This is ‘Continental Drift’ by Mona Hatoum (2000). It consists of a glass map of the world, on a North Pole projection, raised slightly from a sea of iron filings. Underneath, a large magnetized bar rotates, like the sweep of a radar display, creating a wave that washes against the various coastlines. Hatoum describes the piece here, pointing out that the endlessly rotating wave of filings and the gradual erosion and distortion of the map is at once sinister and mesmerising.
My interest in this piece comes from more general and speculative thinking about the links between plate tectonics and continental drift, the material culture of discovery, and the role of artists in all of the above. I like Hatoum’s piece because of the world-wide ‘survey’ that the rotating bar suggests, recalling the vast amount of global seismology that was undertaken during the Cold War, primarily to detect subterranean Soviet nuclear detonations. One of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, it was this seismological data that was to feed directly into the debate about continental drift, finally understood in terms of the new science of plate tectonics in the late 1950s. (If you have JSTOR access this is a good read.)
As for material culture, one overlooked aspect of the plate tectonics revolution is the role of globes in the propagation of the theory. Here, for example, is the cover of S.W. Carey’s 1958 edited volume Continental Drift:
Inside, along with Carey’s seminal ‘The tectonic approach to continental drift’, there are images and descriptions of globes in construction. It’s clear from the proliferation of different kinds of representation that there is something holistic about tectonics—perhaps this stems from the insufficiency of various parts of the evidence, but the sheer number of different phenomena that could be explained.
As yet, I’ve been unable to find any globes with tectonic information between the 1950s and 1972, when Kurt Ziesing published his ‘Tectonic globe of the Earth’:
In line with my guess about Carey’s paper, the booklet accompanying the globe points out that although there are regions with limited information, the inclusion of volcanic and earthquake data (the relation of which to tectonics is “beyond dispute”) encourages a “large-scale way of tectonic thinking”, impossible with 2-D maps that distort the information.
Meanwhile in Canada, an altogether stranger globe was being invented—the ‘Terrascope’, a gigantic 3-D photographic set-up that allows information painted directly onto a globe to be rendered back into 2-Dimensions without loss or distortion. Here’s the globe itself:
Here’s the photographic rig:
And here’s what it produces:
What’s so peculiar about this invention that it’s the work not of a geologist, seismologist or cartographer, but an artist—Juan Geuer, who by 1973 had been employed for a decade as a draughtsman at the Earth Physics Branch of the Department of Natural Resources in Ottawa. Another example of Geuer’s visualization techniques can be found in this paper, on a crater in Saskatchewan. Clearly a very brilliant man. (Sadly Geuer died in 2009, and it’s difficult to find out what’s happened to many of his scientific/artistic installations—there’s a good bio here. I’d love to see the “interactive seismometer” in particular…)
What was it about the early ’70s? At almost exactly the same time the person who has perhaps done the most for the understanding of the visual languages of science, Martin Rudwick, was moving from geology to the history of science, bringing with him a store of techniques that would result in such glorious historiographic diagrams as this:
(From ‘Charles Darwin in London: The Integration of Public and Private Science’, Isis 73, 1982).
What I like about all of these representions is that they make clear just how contingent our (literal) view of the world is. Before each of these interventions, it wasn’t obvious that they were necessary. (This was the topic of the brilliant Lines of Enquiry exhibition a few years ago at Kettle’s Yard.)
Now, of course, you wouldn’t think of talking about plate tectonics without a garish plasticky globe:
(At the Smithsonian, no less.)