Thursday, January 26, 2012

How telecommunications technology affects our conceptions of space

I often think about how our conceptions of space have changed as we look deeper into the far reaches of the universe, and as satellite navigation technologies influence the way we move on the surface of the Earth.

Oliver Sacks once wrote an article about how a man blind since early childhood fared when he recovered his sight. Vision created such a profoundly different way to apprehend the world than touch and hearing alone. As Sacks explained it, when we look at a cat, we see all its constituent parts at once: the head, ears, tail, legs, torso, fur, whiskers. We see that the right kinds of bits are there in the right kind of relationship to each other and in the right proportion. It is a simultaneous way of knowing. If you had to identify what kind of animal it was by touch alone, though, how would you do it? His patient would touch each part separately, and would only know if it was a cat if, after feeling enough of them, this was the most logical conclusion. So this is a chronological way of knowing.I found this a very compelling description.

I think something similar has happened to people who now rely on navigation devices in their car, like taxi drivers. Whereas once you might have had some kind of map projection in your head, where in your mind's eye you could visualise your destination and then think of a way to get there, now it seems that you listen to the instruction and then follow it, bit by bit, just like the Sacks' patient. "In 500 metres, turn right". It's more like touching than seeing. So it produces a different conception of space: in fact a more closed-in one, where you are only aware of your immediate environment.

Perhaps this works for the much-speculated-about ability of Aboriginal people to paint or represent country from an aerial view, when they haven't seen it from the air.  It's hard for us to comprehend this because even before GPS, our way of interpreting spatial relations was based on maps with Cartesian coordinates.

So you can imagine I was very interested to see this Scandinavian project looking at the way the telegraph changed people's conceptions of space in the late 1800s. This is how they describe it:

Distant news and local opinion: How the Telegraph Affected Spatial and Temporal Horizons in Northern Scandinavia, 1850-1880

Image courtesy of CMYBacon
The electric telegraph lines constructed across Europe starting in the late 1840's profoundly changed conditions for long-distance communication in the region. This project analyses the effects of the electric telegraph on northern Scandinavia.

Focus is on the relationship between time and space in 7 newspapers from Norway, Sweden and Finland. By investigating 1) the motives behind extending telegraph lines to these regions, 2) the ideals associated with the technology itself, 3) the representation of time and space in the news and 4) the spatial and temporal references of the concept “public opinion”, the study gives a new perspective on the development of communications in this area. Using the spread of technology as a lens through which we may observe societal change, this work will produce a transnational history relating the idiosyncrasies of northern Scandinavia to the common developments affecting Europe during the second half of the 19th century.

I think this is really interesting stuff. I don't know if I would have chosen newspapers as the primary source to address the spatial/temporal - but the point about newspapers is that they will, presumably reflect public sensibilities, and the news reported will change radically as events further away become reported more quickly. So what people read will shape the boundaries of their conceptual world. Herodotos for the 19th C, and perhaps with as many marvels.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The modern ruin: trace fossils of high technology

As I've mentioned before, science fiction writers seem to be particularly good at grasping the heritage issues of the present and future.  Frequently in these stories, the decay of high technology is used as a metaphor for a postmodernish dissolution of identity. (One of my favourites in this regard is J.G. Ballard's Terminal Beach. I still have trouble seeing him as anything other than a science fiction writer).

The following comes from the short story Open Veins by British writer Simon Ings. It is an uncannily accurate description of a number of former military or space sites that I've been fortunate enough to visit.
The site bore little mark of its military past.  The hardened bunkers, the offices and barracks, had been ripped out years ago.  The radar arrays and satellite dishes had all been dismantled, leaving large, low concrete platforms, their smooth grey surfaces punctuated by rusted spars, irregular brick walls, depressions and score-marks: the tracks and spoor and burrow-mounds of artificial life. The single concrete runway was crazed and weed-lined and there were shreds of cable rotting in the verges. (Ings 1997, reprinted in Dozois (ed) 1998 p 546)
Cables or worms? Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station, ACT. Author's image.
(What's that, I hear you ask? Does he mention cable ties? Well no, but I'm sure he was thinking about them).

He could easily be describing the former Orroral Valley NASA tracking station here, a site characterised by the concrete footprints of long-gone satellite dishes and interferometry arrays, which appear smooth and featureless until you start to examine them closely. Then you see the grooves left by blades on earth-moving machinery; holes where pipes, cables and wires vanish under the floor, weathered ledges and grooves where walls once were. Ings likens these to the phenomenon known as the trace fossil: the preserved remains, not of some ancient creature, but of the impressions its activities leave in the deposit that becomes transformed into stone. They're signs, not the thing itself.  It's an appealing metaphor, to imagine the cables as polychaete worms burrowing into ground, the bolts left on the antenna footings as anchors for some floating jellyfish in its sessile phase, the hardened bunkers as coral polyps.

This flourishing fauna has come to a sudden end, ripped out and dismantled.  It's not just abandoned but actively flattened down to ground level. This level of destruction is frequently the fate of modern industrial sites, a major contrast to ancient ones which are more likely to be just abandoned. Or at least, this is argued to be one of the things that makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different. On the other hand, it's the same middle-range theory, the same taphonomy, that all archaeologists grapple with. While Ings says that his fictive site bears little mark of its military past, the signs should be there for those who know how to read them.

Ings, Simon 1998  Open Veins. In Gardner Dozois (ed) The Mammoth Book of New SF 11.  London: Robinson pp 544-558

Monday, January 16, 2012

Surviving space junk re-entry: a beginner's guide

Given how frequently space junk re-enters the atmosphere, it's surprising that there is not more information about what to do in this event. So I am putting together here a small guide just in case you happen to be in this situation.

1. Don't panic: it is highly unlikely to actually fall on YOU.
You'll have heard all the commentators saying this, but it really is true: the odds of it being YOU that is the site of impact really are extraordinarily low. In the entire history of human space exploration, there is only one recorded instance of someone being hit by space junk. According to the Centre for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) this was Lottie Williams of Oklahoma, who was hit by a piece of a Delta II rocket as she was taking a walk one day in 1996. She was unharmed. When Skylab re-entered over Western Australia in 1979, there were no claims for property damage made and no-one was hurt. There's just so much ocean, desert and ice - and this is usually where stuff lands.  There has never been a recorded re-entry over a city or town.  

The problem is, of course, that it is very difficult to predict re-entry points as there are so many variables to take into account. So it's not easy to be prepared.

But let's just say you are likely to be in the debris footprint area. Here's what you can do.

2.  Secure your pets or animals
It's just like fireworks: animals don't like it very much. The fragments may be traveling at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour as they come screaming into the upper atmosphere (which then slows them down until they fall vertically). The pieces are compressing the air into pressure waves and the energy builds up until it creates an exploding sound or sonic boom. The sonic booms can be frightening for humans too. Take the same precautions for household pets that you might on New Year's Eve. Keep them inside if possible, and remain calm around them. Don't use a chain or slip collar to restrain them. Some recommend playing them classical music (or something else soothing) as a distraction. There are many websites where you can find out more about this.

3.  Do not touch fragments of re-entered spacecraft.
In its journey through the atmosphere, the spacecraft ,or the pieces of it, are subject to extreme heating caused the friction of the atmosphere, through which it may be travelling at hypervelocity. Depending on the materials, some may still be burning when they land. Even when cool, there may be jagged and sharp edges that easily cut you.

Moreover, there are many toxic or radioactive elements that may be part of the fuel, the structures, or the experiments flown on board the spacecraft. If you handle them without knowing what you are doing, they may poison you. These include the fuel hydrazine and the metal beryllium. Let the authorities deal with it.

You're probably pretty safe with a titanium or steel pressure spheres, the most common spacecraft part to survive re-entry. However, despite titanium's traditional reputation as an inert metal, there is some recent evidence that the corrosion products of titanium may be harmful.  Don't take unnecessary risks.

4.  Be ready for fire
If burning fragments are falling all around you, it's not impossible that one may land on your house or the building you're in and set it alight. And when you go outside, there may be more. Do what you would normally expect to do in such an emergency: call 000 (or the fire department in your country); make sure you know where everyone is; evacuate the building (it will be safer outside) and do not go back inside. If you have a fire plan, put it into effect. This may if course involve removing animals or releasing them.

5. Notify the relevant authorities
There's a few people who need to know. Your local, regional or state government may have to play a role in coordinating relief, or recovery of debris, so let them know. It's also a matter of international relations. The country it lands in will have to notify and communicate with the launching state about recovering fragments (these are used to analyse what happened) and perhaps to talk about compensation. If your country has a space agency, they also need to know.

Debris is often found months or years later; and when it's not a high profile re-entry like Skylab, UARS or Phobos Grunt, it may not be obvious which re-entry it came from or who owned it. It's up to the government to find out. (Dr Space Junk has provided this service on occasion).

6. Assist in the scientific analysis
Your experience can be very useful. The colour of fragments falling through the sky tells us something about their temperature and sometimes what they are made of; the number and timing of falls helps map the debris footprint; the size and nature of the fragments may indicate what part of the spacecraft they came from and how it broke apart. While you most certainly shouldn't touch recently fallen material, or move it, you can take photographs and GPS coordinates, and estimate the dimensions of the pieces. What you see and experience can have some value when put together with information gathered from other sources.

7.  Be aware of the legal situation
There are two international conventions that you should be aware of.  One is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which imposes liability for damage caused by space junk on the launching state, and the other is the Space Liability Treaty 1972, which requires that the launching state pay compensation for any damage caused.  I don't know, however, if that includes emotional damage - there is some latitude for interpretation. Keeping in mind safety considerations, if you or your property have been harmed by falling space debris, document it as you would for insurance purposes.

The other critical part of the Outer Space Treaty is that the re-entered material is still the property of the launching state, so you cannot sell it on eBay. In the ideal situation, the launching state will try to recover material for analysis. Be co-operative and don't try to pass fakes off as real space junk - they'll know the difference!

OK. This is very rough and ready, but it's a start. One of the sources for these recommendations is the experience of Western Australians when Skylab re-entered in 1979. It was inspired by my series of #Reentrytips on Twitter.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Star Voyager: Exploring Space on Screen at ACMI. Review by guest blogger Dan North

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s exhibition Star Voyager: Exploring Space On Screen is a celebration of the historical and future relationship of space exploration and the moving image. Compiling a vast collection of film and archives from the late 1800s until present day, the otherworldly exhibition tells the tale of art informing science and in turn, science informing art.

Descending the stairs into darkness, one arrives amid the moving pictures and parlour tricks of the early 20th century. It is a world of fantasy and magic where voyagers to Georges Méliès' moon bring their top hats and umbrellas to be shot from a canon into space. Mars is host to an array of space operas, involving benevolent giants, and is home to the elaborate constructivist metropolis of the mysterious and beautiful Queen Aelita

Alongside these fantastic voyages and tricks of the eye are the writings of rocket pioneers Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, documenting the early beginnings of real space travel.

With the first occurrence of a countdown to zero before launch, the startlingly accurate 1929 film Frau im Mond by Fritz Lang is considered the first serious portrayal of space exploration. Lang employed rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth as technical advisor to provide an authentic as possible illustration of multi-stage rocket travel. A scene depicting the crew staring back at earth evokes a similar reaction the Apollo 8 astronauts would have had almost 40 years later as they saw their first earthrise. Despite scientific inaccuracies (such as the moon having a perfectly breathable atmosphere) the film was considered so accurate that the Nazi government confiscated Lang’s research and model rockets. A young Wernher von Braun was to be so inspired by Frau im Mond that he painted the film’s logo on early V-2s.

Moving on through other films and artifacts, a Russian film from the 1950s depicts what life on a soviet space station would be like. It’s a strange mash-up of antiquated phone exchange and a submarine - however space is not without it’s creature comforts -  everyone has an apartment with a view of the earth. Even your pet-comrade cat sits oddly purring at the window as the stars drift past. The film is presented as a sober documentary - this was to be the future for the USSR. This fictional Russian space station with its rotating wheel design was to be influential on Stanley Kubrick when thinking of his space hotel seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The exhibition design by Minifie van Schaik Architects makes strong reference to the visual vocabulary of real spacecraft. In orbit around walls of gold mylar you’ll find satellite-like pods displaying rare footage of cosmonauts and astronauts, John F Kennedy’s ‘We choose to the go the moon!’ speech at Rice University, unedited footage of Neil Armstrong climbing tentatively down the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module (you’ve likely seen it a thousand times before, but unedited and without soundtrack or sentimental narrative, the raw video of that boot planting on the lunar soil is still quite awe-inspiring). There’s newsreel footage of astronaut poster-boy John Glenn and various depictions of the space race in film - Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and Space Cowboys

The space race was also the era of the vinyl record. Curators Emma McRae and Sarah Tutton appear to have collected every space related album cover imaginable from Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet to the soundtrack of Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Unique to the exhibition is the short film On Mars 3D. It is too short. You want to see more. The Martian valleys and mountains look incredible and a little unbelievable. Is this really what the surface of Mars looks like? It makes Tatooine look boring. Planetary astronomy was never so cool.

Down a corridor reminiscent of the Discovery set from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (there’s a suspended model of the Discovery in there) you’ll find costumes, props and models from Forbidden Planet, Star Trek, Total Recall and Moon amongst others. Contrasting with their real-life, used-in-actual-space counterparts, you get a sense of how science has influenced film and vice versa. It’s definitely a reciprocal relationship.

Amongst all the relatively familiar imagery, one exhibit is particularly fascinating for it’s unusual visceral qualities; presenting the smell and the sound of our own star, the sun. Eerie and absolutely alien, artists Joyce Hinterding and David Haines have simulated what we could never possibly experience- a solar scratch and sniff.

The overall effect is a montage of original artifacts, props, film, and photographs- an artistic and scientific orgy of everything that is great about imagining or actually going into outer space. Highly recommended.

Star Voyager is on at ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne, until January 29.

Dan North is a Sydney-based architect. He is also an amateur astronomer with a life long interest in the history of space exploration and set and prop design for science fiction films.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Cable ties, the taphonomy of plastics, and the modern world

Truly I need a new life. I'm starting to notice cable ties everywhere. I was waiting at a bus stop last week when I spotted a broken cable tie in the dirt, my eye now being attuned to the characteristic L-shape. I picked it up and took it home (unlike other kinds of artefact, those of the contemporary past are usually 'rubbish'. There is no law against souveniring them). I think there may have been a construction site nearby, but my memory is a little hazy on this point.
Image courtesy of 4Cabling

Examining this orphan cable tie was interesting. The un-cut-off end suggested that it was a very long one indeed, but part of it was missing, as the stub was neither long enough or flexible enough to curve around to meet the opposing break. However, on the remaining length, there is no sign of a manufacturer's label or a patent number. This suggests that it belongs to a later period where cable ties are a generic technology, rather than proprietary.

The wear on the cable tie suggested that it had been lying around for some time; they are pretty robust little beasties, after all. I might interpret it as trampling wear, and abrasion from the stony/gravelly surfaces of the dirt and road where I found it. The flat surfaces are scratched and the smooth edges are roughened and squashed a little.  I don't recollect noticing this on the Orroral Valley cable ties, which were located in lovely soft sandy silt. Clearly this is another feature that needs recording in future fieldwork. This makes me think that it might be useful to examine a bit more closely the ways in which plastics deform and deteriorate. A taphonomy of plastics.

There's very little literature specifically about cable ties that I have been able to track down as yet, although I have no doubt that I shall find more once I get deeper into the technical journals. However, this is for me exactly the justification for taking an archaeological approach: the documents that tell the story of how they became such a ubiquitous feature of everyday life do not exist. No-one is, for example, going on a hiking trip, or building a house, and choosing to focus on the role of cable ties in what they write or photograph about their activities.

They're not just a useful string or wire substitute though - artists and crafters are using cable ties to make all sorts of fabulous things. That might have to be the subject of a separate post.

I'll be talking about cable ties at the workshop 'That was then, this is now' in Sydney on the 16th-17th February. How they'll thank me!