The melancholia of muons: Cyclops love, birds’ eye views of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and future fossils (OR: archaeology of a desktop)

Speleothems in paper, colloids of thought.  A core sample of the scree and talus of my desk indicates that strange love and unexpected change are predominant themes. A Cyclops in need of love caught my attention and I ripped out his story. He and his brothers have drifted apart, his online dating profile alludes, though all still hack at iron under volcanoes. He doesn’t name drop, but seems to live under Mt. St. Helens and enjoy its éclat. The Cyclops piece has been mired for days on my work space. Like a woolly mammoth stepping in tar, its escape is unlikely. One-eyed longing trapped on thin, bleached Ikea wood.

Law of superposition suspended, a Harris-matrix is needed to disentangle the Cyclops from an article from months ago. It details a radioactive puff escaped from an underground nuclear waste site in Carlsbad. The nuclear leftovers were thought to have been securely ensconced in mined-out salt deposits. It is the only permanent underground facility in the US. It has only operated since 1999. In that sliver of stochastic decay time, familiarity led to complacency led to the closing of the facility after fourteen workers were exposed to radiation. The Cyclops seeks burning love and a partner for his bed. The workers lie awake in their beds thinking of the melted plastic and rubber now tamped under magnesium oxide. Happiness is elusive.  

Stories tend to divert from the expected if they are true. Reversing the usual opposition to waste materials - and their own NIMBY protests in the 1970’s and 1980’s – Carlsbad residents long for the return of the jobs, scientists, and engineers that the facility brought along with improved infrastructure for the town. Irony: the radiation leak occurred on Valentine’s Day. The day of love and day of mishap and the peculiar desire for the way things were.

In a more perfect world the Cyclops and the Carlsbadians could get together for a night, open a bottle of something, turn down the lights. Perhaps they could watch the eerie beauty of Into Eternity ? Cyclops could explain while in his cups that the images are like visual dactylic hexameter, epic in scope and heroic in intent. It would be useful if true. The Onkalo nuclear waste repository in Finland, focus of the documentary, will need to survive for 100,000 years to protect the radioactive material held inside. It will need to speak once our language dies. Of course, no human-built structure has ever lasted that long. ‘Wait’ says Cyclops, I know what can last’. Cyclops could then quote Anne Carson’s miraculous Red Doc >, ‘Don’t say you weren’t/expecting a volcano’. The Cyclops’ chthonic home could last that long. ‘True, true. But then the volcano, too, can unleash danger and destroy itself’, the Carlsbadians could counter. The only solution is change. Transform.

Another strata of my desk covers this topic of change no one wants or desires but that is thrust upon one anyhow. The birds of Chernobyl know something of this, as articles on their radiation cataracts imply. A monstrous case of natural selection made slightly yes natural, but at least a thread of hope for the birds of Fukushima. Well, for some of them, that is. Like the radioactive wolves of Chernobyl, they have all been entangled as participants in an experiment they did not choose. Experimentation, change, a new era. Plastiglomerate, mascot of this change. A recent newspaper title states it perfectly: ‘Future fossils: plastic stone’. Carlsbad nuclear waste barrels melted and deformed fearfully to create danger. Plastics melted and fused with coral, stones, pebbles, sand, basalt by cheerful Hawaiian bonfires to create anthropogenic stone for the Anthropocene. Plastiglomerate speaks – if stones do such things – of how thorough change can be. The future fossil reporter, so good on other counts, mistakenly describes plastiglomerate as a ‘permanent’ marker in the geologic record (see also). Millions of years cannot be seen as permanent, just persistent. But still not a comfortable thing.

A record only exists in the view of someone who reads it. Just ask the future flâneur who encounters Onkalo but cannot interpret it.

The oceans, not space, are often cited as the true final frontier. A frontier progressively walled by plastic, mind you, the wave of the future. A quote from an oceanographer about the plastic gyre and the habit plastic has of breaking down into bits and bobs that mimic plankton and thus are ingested by every level of the food chain: ‘if you could fast-forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological dig…you’d find a little line of plastic….What happened to those people? Well they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves’.*   I’ve loved that quote since first reading it, but wonder what that archaeologist would be, if not of our people. Perhaps something more hardy and ancient, like the Cyclops, though he also seems to be struggling to find companionship and unlikely to reproduce with one of his kind. Perhaps a strange, new form, a hybrid, like the plastiglomerate. Fingers crossed that date night with the Carlsbadians goes gangbusters.

Strange love and unexpected change. Strange, charm, up, down: all names of quarks that took center ring in the particle zoo, perhaps because destiny is partly in one’s name. The muon, discovered in 1936, gets little popular press outside of Hadron Collider diagrams (e.g., here) until just recently when it seems it may be useful to map the meltdown at Fukushima. Unlike Carlsbad, at Fukushima we have no idea what has melted. Muon tomography was directed at the Great Pyramid of Giza in the 1960s and, more recently, a Mayan pyramid in Belize. Monumental remains from the otherwise fragmentary archaeological pasts, technologically uncertain futures represented by monumental structures like the Onkalo facility, and a miniscule particle that underlies and sees into it all. It’s enough to do your head in if you think too much about it.

An exhibit pamphlet forms an intrusive vein in my desk strata. A small celebration of the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s Melencolia I is on display through mid-July at the Metropolitan Museum. The famous engraving shows a dejected woman surrounded by a clutter of tools representing the combined arts and sciences available through liberal studies of the sixteenth century. She seems overcome by a sadness that, at the time, was thought to accompany creative genius. The disorder and subject matter of my desk stratigraphy, sample of the information available in the twenty first century, is a very different one. It brings on a far less helpful and fairly unproductive melancholy, kin to the weak nostalgia of Romantic paintings that fixate upon the monument reduced to ruin. We live in a time period in which ‘ruin lust’ (e.g., see here or here) is not a helpful sentiment or even anything akin to love, strange or other.


*(see both Casey, ‘Plastic Ocean’ and Bill Brown’s excellent 2010 Critical Inquiry piece for discussions of the ‘becoming-plastic of the human’). Also, just for fun, read about the zombie spacecraft that has wandered for seventeen years, a locust brood cycle. Self-described ‘techno-archaeologists’ seek to coax the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 home long after NASA proper gave up hope. [The techno-arch team, based out of a former McDonald’s at NASA Ames, retrieve lost material culture for the data it can provide. That is, in fact, archaeology]. The article notes a prior victory: the team searched magnetic tapes from NASA’s lunar orbiters from the 1960’s, projects my own father was involved with, for high resolution imagery. Space age equivalent of extracting DNA from a million year old insect trapped in amber, with a touch of the personal. 


artist Emilio Rojas in 'Plastic Nightmare: Northern Pacific Gyre'. see

artist Emilio Rojas in 'Plastic Nightmare: Northern Pacific Gyre'. see