Category Archives: the wonders of science

Where you fall to if you’re not tied down

Underwater footage from The Wild Blue Yonder

Imagine someone pays for you to go to the Antarctic and make a documentary. Dramatic, beautiful vistas, as pure as the mathematics of air flow and crystallization, which your viewers won’t have seen for themselves. Extraordinary cold. Cliffs of ice. Danger. Explorers enduring unimaginable hardship in the name of science. Penguins. What a nightmare. Where could you possibly start? How could you avoid all the above clichés without ignoring everything that is recognizably Antarctic?

By force of character. That, at least, seems to be Werner Herzog‘s method, Continue reading Where you fall to if you’re not tied down


On Friday, when Channel 4 News was over and there was nothing else to watch before we went to bed, as usual, early and sober, L decided to burn some incense, something she does more for entertainment than for smell or ambience. First she lit a disc of charcoal from the all-faith religious supplies shop opposite the Round Chapel (where she has also sourced Powerful Indian ‘Do As I Say’ Spiritual Bath & Floor Wash). These discs come in a silver-wrapped stack, and when you light one side a line of sparks marches excitingly across the surface; otherwise the charcoal remains as it was, a precisely formed matt black biscuit, but we believe that, within, it has started to burn.

She put a big lump of incense into the hollow on top of the disc, and I thought, as I always do, of M’s Italian grandmother collecting pine resin for the church, and how he found some resiny bark in Snowdonia that we burned.

Soon it was giving off smoke, and soon the smoke formed a thin, opaque, white column rising dead straight and fast from a turbulent shroud on the upper part of the resin. We gazed at it from close up, exclaiming in wonder at the elegance of this convection made visible. I said this showed how easy it would be to convince someone who didn’t know better that if you could make this happen, you could also talk to spirits, to the dead. L thought it was as if we had turned the flat into a club. She looked across the room and saw that its volume was evenly filled with haze. I got up and took the batteries out of the smoke alarm. Looking down the landing, through the backlit haze, I thought about possible associations of this underwater light: fire, clubs, a film set shot this way to create a feeling of danger, of mystery, of an underworld.

On Sunday morning we were in James Turrell’s Deer Shelter in Yorkshire Sculpture Park; S almost comprehensively defying a sign outside that had suggested that this was a place for quiet contemplation and requested, among other things, that people not eat, drink or light fires, and keep their children under control. It’s a square room with a doorless entrance and a concrete bench running around the walls, which are painted white. It’s reverberant. It’s like a faith-independent chapel or mosque. Eight metres up there is a square hole in the ceiling. The surround of the hole is evidently made of plate metal, as you can’t from any angle see the inner surface of the hole; all you can see is the slightly stained ceiling and then the sky. There’s no gap, no boundary zone; just the ceiling with a square of sky in it.

The sky yesterday morning was a luminous blue, which reminded me, as such skies always do, of the strangely luminous blue skies I saw in Greece; which reminded me of backlit frosted perspex, with unnaturally creamy, high-contrast clouds floating in front. The brightness of the sky was nicely balanced with the brightness of the ceiling: you could take them both in at the same time, so this couldn’t play at being Plato’s cave;
nature didn’t blind me, nor did an imagined “beyond”, the artificial world wasn’t gloomy. It made me think of trompe-l’oeil ceilings, of blue-painted domes, of the games you play with yourself to see how far you can go towards believing that they might be real. Could this square of blue be fake? If I had thought so I would have looked for scratches, for uneven lighting, for a surface discoloured by scorching, or dead insects, or dried scum from a leak, the things that tell you how old a streetlight is, or for fluorescent tubes whose colours don’t match or that flicker. But there was none of that to be seen. The sky is a top-class, self-repairing diffuser. Still, I thought that I might simply be looking at a clever illusion rather than gazing into infinity. But I wasn’t gazing into infinity anyway; just into a volume of scattered light a few miles thick.

There’s no escaping perception. Earlier in the week I had written to D, who is an art academic, in the hope that he would help me clarify what I think about art; in the email I debated with myself, as far as my poor understanding of such things allows, if there can be anything outside discourse. I’ve always been very fond of this picture:

What about the night? I’m sure it’s not too hard to get into the sculpture park after hours, the kind of thing a now somewhat exploded group of us used to enjoy doing, and look up through Turrell’s square into the depths of the universe. That made me think of Olbers’ paradox (not that I could remember its name, but put “paradox night sky stars full” into Google and, praise be to Wikipedia, there it is): if there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and hundreds of trillions of galaxies in the universe, why is a clear night sky mostly black? Shouldn’t it be a uniform blaze of starlight, with stars near and far crowding out any darkness? If there’s a convincing answer to this, it’s not one that I understand.

Atmospherics. Chapels. Contemplation. Science. Fakery. But no beyond. No prayer. And art? Is any of this art?