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).

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.

The Four-Floor War


[Image: Russian troops in Grozny, February 2000; image courtesy of AP].

“U.S. land forces will eventually find themselves locked in fights within huge, dense urban environments where skyscrapers tower over enormous shanty towns, and these troops need more realistic training to operate within these future megacities,” Brigadier General Julian Alford of the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory explained earlier this month, as reported by Defense News.

It’s war in the age of megacities: “We talk about the three-block war, but we are moving quickly to the four-floor war,” Alford adds.

We are going to be on the top floor of a skyscraper… evacuating civilians and helping people. The middle floor, we might be detaining really bad people that we’ve caught. On the first floor we will be down there killing them. …At the same time they will be getting away through the subway or subterrain. How do we train to fight that? Because it is coming, that fight right there is coming I do believe with all my heart.

The verticalization of Alford’s metaphor—“the four-floor war”—is an interesting revision of the existing “three-block war” paradigm. In that earlier version, U.S. General Charles C. Krulak suggested that three separate and very different military goals—humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, and “traditional warfighting”—could all occur within only three blocks of one another in the urban combat of the future. In his words, soldiers would be confronted by “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and within the space of three contiguous city blocks.”

This would not only be a problem of so-called “feral cities,” but of feral buildings within a functional metropolis.

The idea that this is now a “four-floor” problem—that “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges” could now be experienced within the space of four floors of a single high-rise—is a dark indicator not only that our own everyday surroundings are now being modeled and war-gamed as sites of speculative combat, but also how terrifying full-scale architectural warfare would be. Battling upward through the interior of skyscrapers, perhaps even zip-lining from one tower to another, it would be Nakatomi space taken to its logical, militarized extreme.

Recall Mike Davis’s observation from more than a decade ago that so-called Third World cities were being viewed as the “key battlespace of the future,” and that U.S. forces were thus preparing “for protracted combat in the near impassable, maze-like streets of the poverty-stricken cities of the Third World.” Davis elaborates on these points in an old interview with BLDGBLOG called Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis, Parts One and Two.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Cities Under Siege. Story spotted via @peterwsinger).

Informational Topographics

[Image: “FOGBAE.TWR4” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.06.15].

Since 2007, artist Mike Winkelmann has been producing an image a day, primarily using Cinema 4D, though all the specific tools differ year by year.

As Winkelmann justifiably boasts on his site, he has been working on the series for 3,030 consecutive days—of course, he also humbly refers to his work as just “a variety of art crap” produced “across a variety of media.”

[Image: “reopot seven-ten” by Mike Winkelmann, 05.04.15].

designboom just ran a quick survey of his work, and I thought I’d just piggyback on that with a few images here.

[Image: “pxil.two” by Mike Winkelmann, 05.12.15].

While I’m deliberately focusing on architectural or landscape-oriented imagery, his work is also strong with abstract technological scenes of circuits, robotized organic forms, abstract sprays of light, abandoned atmospheric-processing towers on floodplains, colossal elevator shafts, microscopic views of disturbed crystal growth, and more.

[Image: “OB TANK” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.26.15].

There are spheres of liquid metal, domed cities emerging from the desert floor, neon patent diagrams for purposeless machines, bristling mineral cliffs resembling dystopian housing blocks, and sublime landscape shots that appear to pull double-duty as bar graphs for otherwise unknown statistics. Informational topographics.

[Image: “FRIED GOBO” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.31.15].

There is even a heavenly super-McDonald’s in the sky, a Mont Saint-McD of the clouds.

[Image: “MCD 2087” by Mike Winkelmann, 08.11.15].

Some, even a few I’ve included here, veer a little overtly in a Star Wars direction, while others look more like future album art. Black pyramids and doubled suns.

[Image: “orangetooth gutrot” by Mike Winkelmann, 11.29.14].

For others—and there are literally thousands of images, all the more impressive for the fact that they’re being produced once a day—check out designboom; for all of them, click through to Winkelmann’s site directly.

[Image: “BOXXX-3VV” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.01.15].

[Spotted by designboom].

London Future Green

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

During a brief Tube journey earlier today, this image stood out against a backdrop of mobile phone advertisements, travel insurance offers, and posters for English-language schools.

[Image: “Above Ground” by Nils Norman, commissioned by Platform for Art for Transport for London; view it as a 2.6MB PDF].

Designed by artist and architect Nils Norman, this fantasy map traces the Piccadilly line’s route through an alternate London whose landmarks consist of utopian eco-fantasies (mushroom farms and geothermal energy platforms) alongside various post-war avant-garde architects’ unrealized projects for the city.

Mike Webb’s Sin Centre and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace sit next to the Westminster Bog and Wetland Chain, while Thomas Affleck Greeves’ Monument to Commemorate the Passing of the Good Old Days of Architecture nestles in the shadow of a dual purpose algae factory and housing tower not far from George Orwell’s Ministries of Love, Peace and Plenty. The result is an interesting juxtaposition of hypothetical projects designed as critique or provocation, and equally imaginary proposals rooted in a utopian impulse toward sustainability: Superstudio’s Continuous Monument is set alongside the North London Turbine Fields and the South Kensington Vegetable Oil Refinery.

It turns out that the map dates from summer 2007, and was part of a year-long celebration of the Piccadilly line’s centenary. Transport for London commissioned multiple public art projects to mark the occasion, under the curatorial title “Thin Cities”—a reference to Italo Calvino’s invisible city of Armilla, in which a “forest of pipes… rise[s] vertically where the houses should be and spread[s] out horizontally where the floors should be.” This striking description highlights the Tube’s structural centrality to London—even if Calvino’s “underground veins” carry water, not commuters or tourists.

Other projects from the series include the first ever whole-Tube wrap, as well as the calls of fifty-two different migratory species (one per week) broadcast every twenty minutes over the Knightsbridge station tannoy. Taken from the British Library’s sound archive, these included the clicks of a bottle-nosed dolphin and the honks of a Whooper swan—and they were each introduced by the official voice of the Tube, Emma Clarke.

All the Thin Cities projects are now archived online; they’re presented alongside photos and anecdotes from each station on the Piccadilly line, such as the best place to watch planes take off and land at Heathrow (hint: it’s a small footbridge outside Hatton Cross) and the fate of Alfie the cat (he was adopted by a Station Supervisor after 10 years’ independent living at Cockfosters).

[Check out Archinect‘s interview with Nils Norman for more. Also vaguely related: Just Add Water. Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

Lunar urbanism deux

The abstract of ‘Lunar architecture and urbanism’ by Brent Sherwood reads: ‘Human civilization and architecture have defined each other for over 5000 years on Earth. Even in the novel environment of space, persistent issues of human urbanism will eclipse, within a historically short time, the technical challenges of space settlement that dominate our current view. By adding modern topics in space engineering, planetology, life support, human factors, material invention, and conservation to their already renaissance array of expertise, urban designers can responsibly apply ancient, proven standards to the exciting new opportunities afforded by space. Inescapable facts about the Moon set real boundaries within which tenable lunar urbanism and its component architecture must eventually develop.’
Sherwood was/is with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. An otherwise so-so paper, published originally in 1992.
If only he knew about the viab/nozzle