Semi-abandoned large-scale physics experiments have always fascinated me: remote and arcane buildings designed for something other than human spatial expectations, peppered with inexplicable instruments at all scales meant to detect an invisible world that surrounds us, its dimensions otherwise impenetrable to human senses.
[Image: Photo by Yulia Grigoryants, courtesy New York Times.]
Although the experiments he visits in the book are—or, at least, at the time of writing, were—still active, this is partly what made me a fan of Anil Ananthaswamy’s excellent The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, published in 2010. The book is a kind of journalistic pilgrimage to machines buried inside mines, installed atop remote mountain peaks, woven into the ground beneath European cities: sites that are incredibly evocative, religious in their belief that an unseen world is capable of revelation, but scientific in their insistence that this unveiling will be achieved through technological means.
A speculative architectural-literary hybrid I often come back to is Lebbeus Woods’s (graphically uneven but conceptually fascinating) OneFiveFour, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In it, Woods depicts an entire city designed and built as an inhabitable scientific tool. Everywhere there are “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change.” Woods describes how “tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes.”
Instead of wasting their lives tweeting about celebrity deaths, residents construct and model their own bespoke experiments, exploring seismology, astronomy, electricity, even light itself.
In any case, both Ananthaswamy’s and Woods’s books came to mind last week when reading a piece by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times about a still-active but seemingly forgotten observatory on Mt. Aragats in Armenia. There, in “a sprawling array of oddly shaped, empty buildings,” a tiny crew of scientists still works, looking for “cosmic rays: high-energy particles thrown from exploding stars, black holes and other astrophysical calamities thousands or millions of light-years away and whistling down from space.”
In the accompanying photographs, all taken by Yulia Grigoryants, we see black boxes perched atop pillars and ladders, in any other context easy to mistake for an avant-garde sculptural installation but, here, patiently awaiting “cosmic rain.” Grigoryants explores tunnels and abandoned labs, hiking around dead satellite-tracking stations in the snow, sometimes surrounded by stray dogs. Just think of the novels that could be set here.
As Overbye writes, despite advances in the design and construction of particle accelerators, such as CERN—which is, in effect, a giant Lebbeus Woods project in real life—“the buildings and the instruments at Aragats remain, like ghost ships in the cosmic rain, maintained for long stretches of time by a skeleton crew of two technicians and a cook. They still wait for news that could change the universe: a quantum bullet more powerful than humans can produce, or weirder than their tentative laws can explain; trouble blowing in from the sun.”
In fact, recall another recent article, this time in the Los Angeles Times, about a doomed earthquake-prediction experiment that has come to the end of its funding. It was “a network of 115 sensors deployed along the California coast to act as ears capable of picking up these hints [that might imply a coming earthquake], called electromagnetic precursors… They could also provide a key to understanding spooky electric discharges known ‘earthquake lights,’ which some seismologists say can burst out of the ground before and during certain seismic events.”
Like menhirs, these abandoned seismic sensors could now just stand there, silent in the landscape, awaiting a future photographer such as Grigoryants to capture their poetic ruination.
Speaking of which, click through to the New York Times to see her photos in full.
One thought on “Instrumental Revelation and the Architecture of Abandoned Physics Experiments”
In a sense, abandoned-anything is fascinating in itself. It’s the Ballard-Sebald line that stretches from airfields pretending to be countryside to ghost gantries in a half-hallucinated Cape Canaveral to chains of emptied-out swimming pools that describe a sort of giant’s bitemark on the land.
But abandoned – or dormant – scientific experiments have an extra layer of nostalgia to them, because they represent lost knowledge pathways. The idea that they will be, very soon, as mysterious and exotic as Angkor Wat or some geological formation like the Fingal’s Cave, turns them almost immediately into sacred ground, totems, and stelæ.
They also belong to the few things devised and built by humans that sooner turn into poetry than into ruins.