Numbers Pool

[Image: “Solomon’s Pools & ancient aqueducts…,” via Library of Congress.]

There’s a beautiful description over at New Scientist of a hypothetical new form of computing device, a “liquid crystal computer” in which calculations would move “like ripples through the liquid.”

According to researchers Žiga Kos and Jörn Dunkel, calculations would be performed by—and registered as—crystal orientations in the liquid, induced or controlled by electromagnetism: “Electric fields could… be used to manipulate the molecules to perform basic calculations, similar to how simple circuits called logic gates work in an ordinary computer. Calculations on the proposed computer would appear as ripples spreading through the liquid.”

Liquid-supercomputer facilities of the near-future might thus resemble not server farms but aquatic centers, sealed interiors lined with reflecting pools kept in different electromagnetic regimes. Although the air inside is utterly still, you watch as small ripples bounce and roll across the surface of each pool, depths triggered by equations. Thinking machines masked as hydrologic infrastructure. Cisterns and aqueducts. Computational hydrology.

There’s a line by William S. Burroughs that I probably quote too often, but I’m nevertheless reminded of again here. Burroughs once described “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal,” but perhaps this new vision is more akin to an oceanic consciousness thinking in slow tides and currents, liquid crystal waves of calculation breaking through the deep.

[Image: “The ancient swimming pool at Bath,” via Library of Congress.]

Briefly, given the prevalence of cauldron imagery in Western myth, there is something almost folkloristic about the idea of liquid technologies such as this—pools that can model the future or offer visions of other worlds.

In fact, it tangentially brings to mind another wild proposal: constructing the “Ultimately Large Telescope” [PDF], a vast spinning cauldron on the moon, reflecting astral light from a facility constructed inside the darkness of a lunar crater.

This hypothetical telescope, Universe Today explains, “would rely on liquids rather than coated glass (making it much cheaper to transport to the Moon). One type of liquid would be arranged in a spinning vat while a second metallic liquid (like mercury, which is reflective) would be positioned on top. The vat would spin continuously to keep the surface of the liquid in the correct parabolic shape to work as a mirror.” A witches’ cauldron on the moon, peering into space.

(Vaguely related: Dark Matter Mineralogy and Future Computers of Induced Crystal Flaws.)

The Sky-Math Garden

[Images: Via Peter Moore’s piece on “dueling weathermen” over at Nautilus].

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently had the pleasure of reading Peter Moore’s new book, The Weather Experiment. There are many interesting things in it—including the London “time ball,” of course—but one scene in particular stood out for its odd design details.

In 19th-century Philadelphia, Moore explains, climate scientist James Espy began building a miniature model of the earth’s atmosphere in his back garden on Chestnut Street. This microcosm was a nephelescope, or “an air pump attached to a barometer and a tubular vessel—something of an early cloud chamber.”

Espy’s larger goal here was to understand the sky as a complexly marbled world of colliding fronts and rising air columns, “an entire dynamic weather system” that could perhaps best be studied through replication.

The sky, that is, could be modeled—and, if correctly modeled, predicted. It was just a question of understanding the physics of “ascending currents of warm air drawing up vapor, the vapor condensing at a specific height, expanding and forming clouds, and then the water droplets falling back to earth.”

Under different atmospheric conditions, Espy realized, this system of vaporous circulation was capable of producing every type of precipitation: rain, snow, or hail. His task then became to calculate specific circumstances. What temperature was needed to produce snow? What expansion of water vapor would produce would be required to generate a twenty-mile-wide hailstorm?

Why not construct a smaller version of this in your own backyard and watch it go? A garden for modeling the sky.

I love this next bit: “To work with maximum speed,” Moore writes, “he had painted his fence white, so he could use it like an enormous notebook.” The entire fence was soon “covered with figures and calculations,” Espy’s niece recalled, till “not a spot remained for another sum or calculation.”

Espy’s outdoor whiteboard, wrapped around a “space transformed into an atmospheric laboratory, filled with vessels of water, numerous thermometers and hygrometers,” in Moore’s words, would make an interesting sight today, resembling something so much as a set designed for an avant-garde theatrical troupe or a student project at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Indeed, Espy’s lost sky-math garden suggests some interesting spatial possibilities for a sort of outdoor scientific park, a piece of urban land replicating the atmosphere through both instruments and equations.