Slingshots of the Oceanic

[Image: A diagram of the elaborate loops and ribbons of self-intersecting movement allowed by gravity-assisted travel, in this case heading toward a comet; original artist unknown].

Gravity-assisted space travel is when you use the gravitational pull of one planet or other celestial body as a fuel-efficient way to “slingshot” yourself toward another, more distant goal, someplace you could not have reached without assistance, either in terms of your velocity or even your basic direction.

You head toward one place to get to another—or “by indirections find directions out,” we might say.

These “gravity assists” can be pieced together to form almost a kind of invisible jungle gym, helping send probes into the outer solar system or even toward Mercury and the sun. As the Planetary Society explains:

Voyager 2 famously used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Cassini used two assists at Venus and one each at Earth and Jupiter in order to reach Saturn. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015 thanks to an assist at Jupiter. And Messenger used assists at Earth, Venus and three times at Mercury itself not to speed up, but to slow down enough to finally be captured by Mercury.

This can result in all sorts of insane weaving maneuvers, as objects can be made to loop stars, double back on themselves, veer off unpredictably, or even stop moving altogether, effectively parking themselves in space, as this GIF by David Shortt illustrates.

[Image: GIF by David Shortt, via The Planetary Society].

It’s like gravitational judo: using the speed and mass of your opponent as a counterbalance to perform something extraordinary yourself. Or perhaps it’s more like interplanetary spirography, where you could even loop-the-loop and slingshot your way between stars.

In any case, these types of assists can be made far more fuel-efficient—if not even possible in the first place—if you launch your journey at certain times rather than at others. In other words, you deliberately wait until the orbital cycles of Mars or Jupiter bring them near particular locations in space so that you can better use them to loop further outward toward, say, Neptune, a destination whose future position you will also have calculated in advance. If you want to use as little fuel and energy as possible, or even just to be as graceful as you can, you don’t just launch whenever you want and hope for the best.

The metaphoric potential of all this is obviously incredibly rich, but the real reason I’m writing this is because of a fascinating comment or two found in Brian Fagan’s book Beyond the Blue Horizon.

While discussing the human settlement of extremely remote islands in the South Pacific, what Fagan calls “remote Oceania,” he explains how ancient mariners relied on “seasonal winds” and celestial navigation to push “ever farther east” to the most extreme outer island edges of Polynesia. These seasonal winds formed part of what he calls “the Pacific’s waltz of atmosphere and ocean,” whereby known or predictable climatological events could be used to help propel people from one archipelago to another.

Here, Fagan writes that “[e]arly human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Ultimately, most of them depend on what one might call an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners—the atmosphere and the ocean.”

[Images: Polynesian “stick charts,” via The Nonist].

What fascinates me here is the idea that we can draw a rough analogy between Fagan’s “enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood” and gravity-assisted space travel.

You can imagine, in other words, a well-organized group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of a remote Pacific island chain, looking further out to sea together, knowing that there are distant land masses out there, implied by the winds and currents—but, more crucially, knowing that they will need a particular atmospheric event strong enough to take them there. They are thus timing their launch.

As people basically sat around waiting till the skies were right, Fagan’s “enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena” would have produced amazing local mythologies of storms yet to come and other atmospheric folklore.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hoped to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these beach-going super-navigators would have known that the regional winds move in seven- or ten-year cycles, or even that a one-hundred year storm is required to bring them further out into the oceanic. They thus temporarily become land-based, settling there on a particular island chain and raising their children on tales of a journey yet to come. Navigators in waiting.

[Images: Polynesian “stick charts,” via The Nonist].

Imagine the diagrams or folklore that might have explained all this, like Arthur C. Clarke tales passed down family to family a thousand years ago on a windswept atoll—a science fiction not of interplanetary travel but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea navigation.

Then the winds pick up, or strange Antarctic clouds begin to appear again for the first time in a generation, and everyone knows what it means: the signs are right and the skies are clicking back into place, and they start to build canoes, those little wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It’s just a different kind of slingshotting: not slingshotting yourself between planets using gravity, but slingshotting yourself from island chain to island chain, riding the long tail of predictable winds you know can’t last and that only appear once per generation. Those future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will have to wait another decade—or century or millennium—memorizing wind patterns and plotting their woven way through Fagan’s “slow-moving waltz” of rhythmic wind patterns and currents.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I’ve been dying to write about, but I’ll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a “Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation.” It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be “an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning” in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. “DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin,” but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, “undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection.” The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean’s surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you’ve got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book “presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems,” or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of “astronomical reference frames,” and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent “hubs” on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These “hubs” would be “unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.” Hubs will be places where “unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.”

“You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them… basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues,” a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: “The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land.” This would include, for example, the “upward falling payloads” program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn’t entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? “The Navy’s very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces,” a January 1998 white paper called “Technical Report 1761” explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler’s role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) “The robots are winning!” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:

We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

Mendelsohn goes on to discuss “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil,” and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA’s now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot “moles”—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation’s pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use “a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads.” The company’s name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of “freight pipelines.”

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given “hubs” and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre “self-burying robot” from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous “secrecy of emerging weaponry” that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that “nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all.” On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia’s short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer’s excellent book Wired For War; that’s not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).

Glitches in Spacetime, Frozen into the Built Environment

Back in the summer of 2012, Nicola Twilley and I got to visit the headquarters of GPS, out at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

[Image: Artist’s rendering of a GPS satellite, via Wikipedia].

“Masters of Space”

Over the course of a roughly two-hour visit, we toured, among other things, the highly secure, windowless office room out of which the satellites that control GPS are monitored and operated. Of course, GPS–the Global Positioning System—is a constellation of 32 satellites, and it supplies vital navigational information for everything from smartphones, cars, and construction equipment to intercontinental missiles.

It is “the world’s largest military satellite constellation,” Schriever Air Force Base justifiably boasts.

For somewhat obvious reasons, Nicola and I were not allowed to bring any audio or video recording devices into the facility (although I was able to take notes), and we had to pass through secure checkpoint after secure checkpoint on our way to the actual room. Most memorable was the final door that led to the actual control room: it was on a 15-second emergency response, meaning that, if the door stayed open for more than 15 seconds, an armed SWAT team would arrive to see what was wrong.

When we got inside the actual office space, the lights were quite low and at least one flashing red light reminded everyone inside that civilians were now present; this meant that nothing classified could be discussed. Indeed, if anyone needed to hop on the telephone, they first needed to shout, “Open line!” to make sure that everyone knew not to discuss classified information, lest someone on the other end of the phonecall might hear.

Someone had even made a little JPG for us, welcoming “Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley” to the GPS HQ, and it remained on all the TV monitors while we were there inside the space.

[Image: Transferring control over the GPS constellation. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force/no photographer given].

Surreally, in a room without windows, a group of soldiers who, on the day we visited, were all-male and looked no more than 23 or 24 years old, wore full military camouflage, despite the absence of vegetation to blend into, as they controlled the satellites.

At one point, a soldier began uploading new instructions to the satellites, and we watched and listened as one of those artificial stars assumed its new place in the firmament. What would Giordano Bruno have made of such a place?

This was the room behind the curtain, so to speak, a secure office out of which our nation’s surrogate astronomy is maintained and guided.

Appropriately, they call themselves “Masters of Space.”

[Image: A “Master of Space” badge from Schriever Air Force Base].

In any case, I mention all this for at least two reasons:

A 50,000km-Wide Dark Matter Detector

Edge to edge, the GPS constellation can apparently be considered something of a single device, a massive super-detector whose “time glitches” could be analyzed for signs of dark matter.

As New Scientist explained last month, “The network of satellites is about 50,000 kilometers in diameter, and is traveling through space—along with the entire solar system—at about 300 kilometers a second. So any time shift when the solar system passes through a cosmic kink will take a maximum of 170 seconds to move across network.”

The temporal distortion—a kind of spacetime wave—would propagate across the constellation, taking as long as 170 seconds to pass from one side to the other, leaving forensically visible traces in GPS’s navigational timestamps.

The very idea of a 50,000-kilometer wide super-device barreling through “cosmic kinks” in spacetime is already mind-bogglingly awesome, but add to this the fact that the “device” is actually an artificial constellation run by the U.S. military, and it’s as if we are all living inside an immersive, semi-weaponized, three-dimensional spacetime instrument, sloshing back and forth with 170-second-long tides of darkness, the black ropes of spacetime being strummed by the edges of a 32-point star.

Even better, those same cosmic kinks could theoretically show up as otherwise imperceptible moments of locational error on your own smartphone. This would thus enlist you, against your knowledge, as a minor relay point in a dark matter detector larger than the planet Earth.

The Architectural Effects of Space Weather

While Nicola and I were out at the GPS headquarters in Colorado, one of the custodians of the constellation took us aside to talk about all the various uses of the navigational information being generated by the satellites—including, he pointed out, how they worked to mitigate or avoid errors.

Here, he specifically mentioned the risk of space weather affecting the accuracy of GPS—that is, things like solar flares and other solar magnetic events. These can throw-off the artificial stars of the GPS constellation, leading to temporarily inaccurate location data—which can then mislead our construction equipment here on Earth, even if only by a factor of millimeters.

What’s so interesting and provocative about this is that these tiny errors created by space weather risk becoming permanently inscribed into the built environment—or fossilized there, in a sense, due to the reliance of today’s construction equipment on these fragile signals from space.

That 5mm shift in height from one pillar to the next would thus be no mere construction error: it would be architectural evidence for a magnetic storm on the sun.

Take the Millau Viaduct—just one random example about which I happen to have seen a construction documentary. That’s the massive and quite beautiful bridge designed by Foster + Partners, constructed in France.

[Image: The Millau Viaduct, courtesy of Foster + Partners].

The precision required by the bridge made GPS-based location data indispensable to the construction process: “Altimetric checks by GPS ensured a precision of the order of 5mm in both X and Y directions,” we read in this PDF.

But even—or perhaps especially—this level of precision was vulnerable to the distorting effects of space weather.

Evidence of the Universe

I have always loved this quotation from Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers:

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.

Imagine doing the same thing as Andrew Ellicott Douglass, but, instead of collecting tree rings, you perform an ultra-precise analysis of modern megastructures that were built using machines guided by GPS.

You’re not looking for lost details of architectural history. You’re looking for evidence of space weather inadvertently preserved in titanic structures such as the Millau Viaduct.

[Image: The Millau Viaduct, courtesy of Foster + Partners].

Fossils of Spacetime

If you take all of this to its logical conclusion, you could argue that, hidden in the tiniest spatial glitches of the built environment, there is evidence not only of space weather but even potentially of the solar system’s passage through “kinks” and other “topological defects” of dark matter, brief stutters of the universe now fossilized in the steel and concrete of super-projects like bridges and dams.

New Scientist points out that a physicist named Andrei Derevianko, from the University of Nevada at Reno, is “already mining 15 years’ worth of GPS timing data for dark matter’s fingerprints,” hoping to prove that GPS errors do, indeed, reveal a deeper, invisible layer of the universe—but how incredibly interesting would it be if, somehow, this same data could be lifted from the built environment itself, secretly found there, inscribed in the imprecisions of construction equipment, perhaps detectable even in the locational drift as revealed by art projects like the Satellite Lamps of Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall?

The bigger the project, the more likely its GPS errors could be read or made visible—where unexpected curves, glitches, changes in height, or other minor inaccuracies are not just frustrating imperfections caused by inattentive construction engineers, but are actually evidence of spacetime itself, of all the bulging defects and distortions through which our planet must constantly pass now frozen into the built environment all around us.

(Very vaguely related: One of my personal favorite stories here, The Planetary Super-Surface of San Bernardino County).

The Neurological Side-Effects of 3D

[Image: Auguste Choisy].

France is considering a ban on stereoscopic viewing equipment—i.e. 3D films and game environments—for children, due to “the possible [negative] effect of 3D viewing on the developing visual system.”

As a new paper suggests, the use of these representational technologies is “not recommended for chidren under the age of six” and only “in moderation for those under the age of 13.”

There is very little evidence to back up the ban, however. As Martin Banks, a professor of vision science at UC Berkeley, points out in a short piece for New Scientist, “there is no published research, new or old, showing evidence of adverse effects from watching 3D content other than the short-term discomfort that can be experienced by children and adults alike. Despite several years of people viewing 3D content, there are no reports of long-term adverse effects at any age. On that basis alone, it seems rash to recommend these age-related bans and restrictions.”

Nonetheless, he adds, there is be a slight possibility that 3D technologies could have undesirable neuro-physical effects on infants:

The human visual system changes significantly during infancy, particularly the brain circuits that are intimately involved in perceiving the enhanced depth associated with 3D viewing technology. Development of this system slows during early childhood, but it is still changing in subtle ways into adolescence. What’s more, the visual experience an infant or young child receives affects the development of binocular circuits. These observations mean that there should be careful monitoring of how the new technology affects young children.

But not necessarily an outright ban.

In other words, overly early—or quantitatively excessive—exposure to artificially 3-dimensional objects and environments could be limiting the development of retinal strength and neural circuitry in infants. But no one is actually sure.

What’s interesting about this for me—and what simultaneously inspires a skeptical reaction to the supposed risks involved—is that we are already surrounded by immersive and complexly 3-dimensional spatial environments, built landscapes often complicated by radically diverse and confusing focal lengths. We just call it architecture.

Should the experience of disorienting works of architecture be limited for children under a certain age?

[Image: Another great image by Auguste Choisy].

It’s not hard to imagine taking this proposed ban to its logical conclusion, claiming that certain 3-dimensionally challenging works of architectural space should not be experienced by children younger than a certain age.

Taking a cue from roller coasters and other amusement park rides considered unsuitable for people with heart conditions, buildings might come with warning signs: Children under the age of six are not neurologically equipped to experience the following sequence of rooms. Parents are advised to prevent their entry.

It’s fascinating to think that, due to the potential neurological effects of the built environment, whole styles of architecture might have to be reserved for older visitors, like an X-rated film. You’re not old enough yet, the guard says patronizingly, worried that certain aspects of the building will literally blow your mind.

Think of it as a Schedule 1 controlled space.

[Image: From the Circle of Francesco Galli Bibiena, “A Capriccio of an Elaborately Decorated Palace Interior with Figures Banqueting, The Cornices Showing Scenes from Mythology,” courtest of Sotheby’s].

Or maybe this means that architecture could be turned into something like a new training regimen, as if you must graduate up a level before you are able to handle specific architectural combinations, like conflicting lines of perspective, unreal implications of depth, disorienting shadowplay, delayed echoes, anamorphic reflections, and other psychologically destabilizing spatial experiences.

Like some weird coming-of-age ceremony developed by a Baroque secret society overly influenced by science fiction, interested mentors watch every second as you and other trainees react to a specific sequence of architectural spaces, waiting to see which room—which hallway, which courtyard, which architectural detail—makes you crack.

Gifted with a finely honed sense of balance, however, you progress through them all—only to learn at the end that there are four further buildings, structures designed and assembled in complete secrecy, that only fifteen people on earth have ever experienced. Of those fifteen, three suffered attacks of amnesia within a year.

Those buildings’ locations are never divulged and you are never told what to prepare for inside of them—what it is about their rooms that makes them so neurologically complex—but you are advised to study nothing but optical illusions for the next six months.

[Image: One more by Auguste Choisy].

Of course, you’re told, if it ever becomes too much, you can simply look away, forcing yourself to focus on only one detail at a time before opening yourself back up to the surrounding spatial confusion.

After all, as Banks writes in New Scientist, the discomfort caused by one’s first exposure to 3D-viewing technology simply “dissipates when you stop viewing 3D content. Interestingly, the discomfort is known to be greater in adolescents and young adults than in middle-aged and elderly adults.”

So what do you think—could (or should?) certain works of architecture ever be banned for neurologically damaging children under a certain age? Is there any evidence that spatially disorienting children’s rooms or cribs have the same effect as 3D glasses?

“We don’t have an algorithm for this”

[Image: Comet 67P, via ESA].

In the story of how European Space Agency researchers are scrambling to locate—and possibly move—the Philae probe, which they successfully landed on Comet 67P two days ago, there’s an interesting comment about computer vision and the perception of exotic landscapes.

[Image: Comet 67P, via New Scientist].

“We’re working our eyes off,” one of the scientists says to New Scientist, describing how they are personally and individually poring over photographs of the comet.

“It’s an entirely manual process,” New Scientist continues, “because the complex and bizarre landscape of comet 67P defies any kind of automated search. ‘We don’t have an algorithm for this,’ he says.”

We don’t have an algorithm for this.

[Image: The irregular terrain of Comet 67P, via ESA].

It would be interesting to develop a taxonomy of landscapes based on their recognizability to algorithms. This would tell you as much about how computers see the world as it would about the aesthetic assumptions—even the geological biases—of the people who programmed those computers.

Think, for example, of Adam Harvey’s work, asking When Is An Apple No Longer An Apple? That project explored the point at which machine-learning algorithms could no longer distinguish the iconic fruit from a jumble of colorful objects.

Or take Harvey’s more recent CV Dazzle experiment, which looked at how to prevent facial recognition software from identifying a face at all through the clever use of cosmetic camouflage.

However, in the case of Comet 67P and other extreme topographic environments, we would be looking at when a landscape is no longer a landscape, so to speak, at least in terms of the computer-vision algorithms programmed to analyze it.

[Image: Comet 67P, via ESA].

What other landscapes fall within this category—of spatial environments unrecognizable to machines—and what do those spaces reveal about the dimensional prejudices of the algorithm? Light and shadow; depth and range; foreground and background; geometry and complexity.

Bump Adam Harvey’s investigations up to the scale of a landscape, and a million potential design projects beckon. Learning from Comet 67P.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Comet as Landscape Art).

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, “PAN (Unknown; USA-207),” from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, “Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars.”

Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity’s longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet’s surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called “star trail” photos, where the Earth’s rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen’s photo “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)”—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, “is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit.”

To do so, he uses “observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.”

The image that opens this post “depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as ‘PAN.'”

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for “Palladium At Night,” but “this is one mysterious bird,” satellite watchers have claimed; it is a “mystery satellite” with “an unusual history of frequent relocations,” although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, “PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don’t actually need Paglen’s deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen’s work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.

The Comet as Landscape Art

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

Intrigued by these images as an example of how the tradition of landscape representation has rapidly progressed—from the Romantics and the Hudson River School to Rosetta—I felt compelled to post a few photos of the craggy and glacial surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, sent back to Earth yesterday from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft.

The surface of the comet “is porous, with steep cliffs and house-sized boulders,” making it earth-like yet deeply treacherous, an irregular terrain to photograph and a dangerous place to land.

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

It is the notion of “land” here that is most interesting, however, as this is really just the imposition of a terrestrial metaphor onto a deeply alien body. Yet the comet is, in effect, literally a glacier: a malleable yet permanently frozen body of ice hurtling through space, occasionally exploding in comas and tails of vapor.

It is “an ancient landscape,” we read, “and yet one that looks strangely contemporary as the sun vaporizes ice, reworking the terrain like a child molding clay.”

Think Antarctica in a winter storm, not southern Utah—or Glacier National Park, not the Grand Canyon.

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

Along those lines, some of the most provocative writing on what it means to visually represent the frozen and hostile landscapes of the Antarctic is by writer William L. Fox, whose work offers some useful resonance here.

Fox has written, for example, about the technical and even neurological difficulties in accurately representing—let alone comprehending or simply navigating—Antarctic space and the vast forms that frame it.

Distant landscapes distorted by thermal discontinuities; white levels pushed to the absolute limit of film chemistry; impossible contours throwing off any attempt at depth perception; even the difficulty of distinguishing complicated mirages from actual landforms: these are all part of the challenge of creating images of an exotic landscape such as the Antarctic.

As Fox writes, it was even specifically the tradition of Dutch landscape painting, combined with the maritime practice of sketching coastal profiles, that first introduced the visual world of the Antarctic to western viewers: it was thus seen as an ominous, ice-clogged horizon of fog and low clouds looming always just slightly out of ship’s reach at the bottom of the world.

He calls this the genre of “representational exploration art.”

[Image: Photo by Stuart Klipper from his fantastic book, The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole, with a foreword by William L. Fox].

In one interesting passage in his book Terra Antarctica, he suggests that the south polar landscape is so extreme, it often resists natural analogy. As Fox describes it, the wind-carved boulders and isolated pillars and cliffs of ice are more like “artworks by Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore, evoking the spirit of surrealism with the former and modernist forms with the latter. The Antarctic is so extreme to our visual expectations that, once we attempt to move beyond measurement to describe it, analogies with other parts of nature fall short, and we resort to comparisons with cultural artifacts that push at the boundaries of our perceptions.”

These include “cultural artifacts such as sculpture and architecture, products more of the imagination than of nature.”

Consider, for instance, that comet 67P is widely known today as the “rubber-duck comet” due to its bifurcated structure, implying, as Fox suggests with the Antarctic, that no natural analogy seemed adequate for describing the comet’s geometry.

[Image: The gateway arches of the Antarctic; photo by Stuart Klipper from, The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole, foreword by William L. Fox].

But what are we to make of comet 67P now that we can see it as a physical landscape, not just an ephemeral optical phenomenon passing, at great distance, through the sky? When a blur becomes focused as terrain, what is the best way to describe it? What visual or textual traditions are the most useful or evocative—vedas and sutras or laboratory reports?

Put another way, is poetry as appropriate as a scientific survey in such a circumstance—should “we attempt to move beyond measurement to describe it,” in Fox’s words—and, if not, what new genres of exploration art might result from this spatial encounter?

I’m reminded here of poet Christian Bök’s wry remark on Twitter: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan…”

Now that humans are beginning to land semi-autonomous camera-ships on the frozen ice fields of passing comets, sending back the (off)world’s strangest landscape art—as if a direct line runs from, say, the pastoral landscapes of Claude Lorrain or the elemental weirdness of J.M.W. Turner to the literally extraterrestrial boulders and gullies depicted by Rosetta—how should our own descriptive traditions adapt? What, we might ask, is comet 67P’s role in art history?

[Image: Approaching 67P, via the ESA].

Books Received

[Image: Cincinnati Public Library, 1870s; photo via Steve Silberman].

It’s that time of the year again, to take a look at the many, many books that have passed through the halls of BLDGBLOG the past season or two, ranging, as usual, from popular science to fiction, landscape history to the urban future of the refugee camp.

There are some great books included in this round-up, ones I’d love to help find a wider audience—however, as will be clear from a handful of descriptions below, and as is always the case with book round-ups here on BLDGBLOG, I have not read every book included in the following list and not all of them are necessarily new.

However, in all cases, these books are included for the interest of their approach or for their general subject matter, and the wide range of themes present should give anyone at least a few interesting titles to seek out for autumn reading.


1) Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press)

One of the most enjoyable books of my summer was Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Lapsley’s history of “phone phreaks,” or people who successfully hacked the early phone networks into giving them free calls to one another and around the world, would read, in a different context, like some strange occult thriller featuring disaffected teenagers tapping into a supernatural world. Weird boxes, unexplained dial tones, and disembodied voices at the end of the line pop up throughout the book, as do surprise cameos from a pre-Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Teenagers throwing frequencies and sounds at vast machines through telephone handsets managed to unlock another dimension of the phone network, Lapsley explains, a byzantine geography of remote switching centers and international operators. In the process, they helped pave the way for the hackers we know today. I have heard, anecdotally, from a few people who were around and part of these groups at the time, that Lapsley got some of his details wrong, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of—or inability to put down—his book. Recommended, and very fun.

2) Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (MIT Press)

This pamphlet-length book by Carnegie Mellon University’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh on the future of robotics pays admirable attention to the fundamental problem of even defining what “robotics” is. Better yet, Nourbakhsh prefaces each of his short chapters with fictional interludes exploring speculative scenarios of future robotics gone awry. There is a disturbing vignette in which flying robot toys programmed to recognize human eye contact swarm around and terrify anyone not hiding their gaze behind wearing sunglasses—something the toys’ manufacturer never predicted—as well as a memorable scenario in which new forms of robot-readable graffiti throw entire self-driving traffic systems into a tizzy, making car after car wrongly report that an impenetrable roadblock lies ahead. Call it traffic-hacking.

In the end, Nourbakhsh suggests, robots will prove to be fundamentally different from human beings, and we should be prepared for his. “A robot moving down the street will see in all directions, not simply in front of it like humans,” he writes. “If that robot is connected to a network of video cameras along the street, it will see everywhere on the street, from all angles, the entire time it walks. Imagine this scenario. A not-very-clever robot walking down the street will have access to entire synthesized views of the street—up and down, behind you, down the alley, around the corner—and be able to scroll back through time with perfect fidelity. As you approach this robot, it might be cognitively much dumber than you, but it knows far more about its surroundings than you do. It stops suddenly. What do you do? There is no common ground established between you and this robot, just the fact that you occupy the same sidewalk.”


3) Beyond The Blue Horizon: How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked The Secrets Of The Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)

Brian Fagan, an environmental historian known for his books on climate change and civilization, has written a great example of what might be called adventure-history. Beyond the Blue Horizon takes us through roughly twenty thousand—even potentially, depending on how you interpret the archaeological evidence, more than one hundred thousand—years of human seafaring. Every few pages, amidst tales of people sailing in small groups, even drifting, seemingly lost, for days at a time across vast expanses of open water, Fagan makes arresting observations, such as the fact that early Pacific navigators, laden down with seeds and plants, “literally carried their own landscape with them,” he writes.

The importance of the coast in supporting human settlement, and the absolute centrality of the sea—rather than continental interiors—in shaping human history, gives Fagan multiple opportunities to refocus our sense of our own remote past. We are not landed creatures of roads and automobiles, Fagan argues, but a maritime species whose entire childhood and adolescence was spent paddling past unknown coastlines, searching for freshwater rivers and streams—a “world of ceaseless movement,” as he calls it, including now lost islands, deltas, and coasts. Fagan’s brilliance at describing landscapes as they undergo both seasonal changes and variations in climate also applies to his depictions of Earthly geography when sea levels were, for most of the eras described in his book, more than 300 feet lower than it is today. It was another planet—a maritime world—one that humans seem to have lost sight of and forgotten.

4) The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press)

John R. Gillis’s look at “seacoasts in history” proves to be compulsively readable, sustaining many long subway rides for me here in New York, although the final few chapters fall off into unnecessarily long quotations from what seems like any random academic source he could find that mentioned the sea. This is too bad, because a shorter, more tightly edited version of this book would be a dream. Gillis is not shy about making outsized claims for revising the history of human civilization. The shore is “the true home of humankind,” he writes, “the original Eden.” He wants Westerners to forget the “terracentric history” they’ve been taught, which is, he points out, simply a historical misunderstanding of where humans actually spent 95%—the number Gillis uses—of their development: on shorelines and coastal islands.

“The book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked,” he writes, “but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” Gillis quotes the words of writer Steve Mentz here, who argued that we need “fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks” in our narrative understanding of human prehistory.

Gillis allows his book some intriguing political subthemes. He writes, for example, that “it would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” He adds, “for the first century or more [of their habitation in the Americas], northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.” Rivers and lakes were the key to ruling North America, for a time; and, seemingly since the interior land rush of U.S. history, the “seaborne” ways of humans, with or without a state to back them, have been forgotten.

As a brief side note, it’s interesting here to look at the Somali pirates so often mythologized in Western media, including the forthcoming Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips—that stateless, seaborne groups of humans still exist and are the rogue scourge of landed empires (see also The Enemy of All by Daniel Heller-Roazan, etc.).

5) The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush by Davig Igler (Oxford University Press)

David Igler’s own book on all things anthropologically oceanic focuses solely on the Pacific Ocean, from the first wave of European exploration to early-modern sea trade. Igler, too, finds the land-locked nature of traditional history both claustrophobic and incorrect. “The ‘places’ usually subjected to historical analysis—nations, regions, and localities—have fixed borders enclosing land and thus constitute terrestrial history,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Historians have far less experience imagining the ways that oceanic space connects people and polities, rather than separating them.” Igler’s larger point—that tides, currents, and winds, even specific ships, are also, in a sense, “places” deserving of historical recognition—animates the rest of the book.

Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, And Future Of Human Space Exploration by Claude A. Piantadosi (Columbia University Press)

6) This book is admittedly quite hampered by its extraordinary practicality: there is very little poetry here, mostly straight talk of musculoskeletal disorders in low gravity and heat-loss from warm bodies in space. We begin on the ground floor, not only with a short and perhaps unnecessary history of the U.S. space program, but with the very basics of human physiology and the mechanics of flight. I suspect, however, that most readers are perfectly willing to jump into the deep end and read what’s on offer in the book’s later chapters: human visits to Mars, to asteroids, to “big planets, dwarf planets, and small bodies,” in Piantadosi’s words, to the “moons of the ice giants” and beyond. Ultimately, though, the book is simply too dry to feel like these later glimpses of “mankind beyond Earth,” as the title teasingly—and, for the most part, misleadingly—promises, are a worthy reward. If you must, one to look for in the local library.


7) Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday)

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 and thus, now, a colleague of mine, has exceeded all expectations with the research, depth, and range of this quirkily enthusiastic look at planetary mass extinction. Her early chapters on dinosaurs, plagues, extremophiles, world-altering volcanic eruptions, long geological eras when the Earth was locked in ice, possible human/Neanderthal guerrilla warfare (not to mention inter-breeding), and much more, are like a New Scientist article you hope never ends. It’s an exciting read.

Oddly, though, the central premise of the book—that, through urbanization, human beings will find ways to avoid their own extinction—feels tacked on and unconvincingly developed. If I’m being honest, it feels like Newitz is trying to make more of an ideological point about the political value and cultural centrality of cities today, rather than actually arguing rationally for the possibility that cities will save the human species. This is especially the case if we’re talking about—as, in this book, we are—catastrophic asteroid impacts or the outbreak of a super-virus. This otherwise gripping book thus has a bit of an are-you-serious? feel as it wraps up its final fifty pages or so. While advancing a theory of safety achieved through collective living, urban farming, and social cooperation, Newitz also inadvertently seems to contradict the first command of her book’s title: to scatter. That is, to fling ourselves to the far edges of the universe—to explore, survive, and mutate with the cosmos—not to band together, urbanize, and cooperate.

As such, it seems possible to imagine an identical version of this book—identical, that is, for 200 pages or so—but with a radically differnet ending: one in which truly scattering, adapting ourselves, isolating ourselves, and differentiating our civilizational pursuits—even differentiating our very DNA through evolution in separation—would be the most effective way to avoid human extinction. But that argument, it seems, is ideologically impermissible; it makes you an anti-state survivalist, a cosmic redneck, building bunkers in the Utah desert or on the moons of another world, more Ted Nugent than Stewart Brand.

In any case, putting political arguments like these aside, the book ends with a mind-popper of a quotation. In a conversation with Randii Wessen at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Wessen tells Newitz: “Our kids are the last generation who will see no city lights on the Moon.” This is both wonderful and terrible, and as concise a statement as I’ve read anywhere to show the human future rolling on.

8) Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings (Current)

Gifted science writer Lee Billings takes us on a search for other Earths—or, more accurately, for habitable “exoplanets” where life like us may or may not have a chance of existing. The book starts off with quite a coup. Billings treats us to a long, at-home visit with astronomer Frank Drake of Drake’s Equation fame: the abstract but reasonable calculation used for decades now to determine whether or not intelligent civilizations might exist elsewhere (and, by extension, how likely it is that humans will find them).

The book is not hard science, it is easy to follow, and Billings is a great writer; his tendency, however, veers toward the humanistic, following the life stories of individual astronomers or physicists here on Earth as they search the outer reaches of the detectable universe for signs of exoplanets.

A sizable diversion late in the book, for example, takes us on a canoe trip far into the Canadian north, past lakes and rivers, with a wary eye on approaching storms, to tell the story of how physicist Sara Seager met and fell in love with one of her colleagues. It is not a short diversion, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Seager’s canoe trip has little to do with the search for “life among the stars,” as the book’s subtitle suggests. It is at moments like this, as Seager and her partner paddle from one portage to another, that I found myself wondering if the only stories to tell are of other human beings—whether scientists or NASA administrators—then why, in a sense, are we looking for exoplanets at all?

Of course, the book jacket never promised us surreal descriptions of other worlds. But it’s hard not to hope for exactly that: that Billings would focus his considerable rhetorical powers away from our world for a few more chapters and offer those evocative glimpses of Earth-like planets I suspect so many readers will come to his book to find—visions of worlds like ours but magically, cosmically different—and thus communicate the beautiful, poetically irresistible urge to discover them. His introductory descriptions of the formation of our solar system, for instance, are breathtaking, clear, and poetic, and similar passages elsewhere show the pull of the exoplanetary; the narrative structure of the scientist profile seems inadvertently to have focused the bulk of the book’s attention here on Earth, where we are already bound, rather than to let the strange light of the universe shine through more frequently.

But this is like complaining about dessert after a delicious meal. I’ll simply hope that Billings’s next book concentrates more on the inhuman allure so peculiar to astronomy, a field astonishingly rich with worlds mortal humans long to see.

9) Are We Being Watched?: The Search for Life in the Cosmos by Paul Murdin (Thames & Hudson)

The off-putting and sensationalistic title of Paul Murdin’s new book is, thankfully, not a sign of things to come in the text itself. Murdin’s sober yet thrilling look at the history and future of astrobiology is a bright spot in a recent spate of books about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “The twenty-first century is the century of astrobiology,” he writes in the first sentence of chapter one; indeed, he adds with extraordinary confidence, “this is the era in which we will discover life on other worlds, and learn from it.”

Amidst many interesting tidbits, one worth repeating here actually comes from Murdin’s quotation of paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris. Conway-Morris, referring to the possibility of discovering truly alien life, rightly suggests that we could very well have no idea what we’re looking at. Indeed, he memorably says, these other life forms could be “constructions so unfamiliar that they are only brought home by accident and then inadvertently handed over for curation in a department of mineralogy.” The idea that rocks sitting quietly in a Natural History museum somewhere are actually alien life forms is mind-blowing and but one take-away from this thought-provoking book.

Over the course of Are We Being Watched?, Murdin enjoyably goes all over the place, from amino acids to plate tectonics, to radio-stimulated organic molecules in the atmosphere of Titan. As if channeling H.P. Lovecraft, Murdin at one point writes that, on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, scientists have seen the same churning processes as witnessed in Antarctica, but, on Europa, “we see the results of this churning as colored stains on ridges of ice at the boundaries of ice floes. Perhaps in these colored stains lie dead creatures, brought up from the depths of the ocean and exposed to view by orbiting spacecraft or landers that can rove over the surface.”

10) Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes (FSG)

Frankenstein’s Cat follows the 21st-century quest to re-engineer biology, to design “the fauna of the future,” as the book promises, or “biotech’s brave new beasts,” where resurrected species, pets with prostheses, and militarized insects crawl through forests of genetically modified trees. At once terrifying and thrilling, and animated in all cases by the gonzo enthusiasm of any science operating at seemingly unstoppable speed, Emily Anthes’s book shows the weird biological breakthroughs that will ultimately create the landscapes of tomorrow: the cities, gardens, parks, oceans, and backyards our descendants will inevitably mistake for nature (and then, eventually, dismiss as mundane).


11) Sweet & Salt: Water And The Dutch by Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel (NAi Publishers)

Journalist Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel have teamed up for this collaborative look at “environmental planning” in the Netherlands, with a focus on all things aquatic. While Metz visits the country’s numerous megaprojects and anti-flooding infrastructure to speak with water engineers, “dike wardens,” and other stewards of Holland’s relationship with rain and the sea, van den Heuvel assembles a spectacular catalog featuring visual depictions of waterworks throughout Dutch art history. This is “the visualization of water in art,” as she calls it, revealing “anxieties about flooding” and a deep-rooted infrastructural patriotism inspired by the technical means for controlling that flooding.

Ultimately, the book’s goal is to show how Dutch water management is changing in the face of rising sea levels and climate change, and how “water is coming back into the city,” as Metz writes, changing the nature of contemporary urban design.

12) Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 by Christian Salewski (010 Publishers)

This well-illustrated history and catalog of large-scale hydrological projects in the Netherlands—and the “Dutch new worlds” those projects helped generate—offers a provocative look at the very idea of infrastructure. Salewski suggests that a nation’s infrastructure is like literature or mythology, a built narrative in which a much larger constellation of dreams and aspirations can be read. “There is no Dutch Hollywood,” Salewski writes, “no cinematic dream machine that constantly processes the current view of the future into easily digestible, mass-consumed science fiction movies. Dutch views into the future are probably best found not in cultural works of literature and art, but in physical planning designs.” That is, in the dams, dikes, levees, and polders the rest of the book goes on to so interestingly describe. Infrastructure, Salewski offers, is one of many ways in which a nation dreams.

13) Bird On Fire: Lessons From The World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross (Oxford University Press)

Andrew Ross takes a critical look at Phoenix, Arizona, a desert city “sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.” As the city tries to “green” itself through boosts in public transportation and a more sensible water management strategy—among other things—Ross asks if an urban transformation, something that might save Phoenix from its current parched fate, is even possible.

14) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (Oxford University Press)

Kate Brown’s Plutopia creates a horrifying set of conjoined urban twins, so to speak, by both comparing and contrasting the purpose-built plutonium production towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia. These were fully planned and state-supported facilities, yet both were also highly delicate, secret cities—in Ozersk’s case, literally off the map—constantly at risk of nuclear disaster. And disaster, of course, eventually comes.

Brown points out how, between the two of them, Richland and Ozersk released four times the amount of radiation into the environment as the meltdown at Chernobyl, and she tracks the disturbing long-term health and environmental effects in the surrounding regions. In both cases, perhaps cynically, perhaps inspiringly, these polluted regions have become nature reserves.

In a particularly troubling anecdote from the final chapter, referring to the experience of Richland, Brown points out that “periodically deer and rabbits wander from the preserve and leave radioactive droppings on Richland’s lawns,” but also, more seriously, that multiple wineries have sprung up perilously close to the hazard zone, “near the mothballed plutonium plant.” While sipping wine at one of those very vineyards, Brown tries to talk to the locals about the potential for radiation in the soil—and, thus, in the wine—but, unsurprisingly, they react to her questions “testily.”

These carefully manicured utopian towns, like scenes from The Truman Show crossed with Silkwood, with their dark role in the state production of plutonium, give us the “Plutopia” of the book’s title. Ozersk and Richland are “citadels of plutonium,” she writes, instant cities of the atomic age.


15) From Camp To City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara by Manuel Herz (Lars Müller Publishers)

Based on original research from a studio taught at the ETH in Zurich, architect Manuel Herz has assembled this fascinating and important guide to the urban and quasi-urban structures of refugee camps. Focusing specifically on camps in extreme southwest Algeria, populated by people fleeing from conflict in the Western Sahara, these camps are, Herz suggests, Western instant urbanism stripped bare, the city shown at its factory presets, revealing the infrastructural defaults and basic political conditions of the modern metropolis. They are “the spatial manifestation of the state of exception,” he writes, citing Giorgio Agamben, mere “holding areas” in which urban forms slowly take shape and crystallize. The camps are where, Herz writes, “Architecture and planning becomes [sic] a replacement for a political solution.”

From the architecture of the tents themselves to the delivery infrastructures that bring water, food, and other vital goods to their inhabitants, to culturally specific spatial accouterments, like carpets and curtains, Herz shows how the camps manage to become cities almost in spite of themselves, and how these cities then offer something like training grounds for future nations to come. In Herz’s own words, “the camps act also as a training phase, during which the Sahrawi society [of the Western Sahara] can develop ideas and concepts of what system of education they want to establish, and learn about public health and medical service provision. The camps become a space where nation-building can be learned and performed, to be later transferred to their original homeland, if it becomes available in the future.”

This idea of the state-in-waiting—and its ongoing spatial rehearsal in the form of emergency camps—runs throughout the book, which is also a detailed, full-color catalog of almost every conceivable spatial detail of life in these refugee camps. In the process, Herz and his team have assembled a highly readable and deeply fascinating look at urbanism in its most exposed or raw condition. “In the blazing sun of the Sahara Desert,” he concludes, “we can observe the birth of the urban condition with a clarity and crispness almost unlike anywhere else in the world.”

16) Roman Disasters by Jerry Toner (Polity)

Cambridge Classicist Jerry Toner had described his wide range of interests as being centered on the notion of “history from below.” He has written prolifically about ancient Rome, in particular, from several unexpected points of view, including popular culture in antiquity, the smellscape of early Christianity, and an currently in-progress work on crime in the ancient metropolis.

Roman Disasters looks specifically at imperial disaster-response, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic fires, warfare, and disease. Toner describes how the abstract notion of risk was first formulated and understood; the role of religious prophecy in “imagining future disaster”; and halting, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to construct a fireproof metropolis, such as the widening of city streets and the creation of a semi-permanent Roman fire brigade.

Very much a history, rather than a page-turner directed at a popular audience, Roman Disasters nonetheless offers a compelling and unexpected look at the ancient world, one peppered with refugee camps, tent cities, and displaced populations all looking for—and not necessarily finding—imperial beneficence.

17) Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (FSG)

Robin Nagle is an “anthropologist-in-residence” at the NYC Department Sanitation. Picking Up is her document of that incredible—and strange—backstage pass to the afterlife of the city, where all that we discard or undervalue simply gets tossed to the curb. Nagle tags along with, interviews, and reveals the “garbage faeries” who rid our streets of the unwanted detritus of everyday life, whether trash or snow. In the process, she’s written a kind of narrative map or oral history of another New York, one with its own flows and infrastructure, and one that exists all but invisibly alongside the one we inhabit everyday.

18) Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook edited by Stefan Al (Hong Kong University Press)

Architect Stefan Al, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a team of researchers to the Pearl River Delta, the “factory of the world,” to explore how people live and—even more—how they work in the region. A fascinating glimpse at the “self-contained world” of what amounts to corporate-industrial urbanism, the book nonetheless feels very much like a book assembled by architects who had a grant for producing a publication: it is heavy on comparative infographics, layered images, pie charts, and small-print introductory essays, all on coated paper resistant to underlining. The subject matter is fascinating, but the book is ultimately of less use than, say, sending Robin Nagle to visit these “factory towns of south China,” reporting back about the complicated lives and material cultures found there.


19) Ruin Nation: Destruction And The American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press)

Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation is a kind of Piranesian guide to the Civil War ruins of American cities of the 19th century. The book is a bit slow and overly cautious in its descriptions, but it is remarkable for a specific focus on architectural ruins following the Civil War. “Architectural ruins—cities and houses—dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the Civil War,” she writes in the book’s introduction, a time when whole cities were reduced to “lone chimneys” amidst the smoke and obliteration of urban warfare. We often hear—especially post-9/11—that Americans have never really experienced war and destruction on their own soil, but Nelson’s book convincingly and devastatingly shows how inaccurate a statement that is.

20) Line In The Sand: A History Of The U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John (Princeton University Press)

Heading west from the Gulf Coast, the U.S.-Mexico border takes an unexpected turn when you get past El Paso, Texas—that is, by not really turning at all. The border instead becomes a series of abnormally, mathematically straight lines, cutting, with only a few diversions north and south, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It thus no longer follows any natural feature, such as the Rio Grande River.

But why is the border exactly here, and why the rigid, linear path that it takes? Rachel St. John’s “history of the western U.S.-Mexico border” looks at sovereignty, surveying, geography, diplomacy, war, conquest, and private property to piece together the tangled story of this “line in the sand” and the people (and economies) it has divided. Line in the Sand—which often has the ungainly feel of a Ph.D. thesis later edited into a book—ends with a critical look at the “operational security” falsely promised by a border fence, and a more hopeful look at mutations of the border region yet to come.

21) The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon To Richter by Deborah R. Coen (University of Chicago Press)

Deborah Coen’s Earthquake Observers looks at the history of seismology—or the study of earthquakes—but, more specifically, seismology’s transition from something like a folk art of human observation to an instrumented science. It is a consistently interesting book, so much so that I invited Coen to speak to my class at Columbia last semester.

The book includes a great deal worth mentioning here, from the gender of early earthquake observers—writing, for example, specifically in reference to early-modern domesticity, that “a quiet, housebound lifestyle and close attention to the arrangement of domestic objects put many bourgeois women in an excellent position to detect tremors”—to the literally geopolitical effects of earthquakes. In the latter case, a state of emergency following catastrophic seismic events helped to influence 20th-century legal theory as well as to challenge accepted hierarchies of what it means for a state to respond. “Particularly in the Balkans,” she writes, “earthquakes called into question the political framework that tied the monarchy’s fringes to its two capitals: which level of the state’s intricate web of governance would respond?”

John Muir, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the study of earthquake-related traumas, or “seismopathology,” all make their appearance in Coen’s study of how seismology became both modern and scientific.


22) From Roof To Table: Photographs By Rob Stephenson by Rob Stephenson (Design Trust for Public Space)

This magazine-style pamphlet of images by photographer Rob Stephenson documents urban farming efforts—not necessarily limited to roofs—across New York City. Plots of land beside empty brick warehouses, backyards, and even university labs bloom with fruits and vegetables in Stephenson’s full-color shots. “With the influx of people to cities and a continuing rise in the financial and environmental costs of shipping food, the widespread and large-scale adoption of urban agriculture seems inevitable,” Stephenson writes in an accompanying project description. “New York City, with its network of backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and rooftop farms, is at the forefront of this transformation.”

23) The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press)

Gordon Campbell’s history of the garden hermit attempts to discover why the phenomenon of the live-in hermit—an actual human being, installed in a landscaped garden, acting as a form of living ornament—arose at all. Along the way, he explores what architectural structures these hermits required and the cultural motifs their strange roles kicked off. “Who were these people?” Campbell asks. “Why did landowners think it appropriate to have them in their gardens? What function did they serve?”


24) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Killcullen (Oxford University Press)

Military strategist David Kilcullen takes on the urban future of war, arguing that armed conflict will occur more often, and with increasingly devastating effects, in cities. If the future is such that, in his words, “all aspects of human life—including, but not only, conflict, crime and violence—will be crowded, urban, networked and coastal,” then it only makes sense to attempt to make sense of this, both sociologically and from the perspective of the military.

Citing everything from Richard Norton’s revolutionary notion of the “feral city” to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums—Davis, in fact, blurbs the book—Kilcullen has written a must-read for anyone unconvinced by the rosy take on cities and their triumphant future currently dominating the best-seller list.

25) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (PublicAffairs)

Radley Blako’s libertarian take on the “militarization of America’s police forces” is more Rand Paul than ACLU, if you will, but it’s a worthy read for all sides of the political debate. It opens with the jarring rhetorical question, “Are cops constitutional?” And it goes on from there to discuss legal debates on federal power and the 3rd and 4th Amendments, a short history of military tactics creeping into the U.S. police arsenal following urban riots in Watts, the rise of reality TV shows seemingly encouraging police belligerence, the War on Drugs, the Occupy Movement, today’s all but ubiquitous Taser (and its abuse), no-knock raids, and more.

If you’re interested in cities, you should also be interested in how those cities are policed, and this is as interesting a place as any to start digging.

26) Manhunts: A Philosophical History by Grégoire Chamayou (Princeton University Press)

I picked up a copy of this book after an interesting, albeit brief, email exchange with L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who described a shift from the high-speed chase (that is, a large amount of space covered at high speed) to the manhunt (or a limited space studied with incredible intensity).

I’ve written about Hawthorne’s observation at greater length in my own forthcoming book about crime and architecture, and, while researching that book, I thought Grégoire Chamayou’s Manhunts would be a helpful reference. It was not, if I’m being honest, but it is, nonetheless, a striking work on its own terms: a history of what it means to hunt human beings, from runaway slaves and “illegal aliens” to Jews in World War II. He calls this an “anthropology of the predator”—“a history and a philosophy of hunting powers and their technologies of capture”—wherein the prey subject to destruction is a banished or shunned human being, terrifyingly relegated to the status of animal.

27) Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (New York Review of Books Classics)

This strange, quite short, and very readable novel, recently brought back into print by the New York Review of Books, tells the story of a British political agent who fails in his attempt to assassinate an unnamed German political leader (who is, clearly, Adolf Hitler). The man flees Germany for the comparative safety of England, only to be relentlessly—and, as it happens, successfully—hunted by German agents intent on revenge.

It both does and does not spoil the rest of the book to reveal that the hunted man literally goes to ground, terrestrializing himself by digging a burrow in the Earth and hiding out there amidst the mud, the exposed tree roots, the darkness, and his own waste, sleeping unwashed in a humiliating cave of his own making, his clothes rotten, his feet swollen by rain, living underground at the side of a small lane in Britain’s agrarian hinterland. When he is found—and he is found—what could descend into a Rambo-like scene of violence and retaliation instead offers something that is still violent but far stranger, as this nearly worldchanging political actor, a failed assassin who could have changed the 20th century, finds a way to escape his grotesque and feral state.

Have a good autumn, and enjoy the books.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

(Thanks to Dan Bergevin for my copy of Out of the Mountains).

Skyfall

Although the Earth itself will be coming to its fiery and magmatic end in 7 billion years’ time, its nighttime skies will be undergoing an extraordinary slow-motion light-show: the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies.

An animation released last summer by NASA, called “What the Night Sky Will Look Like Over the Next 7 Billion Years” and embedded above, depicts the glowing filaments of these two galaxies, like plate tectonics in space, crashing together, gravitationally distorting one another, and then merging in a featureless cloud of light.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

In his weird, brilliant, and unimaginably dense book The Invention of the Zero poet Richard Kenney exclaims, “Imagine, all new constellations! …a seethe / and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

But such skies are not merely the domain of speculative poetry, as they are, in fact, on their way, roiling toward us in billion-year-long collisions that we, as a species, will never see the true light of.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

I’m reminded of an essay by geologist Steven Dutch, at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, called “The Earth Has A Future,” originally published in the May 2006 issue of Geosphere.

Advocating what he calls a “futurist approach” to the planetary sciences, Dutch points out that “a million years is relatively short in geologic terms. For example, even the fastest plates, moving on the order of 15 cm/yr, will have moved only 150 km in a million years, enough to have very significant local geological effects but scarcely enough to be casually noticeable on a globe.”

However, Dutch’s “futurist approach” to landscape studies becomes particularly fascinating when he turns his attention upward, to the sky, looking out beyond the Earth to what stars and their constellations might look like in roughly one million years. Dutch predicts, for instance, that “distant star patterns like Orion should be recognizable” for several hundred thousand years, “but many constellations will have changed noticeably.”

In other words, the sky is always—even now—adrift, already fulfilling Kenney’s “seethe and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

But that’s just a million years. Multiply that by seven-and-a-half thousand, and the heavenly distortions torquing through the skies above us become magical even to contemplate.

(Related: Pruned‘s Proposal for an Ideas Competition Seeking Design Proposals for a Pavilion for Viewing the Coming Intergalactic Collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way).

Crashing Through Dark Matter Walls

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image from NASA, an artist’s rendition of the heliosphere and magnetic fields].

The Earth is “constantly crashing through huge walls of dark matter,” New Scientist explains, “and we already have the tools to detect them.”

This dark architecture in space consists of so-called “domain walls” that are like the boundaries between soap bubbles in foam. “The idea is that the hot early universe was full of an exotic force field that varied randomly. As the universe expanded and cooled, the field froze, leaving a patchwork of domains, each with its own distinct value for the field.”

The Earth now randomly “crashes” through this “grid of domain walls”—a remnant “patchwork” of frozen, remnant force fields and now something perhaps less like soap bubbles and metaphorically closer to cosmic-scale magnetic ice, a structured frost we move through without seeing—on a scale of once every several years. So, not quite “constantly,” as the lead sentence implies, but, given the age of the universe, I suppose that’s constant enough.

But how do we find them, this grid of domain walls we apparently live within? We simply need to install dedicated magnetometers at stations around the world, and look for evidence of this colossal architecture wrapped all around us in the dark.

Forensic Geology

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

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

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

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

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

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

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

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

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

[Images: Photos by Hugh Symonds].

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

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

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

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

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

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

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

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