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Sunday, December 23, 2012
Reading List: Time Machines
- Greenberg, Stanley.
Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2011.
Should our civilisation collapse due to folly, shortsightedness,
and greed, and an extended dark age ensue, in which not only our
painfully-acquired knowledge is lost, but even the memory of what
we once knew and accomplished forgotten, certainly
among the most impressive of the achievements of our lost age
when discovered by those who rise from the ruins to try again will be
the massive yet delicate apparatus of our great physics experiments.
Many, buried deep in the Earth, will survive the chaos of the dark
age and beckon to pioneers of the next age of discovery just as
the tombs of Egypt did to those in our epoch. Certainly, when
the explorers of that distant time first illuminate the great
detector halls of our experiments, they will answer, as
did when asked by
“Can you see anything?”,
“Yes, wonderful things.”
This book is a collection of photographs of these wonderful things,
made by a master photographer and printed in a large-format
(26×28 cm) coffee-table book. We visit particle
accelerators in Japan, the United States, Canada, Switzerland,
Italy, and Germany; gravitational wave detectors in the U.S. and
Italy; neutrino detectors in Canada, Japan, the U.S., Italy,
and the South Pole; and the 3000 km² cosmic ray observatory
This book is mostly about the photographs, not the physics or
engineering: the photographs are masterpieces. All are
reproduced in monochrome, which emphasises the beautiful symmetries
of these machines without the distractions of candy-coloured cable
bundles. There is an introduction by particle physicist David C.
Cassidy which briefly sketches the motivation for building these
cathedrals of science and end notes which provide additional
details of the hardware in each photograph, but you don't pay the
substantial price of the book for these. The photographs are
obviously large format originals (nobody could achieve this kind of
control of focus and tonal range with a convenient to use
camera) and they are printed exquisitely. The screen is so
fine I have difficulty evaluating it even with a high power
magnifier, but it looks to me like the book was printed using not just
a simple halftone screen but with ink in multiple shades of
The result is just gorgeous. Resist the temptation to casually flip from
image to image—immerse yourself in each of them and work out
the perspective. One challenge is that it's often difficult to determine
the scale of what you're looking at from a cursory glance at the
picture. You have to search for something with which you're familiar
until it all snaps into scale; this is sometimes difficult and I found
the disorientation delightful and ultimately enlightening.
You will learn nothing about physics from this book. You will learn nothing
about photography apart from a goal to which to aspire as you master the art.
But you will see some of the most amazing creations of the human mind, built in
search of the foundations of our understanding of the universe we inhabit,
photographed by a master and reproduced superbly, inviting you to linger
on every image and wish you could see these wonders with your own eyes.