Anthropogenic Plastiglomerates

Characteristics of the two types of plastiglomerate. (A) In situ plastiglomerate wherein molten plastic is adhered to the surface of a basalt flow. Field book is 18 cm long. (B) Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments. (C) Plastic amygdales in a basalt flow. (D) Large in situ plastiglomerate fragment. Adhered molten plastic was found 15 cm below the surface. Note the protected vegetated location.

Recognition of increasing plastic debris pollution over the last several decades has led to investigations of the imminent dangers posed to marine organisms and their ecosystems, but very little is known about the preservation potential of plastics in the rock record. As anthropogenically derived materials, plastics are astonishingly abundant in oceans, seas, and lakes, where they accumulate at or near the water surface, on lake and ocean bottoms, and along shorelines. The burial potential of plastic debris is chiefly dependent on the material’s density and abundance, in addition to the depositional environment. On Kamilo Beach on the island of Hawaii a new “stone” formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris. The material, herein referred to as “plastiglomerate,” is divided into in situ and clastic types that were distributed over all areas of the beach. Agglutination of natural sediments to melted plastic during campfire burning has increased the overall density of plastiglomerate, which inhibits transport by wind or water, thereby increasing the potential for burial and subsequent preservation. This anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the informal Anthropocene epoch.

According to the geologic timescale, we are currently living in the Holocene epoch. However, Crutzen and Stoermer proposed the term “Anthropocene” in the year 2000 A.D. to represent the period of time between the latter half of the 18th century and the present day. Although other workers have considered the onset of this informal epoch to have occurred at slightly different times, researchers agree that the Anthropocene is a time span marked by human interaction with Earth’s biophysical system. Geological evidence used in supporting this assertion comes from Holocene ice cores and soil profiles. For example, methane concentrations measured in ice cores display an increase of CH4, which contrasts with the expected decline in CH4 at that time, based on the orbital-monsoon cycle theory. Ruddiman and Thomson propose in 2001 A.D. that this anomalous rise in CH4 can be linked to early agricultural practices in Eurasia. In addition, an increase in atmospheric CO2, as determined from ice cores, was explained by Ruddiman in 2003 as a result of early forest clearance.

Atmospheric compositions and soil management practices are only two indicators of anthropogenic activity, but relatively few examples of solid, human-made materials are preserved in the sediment record. Even rarer are items that are correlatable on a global scale. Given the ubiquity of non-degradable plastic debris on our planet, the possibility of their global preservation is strong. This study presents the first rock type composed partially of plastic material that has strong potential to act as a global marker horizon in the Anthropocene.

Based on a text by Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, Kelly Jazvac
Published in The Geological Society of America.

Lunar Archaeology

In 1969, the third man to walk on the moon, astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., also became the first lunar archaeologist. As part of the Apollo 12 crew, he examined an earlier robotic lander, Surveyor 3, and retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware, giving NASA scientists back on Earth the evidence they needed to study how human-made materials fared in the lunar environment.


Conrad examines the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft, which landed on the moon on April 19, 1967. He retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware. Credit: NASA, Johnson Space Center

Like all astronauts who have visited the moon, Conrad also left behind artifacts of his own. Some were symbolic, such as the U.S. flag. Others were prosaic: cameras, dirty laundry and bags of human waste. NASA’s list of Apollo-related items left on the surface is 18 single-spaced pages. It ranges from geology hammers to earplug wrappers, seismographs to sleep hammocks. Even golf balls belonging to Alan Shepard, who managed some practice during Apollo 14, remain on the moon, though they appear to have escaped the notice of the list makers. All told, six manned landings, two manned orbital missions, over a dozen robotic landings and more than a dozen more crash sites offer signs of a multinational human presence on and around the moon. Each item left behind may seem like a small scrap for a man, but together they offer a giant look at mankind.

“These sites are time capsules,” says Beth O’Leary, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. They host valuable artifacts for archaeologists and anthropologists who want to study humanity’s growing space heritage. Failed instruments at lunar landing sites, for example, might reveal the engineering or management missteps behind them, the same way the sinking of a ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers. Archaeologists might even want to study the DNA of microbes in the astronauts’ waste for clues to the diet and health of these early pioneers. “People’s idea is that archaeologists are interested in 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago,” O’Leary says, “but here we’re talking about the modern past.”

The effort may not sound urgent. The moon has almost no air, water or geological activity to corrode or otherwise damage artifacts, but a new generation of missions are headed there and they boost the risk that someone or something will interfere with existing sites. The recent robotic landing by the Chinese National Space Agency, the first controlled landing since the 1976 Luna 24 mission, signals a renewal of sophisticated lunar exploration. This time around, more countries will be involved, as will commercial entities. Private organizations are in hot pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers cash rewards for achieving technical milestones, one of which is landing near the Apollo sites.

O’Leary’s interest goes back to 1999, when a graduate student in a seminar she was teaching asked if American preservation laws applied to artifacts left on the moon. O’Leary didn’t know, so she looked into the question, soon discovering that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevents nations from making sovereignty claims in space. It does not address, however, the preservation of property that nations have left behind. O’Leary persuaded NASA to fund her research into the topic, and published what she calls the Lunar Legacy Project. She and colleagues created an inventory of the Apollo 11 landing site and began lobbying for its formal protection. By then, private companies such as Lockheed Martin were already discussing taking samples from other lunar sites for study. The hardware itself still belonged to the governments that put it there (the United States and Russia, the primary heir of the Soviet space program), but that would be little consolation if a modern mission ran over the first human footprints on the moon, for example, or moved an object without documenting its original location.

O’Leary helped lobby California and New Mexico, states with strong ties to the space program, to list the Apollo 11 objects in their state historic registers. The move offered symbolic protection and attracted attention to the problem but didn’t do anything to solve it. There was, and still is, nothing to stop new visitors from interfering with objects already in space.  Vandalism probably isn’t the biggest concern, but even unintentional interference is worrisome. Landing near existing sites could damage the sites, in the case of a crash or from the spray of lunar dust and rocket exhaust. “My concern would be that they miss,” says Roger Launius, senior curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “If they miss by just a little bit, they could end up landing on top of the site.” And well-meaning archaeologists, though guided by the cultural legacy laws and professional codes wherever they work, do destroy part of what they study as a matter of routine.


Lunar Regolith 70050 sample collected from the moon by the Apollo 17 mission

O’Leary would like the moon sites preserved as long as possible so that future archaeologists, perhaps with more sophisticated instruments and less damaging techniques, can examine them for clues about the human story of the landings. Scientists and engineers also have an interest in preserving the sites: They want to study how equipment left on the moon ages, like they did with the samples Conrad took from Surveyor 3. They also want to resolve questions about moon rocks that couldn’t be answered the first time around, including the size of a patch of orange volcanic glass discovered by geologist Harrison Schmitt during the Apollo 17 mission.


Apollo 17 troctolite 76535. This sample has a mass of 156 grams and is up to 5 centimeters across. NASA/Johnson Space Center photograph S73-19456.

Abstract of article by Lucas Laursen on

Trash Antiquity

Leonid Tsvetkov grabs recyclable materials out of dumpsters and trash bins—plastic bottles, Styrofoam take-out packages, cardboard egg cartoons, soda cans and more—puts them in concrete casts, and then leaves them on and around ancient Roman monuments, carvings, and inscriptions. So far, he says, nobody’s noticed them. Can you?

Leonid Tsvetkov

Leonid Tsvetkov

The idea came to him while, as a fellow at The American Academy in Rome, he was exploring the intersections of history, material culture, and consumption as they affect social and physical landscapes from antiquity until today. In his art studies, Tsvetkov realized that much of what we consider to be “artifacts” were trash in antiquity.  Though egg cartons aren’t likely to be considered treasure any time soon, Tsvetkov’s work makes you think twice before sending something to the landfill.  You never know, your old stuff could be a tourist attraction in a couple millennia.

Leonid Tsvetkov


Between 1987 and 1995, archaeologists from the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona systematically excavated, hand-sorted, measured, and recorded thirty tons of contents from fifteen landfills located across North America — from California to Toronto and from the deserts of Arizona to the everglades of Florida. The information that resulted from these digs was unexpected. In contrast to all of the concern directed at fast food packaging and disposable diapers, the archaeological data demonstrated that both items together accounted for less than 2 percent of landfill volume within refuse deposited over the last ten years. Even more surprisingly, because of industry-wide “light-weighting” — that is, making the same form of item but with less resin — plastic grocery bags had become thinner and more crushable to the point that 100 plastic bags consumed less space inside a landfill than 20 paper bags. If all three items at the center of public concern had been banned and were not replaced by anything, the garbage archaeologists were certain that landfill managers would not have noticed the difference.

At the opposite end of the contents’ spectrum were materials that occupied large portions of landfill space but received little public attention. Construction/demolition debris (C/D) was one. Because of definitional issues, C/D was not even included in the EPA’s national estimates of the refuse that goes to MSW (municipal solid waste, or standard community refuse) landfills. Like the EPA, the Garbage Project tried to avoid the issue of C/D in MSW landfills. In fact, the Garbage Project’s one sampling bias was an attempt to avoid areas where C/D was concentrated because it could easily disable expensive drilling equipment. Nevertheless, C/D accounted for 20 percent or more of excavated MSW by volume and was the second largest category of landfilled materials recovered by the Garbage Project. The largest category occupying landfill space was paper. This was true for refuse buried in the 1980s as well as for refuse dating as far back as the 1950s because in most landfills paper seemed to biodegrade very slowly. As a result, by volume nearly half of all of the refuse excavated by the Garbage Project has been newspapers, magazines, packaging paper and non-packaging paper, such as computer printouts and phonebooks.

Not long after the Garbage Project’s first reports of its landfill digs, the energy directed at passing bans was largely redirected toward “curbside recycling.” A number of communities began placing emphasis on reuse and recycling programs for C/D. Paper recycling promotions often stressed the need to keep paper out of landfills because it didn’t biodegrade as quickly as once hoped. An association of States Attorneys General determined from dig data that several products which claimed to be “biodegradable,” including some brands of disposable diapers and plastic garbage bags, did not biodegrade in landfills, and the false advertising of these products was eradicated. All of this was evidence that some crucial views of garbage held by policy planners, the media, and the public had changed — and that garbology had been validated as a new kind of archaeology.


For as long as there have been archaeologists, there have been guesses about what these behavioral scientists would discover if they were to analyze their own society’s refuse. While often humorous, such speculations are, in fact, based on a serious rationale: If archaeologists can learn important information about extinct societies from patterns in ancient garbage, then archaeologists should be able to learn important information about contemporary societies from patterns in fresh garbage. The pieces of pottery, broken stone tools, and cut animal bones which traditional archaeologists dig out of old refuse middens provide a surprisingly detailed view of past lifeways, just as all the precisely labeled packages and the food debris and the discarded clothing and batteries in modern middens reveal the intimate details of our lives today. If indeed there are useful things to learn from our garbage — things which can enrich human lives and minimize the undesirable environmental consequences of the industrialized world — why wait until we are all dead and buried to find them out? Garbology now! At least that is what Dr. Bill Rathje and a group of students thought when they founded the Garbage Project at the U of AZ in the Spring of 1973. Today, Rathje and the Project, including co-director Wilson Hughes who was one of the founding students, are still thinking along these same lines.

Over the last 23 years the Garbage Project has literally immersed itself in fresh refuse placed out for collection and in materials exhumed from landfills. Fresh discards are recorded in order to study food waste, what people eat and drink, recycling behaviors, household hazardous wastes, packaging discards, and even the relation between fluoride and tooth decay. In 1987, when the Garbage Project added the excavation of landfills to its research repertoire, investigations focused on the composition of landfilled wastes, the rate of breakdown of these materials within landfills, the contribution of residential hazardous wastes to the leachate (or fluids) which leak out of MSW landfills, and the impact of various waste reduction strategies — recycling, composting, “source reduction” (which just means “using less stuff” in the first place) — on what wastes are landfilled. Today, the Garbage Project’s fresh refuse records, compiled from the long-term ongoing study in Tucson, AZ, and short-term studies in five other cities, form a one-of-a-kind database which currently encompasses 23 years of time depth.
Abstracts of an article originally appeared as Rathje, WL. The archaeology of us. In Ciegelski, C.(ed.), Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future–1997 (New York, Encyclopaedia Britannica), 158-177, 1996.

Today is the Tomorrow of Yesterday

Pierre Bismuth
Today is the Tomorrow of Yesterday-Relaps, 2008

Pierre Bismuth

In Today Is The Tomorrow of Yesterday celebrity magazine covers are treated as precious fragments from a long lost civilization.  The artist-archaeologist reconstructs, as it were, selected documents of pop culture as if they were shards of ancient pottery.  The completed collages, with their cracks and gaps and off-center placement, bear the traces of this mock restoration process.

Maarten Vanden Eynde
IKEA Vase, 2010

Maarten Vanden Eynde - Ikea Vase

Maarten Vanden Eynde - Ikea Vase

Ikea-Vase is an amphora-shaped vase made of reconstruction paste and incorporating the fragments of an Ikea mug. The work questions the ability of historical artefacts to truly impress on us what life in an inherently unknowable past would have been like –and in the process points out the fallacious impressions a future archaeologist might conceivably formulate on our present based on its surviving remnants. -Regina Papachlimitzou-

Ikea-Vase (an amphora-shaped vase made of reconstruction paste and incorporating the fragments of an Ikea mug) question the ability of historical artefacts to truly impress on us what life in an inherently unknowable past would have been like –and in the process point out out the fallacious impressions a future archaeologist might conceivably formulate on our present based on its surviving remnants. – See more at:

Maarten Vanden Eynde - Ikea Vase

Contemporary Cavepaintings

Maarten Vanden Eynde
Contemporary Cavepaintings, Los Angeles, 2007

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings8

The first manifestation of human presence and expression of individual touch, was the creation of hand-marks; negative prints of hands, left behind in caves or mountain slopes by spitting white chalk over ones own hands put against the wall. This territorial behavior or expression of individuality is transformed into graffiti and tags in modern urban environment. I used the same iconography and re-introduced the use of basic signatures to delimit territory and preserve personal presence forever.
I looked for modern caves in the city, like bridges and abandoned parking lots, to mark them by spraying white paint over my hands on the wall. This leaves an empty space, a negative being, a void of humanity. A trace of presence is left throughout the city. It questions originality and authenticity and visualizes the quest for eternal fame in the city of the famous.

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings2

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings3

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings4

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings5

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings7

Maarten Vanden Eynde cavedrawings9

In his book, The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Dale Guthrie overturns many of the standard interpretations of the ancient cave paintings of the Paleolithic era. Among other things, Guthrie argues that many of the cave paintings were done by children and have similarities with present-day graffiti. Here is an illustration and short excerpt from the book:


Missing Fingers in Art: Ritual, Disease, Frostbite, or Kids Playing?

“Many hand images in the French Gargas-Tibran cave complex and Cosquer and in Maltravieso Cave in Spain appear to have missing fingers or other malformations. These “disfigured” hands have fueled discussions for the last 100 years. Groenen (1987) has provided a review of this debate. The central issue, of course, is that virtually all apparent mutilations are also replicable by simply contorting fingers in the stenciled hand (as one does in shadow art). But many people still insist that these represent real ritual amputations.

“More recent speculation on possible causes of these disfigured hands has focused on Raynaud’s disease, in which capillaries fail to respond normally by flushing with warm blood when hands or feet get cold. I find this explanation unconvincing, because Raynaud’s disease is seldom expressed in young men (Larson 1996), and the hands with the “missing fingers” are mainly those of young males. Individuals who experience extreme winter temperatures, like cross-country dog-mushers, winter mountain climbers, and so on, do sometimes suffer frozen tissue. Yet, in Alaska, certainly among the coldest well-populated places on earth, complete loss of individual fingers due to freezing is rare. I have never seen one case. Nor have I seen any in my travels in northern Siberia. This is despite the fact that many residents in both places have had multiple experiences of frostbite.

“These Paleolithic images will, no doubt, continue to puzzle and prompt speculation. Having played with making spatter stencils of my own hands, I find the ease with which one can replicate the “maimed-hand look” has left me very convinced that all, or virtually all, were done in fun, especially when we recall that these are largely young people’s hands and appreciate the quick, almost careless, casualness with which they were made. This phenomenon of altering the hand stencil patterns by finger contortion is also well documented from a number of other cultures.”


Michael Johansson
Some Assembly Required – Crescent scale 1:1, 2007

michael johansson

‘As a child I was fascinated by building models. I remember breaking off the pieces from the surrounding plastic sticks that were leftover from the casting process and subsequently gluing the pieces back together in the right order by following the instruction manual. A real bicycle is turned back into a space of imagination’.

Toys ‘r’ us – dinghy scale 1:1, 2006

michael johansson

‘A boat and related equipment are joined together in a welded metal frame. everything is painted in a unifying plastic layer to resemble the surface of a model kit. the real boat is transformed into a model of itself, and its original purpose has given way to something else’. Michael Johansson also made other household equipment like a bed, hairdryer and lawn mower. He even made a diving suit!

Some Assembly Required – Hard Hat Diving, 2011

michael johansson

This DIY art makes me think of the DIY trophies of ply beech wood from the designers of Big-Game.

big-game designers

But they also exist in the regular urban design jungle as cardboard models.

cardboard trophies

Readymade Made Already?

Sung Kug Kim
Bi-King, 2010

Sung Kug Kim Bi-King

Sung Kug Kim Bi-King2

– Artist unknown


– Artist very known

Pablo Picasso
Bull’s Head, 1942

Picasso Bull’s Head

The first readymade was made by Marcel Duchamp in 1913. In his Paris studio he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down onto a stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. “I enjoyed looking at it,” he said. “Just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” According to André Breton and Paul Éluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, a readymade is “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”

Most of his early readymades have been lost or discarded, but years later he commissioned reproductions of many of them…..

Marcel Duchamp
Bicycle Wheel (Roue de bicyclette)
, 1913

Marcel duchamp - bicycle wheel

Digital Doomsday

Leonid Tsvetkov

leonid tsvetkov

Remnants of our digital discoveries are being dumped worldwide by the millions. After stripping off some valuable metal parts, the left overs are worthless. So called ‘Motherboards’, the main circuit board of a computer have a short life expectancy since new chips are developed with singularitarian speed*. When exposed to a variety of chemical liquids they become alive again. Never before I’ve seen so much beauty in discarded trash. Oil refineries and skyscrapers surround city grids which are overrun by unknown fungi and bacteria. The Russian artist Leonid Tsvetkov creates landscapes which could become ours in a not so distant future, or as he describes it himself: ‘My work focuses on reshaping cultural waste and exploration of social and physical processes. I am interested in the moments where the hard edge geometry of the city becomes organic or there random activity begins to take a highly organized form’.

leonid tsvetkov

(*) Technological singularity refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such an intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which the future becomes difficult to understand or predict. Nevertheless, proponents of the singularity typically anticipate such an event to precede an “intelligence explosion”, wherein superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds. The term was coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. The concept is popularized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil and it is expected by proponents to occur around 2045.

leonid tsvetkov

leonid tsvetkov

Christal Cave

Roger Hiorns
Seizure, 2008


In his latest installation, “Seizure”, British artist Roger Hiorns has turned the idea of sculpture inside out. Rather than present a sculpture inside an architectural space, he’s turned every surface of the architectural space into sculpture. Mixing installation art and chemistry, he’s taken an entire abandoned apartment near London’s Elephant & Castle and transformed it into a gemstone. Covering the inside with blue copper sulphate crystals, he’s created an other-worldly, mineralized, glinting mirror of an everyday apartment. Jewels literally glowing from the ceiling and lining the floors…

The scale and production of “Seizure” is ambitious. After reinforcing the walls and ceiling and covering them in plastic sheeting, 80,000 litres of a copper sulphate solution was poured in from a hole in the ceiling. After a few weeks the temperature of the solution fell and the crystals began to grow. The remaining liquid was pumped back out and sent for special chemical recycling.


‘Caves are the earliest forms of dwelling and crystal caves do occur naturally in the form of salt and gypsum caves,’ Roger Hiorns says. ‘And in a way this project is converting a concrete modernist building into a cave. The work isn’t about architecture but there is that element of architectural reversion about it. Plus I am originally from Birmingham, so, for me, being surrounded by concrete is natural.’


Encased in ice-cooled orange suits, scientists explore the Cave of Crystals, discovered a thousand feet (304 meters) below Naica, Mexico, in 2000.

chrystal caves

Simon Ruehle
O.T., 2005 (speakers, radio)

simon ruehle

Technological Evolution

Charley Reijnders
Evolution, 2009

charley reijnders evolution

charley reijnders evolution

Like an old fashioned explorer Charley Reijnders wondered around on her self invented ‘Island of Products’ where a remarkable evolution took place after the disappearance of their human creators. Without any interference the new mechanical species evolved from the discarded mass consumer products of a long gone past. In a sketchbook she tried to capture all this new marvels of evolution.

charley reijnders sketchbook

charley reijnders evolution

According to Ray Kurzweil, the line between humans and machines will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start upgrading themselves with cybernetic implants. These implants will greatly enhance human cognitive and physical abilities, and allow direct interface between humans and machines.

‘Once life takes hold on a planet, we can consider the emergence of technology as inevitable. The ability to expand the reach of one’s physical capabilities, not to mention mental facilities, through technology is clearly useful for survival. Technology has enabled our subspecies to dominate its ecological niche. Technology requires two attributes of its creator: intelligence and the physical ability to manipulate the environment. This ability to use limited resources optimally, is inherently useful for survival, so it is favored. The ability to manipulate the environment is also useful; otherwise an organism is at the mercy of its environment for safety, food, and the satisfaction of its other needs. Sooner or later, an organism is bound to emerge with both attributes.

As technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, it shares the phenomenon of an exponentially quickening pace. The word is derived from the Greek tekhn¯e, which means “craft” or “art,” and logia, which means “the study of.” Thus one interpretation of technology is the study of crafting, in which crafting refers to the shaping of resources for a practical purpose.’ (abstract of Ray Kurzweils ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’)

When a scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of technology


\ Cosmology of Genetology \ CG \ 1
Fourth quire of a larger publication about Genetology, November 2010

cosmology of genetology

cosmology of genetology

Size: 100 x 70 cm (poster) 50 x 70 cm (folded)
Published by CBK Rotterdam
Text: Martin Wen-Yu Lo 羅聞宇
Design: Raf Vancampenhoudt
Editor: Willem Vanden Eynde



Without a doubt, the single most important problem in physics and cosmology today is Dark Matter. Consider after all of the incredible advancements in science and technology in the 20th century, today, a decade into the 21st century, we still do not know what more than 96% of the universe is made of! Not a clue!

How is this possible when we are able to peer through powerful telescopes in spacetime back to the beginning of the universe, almost at the instant of the Big Bang, that we don’t know what constitutes most of the universe? It brings into question our concept of knowledge, the world, reality, our very being. What is this dark universe to which we belong yet without awareness for so long?

And yet, the world is even more marvelous than we can ever imagine. I present here only one of many theories of dark matter that is being studied by scientists today. It is one which I think is the simplest and the most elegant, called the Brans Conjecture, named after the general relativist, Carl Brans, who first conceived this theory in 1991. The Brans Conjecture explains dark matter as a phenomenon created by a topological property of spacetime called exotic smoothness. We shall explain these strange sounding terms shortly, but for now, the point is that there may not be any “real” dark matter at all according to Bran’s theory. Instead, just as Einstein told us that spacetime is curved by gravity, Brans is telling us that another geometric property of spacetime may be a new type of “smoothness”. When viewed from a part of spacetime with ordinary smoothness such as our own, the distant regions of spacetime with exotic smoothness will appear to have extra forces appearing as dark matter and dark energy.

What is smoothness? The Chinese word for smooth consists of two characters: 光滑. 光 means light , empty, free of things that can obstruct. 滑 means slippery, the three dashes on the left is the radical for water, and the character to the right is for “bone”. My interpretation is that the water makes the floor slippery so you can break your bone on it. Mathematically, this concept can be made very precise: something smooth can be locally approximated by flat surfaces, which is the “differential” – a linear approximation which forms the basis for calculus. Hence smooth objects are also known as “differentiable” and the smooth structure on a smooth object is called its “differential structure”.

Since the invention of calculus by Newton and Leibnitz, mathematicians have taken for granted that there is only one kind of “smoothness” or “differential structure” on an object of any dimension. These smooth regular objects are called manifolds, conceived and described first by Riemann in the early 19th  century. Ever since Descartes coordinatized space by “Cartesian Coordinates” like the regular grids of vertical Avenues and horizonal Streets used to coordinatize Midtown Manhattan (New Amsterdam), we think of N-dimensional space, called RN, as the set of points each with a lable [x1, x2, … xN] where x1 is the coordinate in the first dimension, x2 is the coordinate for the second, and so on.  From this point of view, there really isn’t that much difference between a 3D world coordinatized by [x1, x2, x3] and the 4D world coordinatized by [x1, x2, x3, x4]. You just add another coordinate and everything is more or less the same – or so it seems.

In reality, each dimension is an entirely different beast. Although coordinate-wise all dimensions look the same, [x1, x2, … xN], geometrically every dimension is different in its own way. The situation is so utterly fantastic that even mathematicians themselves had a hard time believing this phenomenon. In 1954, while researching the fabled “Poincaré Conjecture” to characterize the simplest manifold we know, the sphere, John Milnor chanced upon the discovery that S7, the 7-th dimensional sphere, had more than one smooth structure! He called these “exotic spheres”. In fact, there are exactly 28 different smooth structures on S7. More over, it is different in every dimension! The computation of the number of exotic structures in each dimension is very complicated involving Bernoulli numbers.


Now, you will notice from Table 1 that in every dimension from 1 to 20, the number of exotic spheres is known – except in dimension 4, the dimension of spacetime in which we live. This number is the famous “Smooth Poincaré Conjecture in Dimension 4” which is still an open problem. In fact, dimension 4 is truly unique in the context of exotic smoothness.

>  In every other dimension, exotic manifolds (high dimensional surfaces) can have only finite numbers of distinct exotic smooth structures. In dimension 4, every known exotic manifold has infinite number of exotic smooth structures.

>  In every other dimension, the N-dimensional Euclidean space, RN, given by the set of all coordinates { [x1, x2, … xN], where x1, x2, … xN is a real number}, has only one smooth structure. In dimension 4, RN has an uncountable number of smooth structures.

One cannot help but see that dimension 4 is truly unique in a way which we are still grasping to understand. These facts about exotic smoothness in dimension 4 were only discovered in the 1980’s.

As strange as the ideas of invisible dark matter/energy and exotic smoothness seem to us today, one day in the near future, we will understand what they are and how to manipulate matter, energy, and spacetime with these new concepts. Consider Einstein’s equation E = MC2 and the vast consequences it brought to the world, we cannot but sit up and pay attention when something so fundamental as our knowledge of the nature of matter has been put into doubt! What we think we know best, our material world, is now but a mere shadow of a vast universe we have absolutely no knowledge of. And we can’t even see it! It goes right through us, like phantoms and ghosts. We will turn our attention to the three key aspects in which these concepts touch our lives.

Dark matter cannot be directly observed since they reflect no light thus is completely dark. Hence the only way to detect it at the present is to infer its existence from the way it affects the motion of nearby ordinary matter which we can see. This is how it was discovered. While studying the Coma galaxy cluster in 1933, Fritz Zwicky first noticed that the motion of the cluster indicated there was missing mass in order to account for the faster velocities of the galaxies observed. He coined the term “Dark Matter” for this missing mass. It was not taken seriously at first until in the 1960’s Vera Rubin, using more sensitive instruments, was able to measure the velocities of stars in a galaxy with great precision. She expected stars at a distance further from the center of the galaxy would move slower according to Keplerian orbital theory. To her great surprise, she found all the stars in the galaxy have nearly the same velocties even for stars at the edge of the galaxy where they should move much more slowly. The current accepted theory is that this could only be explained by the existence of dark matter.

When we speak of dark matter and dark energy, there really are two distinct phenomena here. While dark matter is invisible matter in the universe, dark energy is a type of repulsive force causing an accelerated expansion of the universe. From the equivalence of mass and energy from Einstein’s famous equation, dark energy also forms a part of the mass energy of the Universe.

At the moment, exotic smoothness remains a mathematical curiosity without any physical expression or application. However, as we have noted the very unusual multiplicity of exotic manifolds in dimension 4, the dimension of our space-time, suggests that perhaps there are real physical expressions of this phenomenon. At the moment, the problem is that we don’t even know how to work with these exotic manifolds numerically. No one knows how to coordinatize exotic R4, the 4-dimensional Euclidean space, for instance. The standard coordinates [x1, x2, x3, x4] is not smooth for exotic R4’s. So when a 3D fluid is in motion, the 4D simulation object (here time is the 4th dimension) can reach singularities as in turbulence, wave breaking, etc. Is it possible that some of these effects can be described by a change in the smooth structure from the standard smoothness to an exotic smooth structure?

As to the philosophical implications, our species has been in existence on Earth for millennia, yet we are just beginning to discover that the solid real world is not what it seems. It is just 4% of the real Universe. This brings into question our sense of reality, of the solidness of the world, of material things. What is the reality of the other 96% of the Universe which we can neither see nor touch, of which we have absolutely no idea what is involved?  What is called into question is not the scientific method which continues to be one of the few lights we have to guide our way around the universe.

What is called into question is the hubris that we now know everything there is to know about the world. What is left unknown is just a few details to clean up our theory. But the Tree of Knowledge is much bigger than we can ever imagine. We see but a small branch and that through a glass dimly. For example, the mathematician Göedel showed that any logical system is incomplete. This great theorem means that if we start out with a set of assumptions (called axioms), there are statements we can make based on these assumptions which can neither be proven to be true or false within these assumption. This means our logic is inherently unable to solve all of our problems. What there is beyond logic is yet to be discovered.

Exotic Smoothness, like Dark Matter, was only discovered in the mid 20th century, a phenomenon which only occurs in dimensions 4 and higher. Whether or not this topological property of spacetime may explain Dark Matter or Dark Energy is not the main point of interest here. What is of interest here is the fact that, like our understanding of the material physical world, our mathematical concept of space is extremely limited by our 3D view of things. The world is a much stranger place than we can ever know or realize.

This should all make us question our materialistic point of view about the nature of reality. We should be more humble and open to other possibilities and other paths to knowledge. But, this is not a call to abandon rationalism or logic in any sense. Reason and logic are the only certain tools we have for dealing with reality. We must use them to discover and climb the other branches of the Tree of Knowledge. As to what these new tools beyond logic might be, I don’t have the slightest idea at the moment. But based on our experience with Dark Matter, our logical system may also represent only a small fraction (maybe 4%?) of various systematic methods to explore and understand the Universe. Intellectually, there may be a transcendental form of reasoning and method of knowing beyond Aristotelian logic yet to be discovered.The knowledge that comes to us through dreams and visions must be understood and interpreted properly. 20th century intelligentsia tended to treat this as inconsequential and bordering on superstitions. Given the waves of rising fundamentalism around the world, this is understandable. But this is a big mistake to think of the non-rational aspects of the psyche as irrational; it is transcendental. What we must achieve is to integrate the two aspects of our mind, the rational with the transcendental to become Whole as Jung would see it.

One person who has come up with an alternate method of knowing is Carl Jung and his theories of the Collective Unconscious and Synchronicity. This brings us to the world of human psyche, spirituality and religion. This also brings us to the world of art because in both these worlds, symbols play a key role. Truth may be expressed in symbolic form through dreams, visions, and art when words and equations are inadequate. As an illustration, I mention Plato’s Symposium where he explains what love is all about in one of the most profound and beautiful stories. Of course, this is not factual. It’s a parable. Surely even in ancient Greece no one believed in this story verbatim. It’s not meant to be factually true. And yet, when you read it, it touches a profound truth within you which delights you heart and makes you say “Oh, yes! That’s how it is. I fall in love when I find and recognize my missing half!” This truth about falling in love is very different from that of the chemistry of attraction and feromones. However, we need both. Neither is complete by itself. It must be integrated.

The knowledge that comes to us through dreams and visions must be understood and interpreted properly. 20th century intelligentsia tended to treat this as inconsequential and bordering on superstitions. Given the waves of rising fundamentalism around the world, this is understandable. But this is a big mistake to think of the non-rational aspects of the psyche as irrational; it is transcendental. What we must achieve is to integrate the two aspects of our mind, the rational with the transcendental to become Whole as Jung would see it.

The ideas about Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Exotic Smoothness should shock us into realization that Reality is much more profound than the material world we know through our senses alone. We have by no means reached the end of the road so far as our knowledge of what Reality is all about.

Martin Wen-Yu Lo 羅聞宇

When Suddenly It Hit Me

Rinus Van de Velde
Physical Items Themselves Are Not Evidence, 2009

rinus van de velde

Rinus Van de Velde uses signs as a means to put a recalcitrant reality in order. His starting point is shaped through the world of photographic representation. Having an extensive personal archive of images ranging from (semi)scientific magazines such as the National Geographic to biographies of artists and scientists, these images form a rich source for series of drawings in which the source material is still recognizably present. The resemblance between all these pictures is not so much what they show but how they show it. By using the photographs as material for a drawing and by situating it in a different context by adding text, Van de Velde ignores the facts and creates space to tell a personal story. The aim isn’t to tell the reality behind the photo but to create third degree myth. Many of the photographs that Van de Velde references are part of an ideology that isn’t completely right or which hasn’t survived the test of time: like the deep rooted faith in the myth of the artist as authentic or autonomous, scientific progress or paternal exotism. Instead of dismantling, Van de Velde weaves through text and reciprocally references a new story. The result is a sort of mirror-universe, inhabited by brave alter-egos that map the world around them and function as ideal representatives of the actual artist.

When Suddenly It Hit Me, 2009

rinus van de velde

Maarten Vanden Eynde
Dip-Stick, 2005

Maarten Vanden Eynde dip-stick

Small wooden sculpture, planed square on one side, the other is inflicted like a burned lump or black tumor, like a stick dipped in dark matter.

Paper Moon

Paul Ramirez Jonas
Paper Moon (I Create as I Speak)
, 2007

Paul Ramirez Jonas

Consisting of sheets of paper tiled to represent an image of the moon, upon closer inspection, the design is made up of text that reads, “I Create as I Speak.” A single sheet is removed from the wall and rests on a lectern, with a microphone and a portable amplifier, inviting the viewer to interact with the work. The text plays with words; “I Create as I Speak” translates to ABRACADABRA in the ancient Aramaic language.

Toril Johannessen (with Vilde Salhus Røed)
Large and partly spectacular solar eclipse (08.01.08), seen from a hill between our houses, 2008

Toril Johannessen

Toril Johannessen


Tomás Saraceno
Iridescent Plant Medium with Lamp, 2009

tomas saraceno

The luminous and roughly human-height Iridescent Plant Medium with Lamp consists of a sphere dressed in a billowing sheath of iridescent foil in a dark room. Thoroughly otherworldly, the orb shivers and cowers in the corner like a specimen from space. NASA, it should be noted, sent plants on early space missions and began experimenting with aeroponics in the late 1990s. One can imagine the possibility of future cosmic plantations, a vision clearly encouraged by Saraceno’s installation.- Based on a text by Erin Rouse –

Sunny Day, Air-Port-City, 2006

tomas saraceno

As an architect Saraceno has for years been looking into the possibility of using large balloon-like constructions to enable the free circulation of persons and goods across the entire globe.

Folding Space

Martijn Hendriks
Gradually, then suddenly (white version), 2009

Martijn Hendriks

Still from a single channel altered video of a 1965 studio performance by Bruce Nauman, 1 min 59 sec

folding space

The existence of wormholes, shortcuts through spacetime, is still hotly debated.  Stephen Hawking gave a lecture touching on the possibility and the implications of traversable wormholes.  In theory, they would allow quick travel in space to even the most remote galaxies (you wouldn’t actually be travelling faster than the speed of light, but you would beat light to your destination, because it had to travel all the way around). More baffling still, they would allow time travel too. Hawking stated that if you could travel from one side of the galaxy to the other in a matter of a week or two, you could return through another wormhole, and be back before you started your journey. The theory only allows travel back in time, and only to the moment of the initial creation of the time machine.  Hawking again: a time machine will be built someday, but has not yet been built, so the tourists from the future cannot reach this far back in time.

– Based on a text by Brooke Ballantyne –