically operated like a machine, with a sliding-panel roof controlled by a rope and pulley, and a solid concrete foundation, isolated from the building itself, on which stood a high-power telescope.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

This pillar gives the building a vaguely gyroscopic feel, or perhaps something more like the spindle of a hard drive: a central axis that grounds the building and allows it to perform its celestial mission.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

What’s interesting, however, is that this absolutely heroic building program—a structure for measuring heavenly discrepancies and, thus, the wobble of the Earth—is hidden inside such an unremarkable, everyday appearance.

[Image: A photo of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via NOAA].

It’s a kind of normcore beach hut that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod, with one eye fixed on the stars, a geodetic device revealing our planet’s wobbly imperfections, masquerading as vernacular architecture.

Dark Matter Mineralogy and Future Computers of Induced Crystal Flaws

[Image: Mexico’s “Cave of the Crystals,” via Wikipedia].

I guess I’ve got minerals on the brain.

Anyway, there was an amazing story last week suggesting that, deep inside the planet, minerals might exhibit flaws associated with “collisions with dark matter.” In a sense, this would make the entire interior of the earth a de facto dark matter detector—or, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, “minerals such as halite (sodium chloride) and zabuyelite (lithium carbonate), can act as ready-made detectors.”

Proving this hypothesis sounds like the opening scene of a blockbuster science fiction film: “An experiment could extract the minerals—which can be around 500 million years old—from kilometres-deep boreholes that already exist for geological research and oil prospecting. Physicists would need to crack open the extracted minerals and scan the exposed surfaces under an electron or atomic force microscope for the tracks made by recoiling nuclei. They could also use X-ray or ultraviolet 3D scanners to study bigger chunks of minerals faster, but with lower resolution.”

Either way, it’s incredible to imagine that slightly altered mineral structures deep inside the planet might reveal the presence of dark matter washing through the cosmos. After all, the Earth is allegedly “constantly crashing through huge walls of dark matter,” so the idea that some rocks might be glitched and scratched by these impacts isn’t that hard to believe. In fact, this brings to mind another hypothesis, that the GPS satellite network is, in fact, a huge, accidental dark matter detector.

Read more at Nature.

Meanwhile, ScienceDaily reported earlier this month that flaws deliberately introduced into the crystal forms of diamonds could be structured such that they improve those diamonds’ capacity for quantum computation. Apparently, a team at Princeton has designed new kinds of diamonds “that contain defects capable of storing and transmitting quantum information for use in a future ‘quantum internet.’”

There is obviously no connection between these two stories, but that won’t stop me from imagining some vast new quantum computer network, coextensive with the Earth’s interior, performing prime-number calculations along dark matter-induced crystal flaws, crooked mineral veins flashing in the darkness with data, like some buried circuitboard throbbing beneath the continents and seas.

Read more at ScienceDaily.

(Related: Planet Harddrive.)

Speculative Mineralogy

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of crystal twinning, via Geology IN].

It’s hard to resist a headline like this: writing for Nature, Shannon Hall takes us inside “the labs that forge distant planets here on Earth.”

This is the world of exogeology—the geology of other planets—“a research area that is bringing astronomers, planetary scientists and geologists together to explore what exoplanets might look like, geologically speaking. For many scientists, exogeology is a natural extension of the quest to identify worlds that could support life.”

To understand how other planets are made, exogeologists are synthesizing those planets in miniature in the earthbound equipment in their labs. Think of it as an extreme example of landscape modeling. “To gather information to feed these models,” Hall writes, “geologists are starting to subject synthetic rocks to high temperatures and pressures to replicate an exoplanet’s innards.”

Briefly, it’s easy to imagine an interesting jewelry line—or architectural materials firm—using fragments of exoplanets in their work, crystals grown as representations of other worlds embedded in your garden pavement. Or fuse the ashes of your loved ones with fragments of hypothetical exoplanets. “Infinite memorialization,” indeed.

In any case, recall that, back in 2015, geologist Robert Hazen “predict[ed] that Earth has more than 1,500 undiscovered minerals and that the exact mineral diversity of our planet is unique and could not be duplicated anywhere in the cosmos.” As Hazen claimed, “Earth’s mineralogy is unique in the cosmos.” If we are, indeed, living in mineralogically unique circumstances, then this would put an end to the fantasy of finding a geologically “Earth-like” planet. But the search goes on.

This is not the only example of producing hypothetical mineral models of other worlds. In 2014, for example, ScienceDaily reported that “scientists for the first time have experimentally re-created the conditions that exist deep inside giant planets, such as Jupiter, Uranus and many of the planets recently discovered outside our solar system.” Incredibly, this included compressing diamond to a concentration denser than lead, using a giant laser.

Other worlds, produced here on Earth. Exoplanetary superdiamonds.

Read more over at Nature.

(Nature article spotted via Nathalia Holt).

Planetary Scale

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

With news of “the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world” opening in New Jersey, I’m reminded of a design competition I meant to post about earlier this year.

A few months ago, Eleven Magazine hosted a quick competition to rethink the planetarium. It’s a great design brief: Eleven’s editors asked “if architecture itself could become—once again—a tool for experiencing and understanding space. How can architecture engage with and enhance today’s renewed age of space exploration and discovery? What does the next generation of planetariums look like?”

You can click around on the various entries here, but a few seemed worth mentioning.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

The “Microsphere” proposal, for example, entails “a network of little planetariums scattered all over the world.” As the title suggests, each planetarium would be a small, single-occupancy sphere acting as a meditative space for viewing, studying, or thinking about the cosmos.

It’s an idea that only suffers from the unnecessary stipulation that these should be built directly next to existing, often very ancient sites of star observation, including Stonehenge. Not only does Stonehenge not need this sort of thing parked next to it, but installing these out in the suburbs, on city streets, on the roofs of low-income housing units, or even hidden in thickets in state parks would seem to be a much more interesting way for these structures to bring astronomy to the masses.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Another project is interesting for its attempt to reconceive what “space” really is and how a planetarium is meant to represent or engage with it.

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

Acting as a “space-time planetarium,” a project called CHRONOS would allow visitors to “perceive astronomical scenes at different rates… through a labyrinth of six architectural techniques that invite the user to abandon earthly notions of space and time.”

The building thus requires a “space-time diagram.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Whether or not the resulting building would actually resemble what the designers have proposed here, it sounds awesome. “The planetarium grounds users through abstract learning as they navigate the entanglement while warping their perception of space-time,” they write. “While traveling through a series of architectural space-time scenarios, users are enlightened with astronomical scenes that transcend human perception.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

As you’d expect, not every entry is particularly interesting and there are some real doozies in there, but it’s worth checking out. While you’re there, though, check out the other competitions—some still ongoing—that Eleven has hosted.

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.”)