Synthetic at Every Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norwegian Dream Tunnels

Almost exactly five years ago, I was in the Norwegian town of Tromsø to speak at a conference called “Future North,” part of the annual Arctic Frontiers event.

One of the most interesting parts of my visit—and I do not say this to downplay the conference, but to indicate my enthusiasm for infrastructure—was this odd bit of traffic design: to get back and forth from Tromsø to its local airport by car, you have to pass through a sprawling underground tunnel network, complete with at least one subterranean roundabout carved into the roots of the mountain, a journey that, for someone newly arrived and jet-lagged like myself, seemed surreally endless (it probably took three minutes).

At the end of the journey, though, it gets stranger: you pop out of the ground floor of an otherwise nondescript 必威手机版 and turn directly onto a normal, open-air town road, passing through an opening that looks like an entrance to an underground parking garage.

These images, taken from Google Street View, show that 必威手机版 from the Tromsø side, peering into the mountain depths within. (Here is the tunnel entrance on Google Maps.)

While we’re on the subject of Norwegian tunnels, however, it would be a mistake not to mention the Lærdal Tunnel, allegedly “the longest road tunnel in the world.”

The tunnel is so long that, to address potential adverse effects on human neurology, it includes artificial caverns lit to invoke the Homeric glow of dawn.

[Image: The Lærdal Tunnel, photo by Patrick Reijnders, via Wikipedia.]

From Wikipedia:

The design of the tunnel takes into consideration the mental strain on drivers, so the tunnel is divided into four sections, separated by three large mountain caves at 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) intervals. While the main tunnel has white lights, the caves have blue lighting with yellow lights at the fringes to give an impression of sunrise. The caves are meant to break the routine, providing a refreshing view and allowing drivers to take a short rest. The caverns are also used as turnaround points and for break areas to help lift claustrophobia during a 20-minute drive through the tunnel. In the tunnel, there is a sign on every kilometer indicating how many kilometers have already been covered, and also how many kilometers there are still to go. To keep drivers from being inattentive or falling asleep, each lane is supplied with a loud rumble strip towards the centre.

As another site mentions, “Since 1990, research has been carried out to study driver behavior in long road tunnels.” Of course, one wonders how extreme this research has gotten, perhaps suggesting a new story by Nick Arvin or J.G. Ballard. (The construction of the tunnel is also fascinating, involving lasers, GPS satellites, and computer-controlled drilling platforms.)

Tunnels that mimic sunrise, built to accommodate human neurology using artificial stars as reference points, emerging from the ground-floors of 必威手机版 s in coastal towns.

Dream tunnels, perhaps just one floor beneath by your apartment, leading deep into the mountains beyond.

(If you just can’t get enough Norwegian road tunnels, check out Kiln, previously on betway必威 .)

Governor General of Fortifications

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

As part of some tangential research for an article of mine coming out this weekend, I found myself looking at Michelangelo’s incredible sketches for fortifications and defensive works designed for the city of Florence.

Michelangelo served as “Governor General of Fortifications” for this massive military project, undertaken in the late 1520s to protect the city from an eventual 11-month siege.

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

While Michelangelo’s walls play only the most marginal role in the actual article I was writing, I was so taken by the images that I thought I’d post a few here. Graphically bold and interestingly layered with other sketches and drawings, they’re surprisingly beautiful.

Indeed, as the late Lebbeus Woods wrote, “For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power.”

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

This wouldn’t be surprising. In a paper called “‘Dal disegno allo spazio’: Michelangelo’s Drawings for the Fortifications of Florence,” historian William E. Wallace points out that, “In the Renaissance, military engineering was an important aspect of the profession of being an artist.”

Designing defensive works to protect his own city from attack was thus a natural continuation of Michelangelo’s expertise, and his artistic sensibility only made the resulting designs that much more visually captivating.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

The vocabulary for these structures is also, in its own way, strangely mesmerizing.

As Wallace writes, for example, this is “a design for an extremely complex detached bastion, a triangular-shaped defensive work usually projecting from a rampart or curtain wall, but here situated in front of a rectangular city gate which is drawn toward the bottom center of the sheet. The fortification is actually composed of three separate outworks or lunettes, and two ravelins, the long narrow constructions placed in front of the defensive work in order to break up a frontal assault. The various parts of the fortification are linked by removable log or plank bridges, and the whole complex is surrounded by a ditch repeatedly labeled ‘fosso,’ the outer rim of which, the counterscarp, has a stellate outline echoing the pincerlike (tenaille) form of the fortification.”

Bastions, counterscarps, outworks, lunettes. Ramparts, ravelins, stellate outlines.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

In any case, you can see more over at Lebbeus Woods’s site, or in Carmen C. Bambach’s gorgeously produced exhibition catalog, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.

(Related: The City and its Citadels. Thanks to Allison Meier for helping obtain a copy of William E. Wallace’s paper.)

Worth the Weight

In the midst of a long New York Times article about the serial theft of offensive cyberweapons from the National Security Agency, there’s a brief but interesting image. “Much of [a core N.S.A. group’s] work is labeled E.C.I., for ‘exceptionally controlled information,’ material so sensitive it was initially stored only in safes,” the article explains. “When the cumulative weight of the safes threatened the integrity of N.S.A.’s engineering 必威手机版 a few years ago, one agency veteran said, the rules were changed to allow locked file cabinets.”

It’s like some undiscovered Italo Calvino short story: an agency physically deformed by the gravitational implications of its secrets, its 必威手机版 s now bulbous and misshapen as the literal weight of its mission continues to grow.

Fab

[Image: “The Sphere” by Oliver Tessman, Mark Fahlbusch, Klaus Bollinger, and Manfred Grohmann].

The Bartlett School of Architecture has made all three volumes of Fabricate, their excellent series of books and conference proceedings dating back to 2011, free to download.

[Image: Matter Design’s La Voûte de LeFevre, Banvard Gallery (2012)].

More than 700 pages’ worth of technical experiments, speculative construction processes, new industrial tools, and one-off prototypes, the books are a gold mine for research and development.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s “Embryological House,” Venice Biennale (2002)].

3D printers, buoyant robots, multi-axis milling machines, directed insect-secretion, cellular automata, semi-autonomous bricklaying, self-assembling endoskeletons, drone weaving—it’s hard to go wrong with even the most cursory skimming of each volume, and that doesn’t even mention the essays and interviews.

[Image: “Custom forming tool mounted on the six-axis robotic arm,” via Fabricate 2014]

Download each book—from 2017, 2014, and 2011—and be prepared to lose a few days reading through them.

Infrastructural Sine Wave

[Image: As if a lighter-than-air geometric fluid became temporarily frozen between two gateways of masonry, it’s just a bridge over the Norderelbe in Hamburg, Germany; photograph by Georg Koppmann (1888) from the collection of the Hamburg Museum, via Hamburger Architektur Sommer 2015, as spotted by Wassmann Foundation].

Shaft

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Here’s another prosthetic elevator project—in fact, the reason I posted the previous one—this time around designed by architect Carles Enrich for the riverside city of Gironella, Spain.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

The elevator connects the old and new parts of town, offering ease of access to the young and elderly alike, and reopening social and economic circulation between the two halves of the city.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Built using steel, glass, and bricks, the project also blends into the existing color scheme of the city, looking like a chimney or a church steeple, a tower of roofing tiles suddenly standing alongside the city’s cliff.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Among many things, I love how unbelievably simple the project is: it’s just a rectangle, going from level A to level B. That’s it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

I’m not entirely sure why I find projects like this so fascinating, in fact, but the notion that two radically separate vertical levels can suddenly be connected by the magic of architecture is one of the most fundamental promises of construction in the first place: that, through a clever use of design skills and materials, we can create or discover new forms of circulation and unity.

[Images: Photos by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

With staircases, of course, you have more leeway for introducing expressive shifts in direction and orientation, pinching floors together, for example, or introducing elaborate curls leading from one floor to the next.

The elevator, by contrast, seems remarkably sedate.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

It’s just a box you step into, and a vertical corridor you travel within. In the photo above, it’s like a dimly lit portal peeking up from some other, deeper district of the city.

Yet the ease of connection, and the use of subtle materials to realize it, are immensely exciting for some reason, as if we are all ever just one quick design gesture away from linking parts of the world in ways they never had been previously.

Just build an elevator: a pop-up vertical corridor delivering ascension where you’d least expected it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

In any case, read more about the project over at the architect’s own website, or at ArchDaily, where I first saw the project, and check out the previous post for another elevator, while you’re at it.

Lift

[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The forthcoming (i.e. next) post will retroactively serve as an otherwise arbitrary excuse for posting this project, one of my favorites of the last few years, a kind of castellated prosthetic elevator on the island of Malta by Architecture Project.

[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The twenty-story outdoor elevator “required a certain rigour to resolve the dichotomy between the strong historic nature of the site and the demands for better access placed upon it by cultural and economic considerations,” resulting in the choice of blunt industrial materials and stylized perforations.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

As the architects describe it:

The geometric qualities of the plan echo the angular forms of the bastion walls, and the corrugated edges of the aluminium skin help modulate light as it hits the structure, emphasizing its verticality. The mesh masks the glazed lift carriages, recalling the forms of the original cage lifts, whilst providing shade and protection to passengers as they travel between the city of Valletta and the Mediterranean Sea.

Personally, I love the idea of what is, in effect, a kind of bolt-on castle, combining the language of one era—the Plug-In Cities of Archigram, say—with the aesthetics of the Knights of Malta.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In fact, it’s almost tempting to write a design brief explicitly calling for new hybridizations of these approaches: modular, prefab construction… combined with Romanesque fortification.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

An emergency stairwell spirals down between the two parallel elevator shafts, which “also reduces the visual weight of the lift structure itself and accentuates the vertical proportions of the structure,” the architects suggest and contributes to perforating the outside surface beyond merely the presence of chainlink.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In any case, it’s not a new project—like me, you probably saw this on Dezeen way back in 2013—but I was just glad to have a random excuse to post it.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

Another elevator post coming soon

Under London

[Image: Bond Street platform tunnels, courtesy Crossrail].

Crossrail—the massive, 73-mile rail project currently underway in London, including twin-bore 13-mile tunnels—has released a handful of new photos showing the underground works.

[Images: Bond Street platform tunnels, courtesy Crossrail].

I’m a sucker for images of the human form stranded amidst the shadows of massive, dimensionally abstract 必威客户端app environments, so I thought I’d post these purely as eye candy.

[Image: Bond Street platform tunnels, courtesy Crossrail].

If you want a bit more info on Crossrail itself, consider reading “London Laöcoon” or the second half of “British Countryside Generator,” both earlier on betway必威 , or simply clicking around on the Crossrail website, including a few more photographs.

(Spotted via @subbrit and Ian Visits).

London Laocoön

[Image: Machines slide beneath the streets, via Crossrail].

The Crossrail tunnels in London—for now, Europe’s largest construction project, scheduled to finish in 2018—continue to take shape, created in a “tunneling marathon under the streets of London” that aims to add 26 new miles of underground track for commuter rail traffic.

It’s London as Laocoön, wrapped in tunnel-boring machines, mechanical snakes that coil through their own hollow nests beneath the city.

[Image: Looking down through shafts into the subcity, via Crossrail].

What interested me the most in all this, however, was simply that fact that the first tunneling machine put to work in this round of excavation is called Phyllis—

[Image: Phyllis, via Crossrail].

—named after Phyllis Pearsall, widely (but incorrectly?) mythologized as the founder of the legendary A-Z book of London street maps.

There’s something very Psychogeography Lite™ in this, weaving your city together from below with a giant machine-needle named after the woman who (supposedly) first walked the streets of the capital, assembling her book of maps, as if the only logical direction to go, once you’ve mapped the surface of your city, is down, passing through those surfaces to explore larger and darker volumes of urban space.

Operation Deep Sleep: or, dormant robots at the bottom of the sea

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of lift bags being used in underwater archaeology; via NOAA].

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is hoping to implement a global infrastructure for storing mission-critical objects and payloads at the “bottom of the sea”—a kind of stationary, underwater FedEx that will release mission-critical packages for rendezvous with passing U.S. warships and UAVs.

It’s called the Upward Falling Payloads program.

The “concept,” according to DARPA, “centers on developing deployable, unmanned, distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes would then be woken up remotely when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they ‘fall upward.'” This requires innovative new technologies for “extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

As Popular Science describes it, it’s a sleeping archive of “‘upward falling’ robots that can hide on the seafloor for years [and] launch on demand.”

And you can even get involved: DARPA is currently seeking proposals for how to realize its vision for Upward Falling Payloads.

DARPA seeks proposals in three key areas for developing the program: Communications, deep ocean ‘risers’ to contain the payloads, and the actual payloads. DARPA hopes to reach technical communities that conduct deep-ocean engineering from the telecom and oil-exploration industry to the scientific community with insights into signal propagation in the water and on the seafloor.

An informative “proposer’s day” will be held on January 25, 2013, where you can learn more about the program. It seems that, just a few years from now, storing objects for at-sea retrieval will be as ordinary as receiving an email.

Briefly, it seems worth mentioning that this vision of waking things up from slumber at the bottom of the sea reads like a subplot from Pacific Rim, or like some militarized remake of the works of H.P. Lovecraft—wherein Lovecraft’s fictional Cthulhu, a monstrous and alien god, is described (by Wikipedia) as “a huge aquatic creature sleeping for eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from his slumber in an apocalyptic age.”

Only, here, it is a gigantic system of military jewelry laced across the seafloor, locked in robotic sleep until the day of its electromagnetic reawakening.

(Thanks to Brian Romans for the link!)