Synthetic at Every Scale

[Image: Diamond nanowires produced by physicist William Gilpin, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

As part of some early prep, just putting notes together for a workshop I’ll be leading in Moscow later this summer, I thought I’d link back to this 2014 post by Paul Gilster on Centauri Dreams about “SETI at the Particle Level”—that is, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence reimagined on radically different spatial scales than what humans have previously looked for.

“To find the truly advanced civilizations, we would need to look on the level of the very small,” Gilster suggests. We perhaps even need to look at the scale of individual particles.

“If SETI is giving us no evidence of extraterrestrials,” Gilster writes, “maybe it’s because we’re looking on too large a scale.”

What if, in other words, truly advanced intelligence, having long ago taken to non-biological form, finds ways to maximize technology on the level of the very small? Thus [Australian artificial intelligence researcher Hugo de Garis]’s interest in femtotech, a technology at the level of 10-15 meters. The idea is to use the properties of quarks and gluons to compute at this scale, where in terms of sheer processing power the improvement in performance is a factor of a trillion trillion over what we can extrapolate for nanotech.

Material evidence of this speculative, femto-scale computation could perhaps be detected, in other words, if only we knew we should be looking for it. (Instead, of course, we’re stuck looking for evidence of a very particular technology that was big on Earth a few decades ago—radio waves.)

[Image: Electron interferometry, via the University of Cambridge, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

In any case, it’s interesting to put these thoughts in the context of a paper by Matt Edgeworth, published in Archaeologies back in 2010, called “Beyond Human Proportions: Archaeology of the Mega and the Nano.” Edgeworth’s paper was inspired by a deceptively simple insight: that human artifacts, in our era of chemical and material engineering, have departed radically from the spatial scale traditionally associated with archaeology.

We are always making history, we might say, but much of it is too small to see.

Rather than studying architectural ruins or sites the size of villages, what about archaeological artifacts visible only through chemical assays or scanning electron microscopes, whether they be so-called forever chemicals or simply microplastics?

Edgeworth himself refers to nano-scale transistors, graphene sheets, and materials etched using electron beam lithography. What role should these engineered materials—altogether different kinds of remains or cultural “ruins”—play in archaeology?

[Image: An example of electron beam lithography, via Trevor Knapp/Eriksson Research Group/University of Wisconsin, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

“It used to be the case that archaeological features and artifacts were principally on a human scale,” Edgeworth writes. “But that familiar world is changing fast. As archaeology extends its range of focus further forward in time its subject matter is moving beyond human proportions. Developments in macro- and micro-engineering mean that artifacts are no longer limited in size by physical limitations of the body. As scale and impact of material culture extends outwards and inwards in both macroscopic and microscopic directions, the perspectives of contemporary archaeology must change in order to keep track.”

What’s so interesting about both the Centauri Dreams post and Matt Edgeworth’s paper is that signs of artificiality—whether they are human or not—might be discovered at radically different spatial scales, either here on Earth in modern archaeological sites or in the depths of space, where, for example, the alien equivalent of electron beam lithography might already have etched legible patterns into materials now drifting as micrometeoroids through the void.

Of course, the idea of applying for a grant to look for signs of alien lithography on micrometeoroids sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch—or perhaps the plot of a Charles Stross novel—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (or something similar). After all, even humans themselves now leave micro- and nano- scale material traces behind in the dyes, chemicals, coatings, and etched materials we use everyday without thinking of these things as archaeological.

[Image: Nanostructures made by German company Nanoscribe, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

If the fundamental assumption of SETI is that aliens have been communicating with each other through radio transmissions because humans used to heavily rely upon that same technology, then why not also assume that aliens are, say, manufacturing graphene sheets, 3D-printing on the nano-scale, or, for that matter, weaving computational textiles with synthetic-diamond nanowires?

(An unrelated post that is nevertheless interesting to think about in this context: Space Grain.)

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.

Light in the Time of a Digital Sun

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

There’s a cool project in the most recent issue of Site Magazine, by Jonathan Enns, an architectural designer and professor at the University of Waterloo.

In a short text written for Site, Enns describes the project as a proposal for a 12-meter-tall solar clock, a monolithic sandstone pillar whose sculpted form would combine ancient methods of timekeeping with digital fabrication.

“The resulting parametric script,” Enns writes, “which begins with the hourly solar location data and subtracts a channel of sandstone from the column for each hour, produces a complex Swiss cheese of voids that are unique to the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the design site.”

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

It would be incredibly interesting to see this approach applied to blocks of sandstone of varying heights, depths, and dimensions, producing what I imagine might be complex, vertebral stacks of perforation and shadow, alternately as broad and imposing as medieval watch towers or as diminutive and fragile as flutes of ornament hidden on the corners of existing buildings.

As the chronographic marks surrounding the pillar also seem to indicate, the graphic possibilities for telling time with this are presumably endless—colors, patterns, arcs, loops, textures, materials.

For now, the newest issue of Site is not online, but click through to Enns’s own portfolio for a bit more.

(Earlier, this post wrongly claimed that the University of Waterloo is in Toronto; it is not. It is nearly an hour west of Toronto.)

Exotempestology

Purely in terms of extreme landscapes, this planet is certainly one of the most notable: eight times the mass of Jupiter, but starless, adrift, an “orphaned world” without a sun, “somehow shot out of its orbit” into the darkness of space, its skies thundering with storms of molten metal.

(Story is from 2015, but randomly rediscovered this morning in my bookmarks.)

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.)

Folktales for the Offworld

The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”

The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!

You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.

Have Clock, Will Travel

[Image: From The Hunt For Red October, via Quora].

There’s a line in The Hunt For Red October where a submarine navigator jokes, “Give me a stopwatch and a map, and I’ll fly the Alps in a plane with no windows.” I was reminded of that comment by reports of a new atomic clock that will allegedly enable “futuristic navigation schemes”:

“Every single spacecraft exploring deep space today relies on navigation that’s performed back here at Earth,” said [Jill] Seubert, who’s based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Earth-based antennas send signals to spacecraft, which the spacecraft echo back. By measuring a signal’s round-trip time within a billionth of a second, ground-based atomic clocks in the Deep Space Network help pinpoint the spacecraft’s location.

With the new Deep Space Atomic Clock, “we can transition to what we call one-way tracking,” Seubert said. A spaceship would use such a clock onboard to measure the time it takes for a tracking signal to arrive from Earth, without having to send that signal back for measurement with ground-based atomic clocks. That would allow a spacecraft to judge its own trajectory.

One might say that the ship is navigating time as much as it is traveling through space—steering through the time between things rather than simply following the lines that connect one celestial object to another.

The general problem of ship orientation and navigation in deep space is a fascinating one, and it has led to ideas like using “dead stars” as fixed directional beacons, a kind of thanato-stellar GPS. This is “the long-sought technology known as pulsar navigation,” Nature reported last year. “For decades, aerospace engineers have dreamed of using these consistently repeating signals for navigation, just as they use the regular ticking of atomic clocks on satellites for GPS.” You head toward something that’s only consistent because it’s dead.

There is something really interesting here, where human navigators and their far-flung machines are confronted with a landscape so vast it is all but devoid of local landmarks. Imagine the cognitive skills necessary for early humans to wander forth, on foot, across colossal and empty steppes, long before modern navigational tools, or picture autonomous, near-frozen hard-drives falling endlessly outward toward stars they might never reach: these scenarios lend themselves to metaphor just as much as they present real-world cartographic problems masked as an encounter with landscapes impossibly huge.

A landscape so big it becomes time, and only a clock can conquer it; or a space so empty, its only fixed points are long dead.

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.

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.