The Mesh

On September 11, 2001, at 8:46:30 in the morning, I was sitting on a subway stopped at the Rector Street station two blocks from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. I heard a loud sound and felt a shudder run under the train. That was the shock wave, which traveled to the ground and then back up through the building.

No one said a word to anyone, but everyone stood and walked off the train. One or a few moved first, I guess, but it seemed all at once, together. Why? New Yorkers cram themselves onto trains in a shrieking, deafening din in stations filled with the smell of burning electricity or drifting smoke from track fires. What registered in the neurons as different this time?

We climbed above ground into sunlight and flames, bits of paper and debris cascading. Since then those sixteen acres have stayed in some ways at the center of my life.

Today I went back. I paid two dollars online for a visitors pass. I had a vision of myself standing alone beside Michael Arad’s inverted waterfalls. That was ridiculous, of course. I climbed up from the subway into a massive construction site.

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The place must be among the most surveilled on Earth. Private security guards and police officers channel visitors through concrete barriers and fenced walkways lined with bright netting to shield from view, I guess, the brute machinery and scarred dirt.

I wound my way into a line and presented my pass, then wound my way into another line, which squeezed into a tight single file and stopped. I could see some kind of security check ahead but I couldn’t tell how long the line stretched or what happened after. I stood on the ground of the World Trade Center completely enclosed—building on one side, fence on the other—fighting the urge to run.

I presented my pass, again, at the xray machines and put my stuff in a bin, airplane style. Which has a strange resonance here. I didn’t have to take off my shoes.

Past the xray I showed my pass one final time, “last time, last time,” murmured the uniformed woman.  The crowd diluted into the open plaza of the memorial. Peter Walker’s trees, swamp white oaks, which I wrote about in Green-Wood, provide a sense of—what—life, in what otherwise might be a stark empty square with two pits in it. But it is a tight, crowded kind of life, strangely dwarfed by the looming 1,776-foot middle finger.

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I walked quick to the south tower pool, the closest. Some part of me—mind, body—kept sending me urgent signals to go. One has to lean out over the names to look down into the water. There they are, the names. One’s hand falls on the incised letters. Tracing them is irresistible. I will admit at this point that I was making quiet sobbing/breathing sounds in the back of my throat, relief valve for something bigger.

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Walk quick to the north tower, first to be hit. Here some sun breaks through the glass tomb towers that the city’s capitalists are stacking up around this site and hoping to fill with money, that is, people.  A rainbow plays now and then in the moving water.

What am I supposed to feel here? The language about the kind of experience this site should evoke bears a striking resemblance to the speech of nineteenth century boosters of garden cemeteries.

According to the memorial website, the design is supposed to “evoke a spirit of hope and renewal.” I am looking down at the water. I see it enact the falling endlessly, over and over. The largest man-made sob in North America.

I’m done. I look up to find the way out. I see lots of large red EXIT signs but they all say EMERGENCY ONLY—another intrusion that jars, that exceeds the site’s intentions, here where commerce and memory and surveillance all clash together. The best that could be done, that could be thought up, is this. The best that could be wrested from power, which makes its presence felt overwhelmingly. You are trapped here, a little mind voice says to me, you can’t get out.

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I start to give in to this, but then I think stop. The feeling for self protection is a small one, and false. The idea that safety can be had is an illusion. Security can perhaps be bought, but one is never safe, never a whole, self contained, which is where the word comes from—the old root sol for whole. It doesn’t exist. We touch, we nest, everything inside us and us inside everything. Here we are in the mesh, in this fenced in place.

I sit down. And look up. The tower. It is not whole either. It has holes, a few gaping windows that make it seem—what—more real, made of materials that are familiar—wood, and glass and steel—things that rust and rot and burn, yes. It forms a part of the mesh, like us. A plane goes past far overhead. A white balloon floats very high, a small dot.

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Here is a whole. The balloon. If it is made of nylon or neoprene, it will outlast everything—the trees, the tower, the memory. Where ever it goes, its laboratory-fused molecules will stay locked to one another, in ocean water, on a tree branch, in the gutter. Maybe a sea turtle will swallow it and choke. The turtle will sink to the bottom of the murk. Creatures will break apart its chemicals and absorb them into their own cells.

The balloon they will nibble and reject. Some workers, probably in China, formed its white skin from the residue of ancient sea creatures, very like the ones all around, but its molecules took so much energy to make they would never form outside a factory. No living entity has the tools to unlock these bonds, so they leave it behind, still whole.

The balloon floats free from the skeleton. It joins all the others like it, countless millions of objects locked into a kind of rigor mortis, a living death. Sea and sun and teeth wear them into smaller and smaller bits, but their bonds never break, they never transform into anything else—refuse in the truest sense.

Imagine it: a confetti colored tide washed across a scorched and melting Earth. That will be human beings’ true lasting legacy, an accident, unthought. It makes laughable all other pretensions toward leaving a mark—the shining towers, the stone, all monuments, all art. It makes this, the nest, with its frightening displays of power and threat, with its deep-twisting grief, with its rainbows flashing on water, and its terror and its sunlight and its death, seem—what—recognizable at least.

Here we are, what sadness we feel. I see our faces crowded up around a pit—so vast—with its cascading walls of water, thing that sobs and falls and sobs, because we are too … small to. We want control, we want borders, we want to master ourselves and our little sphere. We want to be safe, and whole, and secure.

Or maybe I should speak only for me, born into privilege, enough to maintain the illusion of my autonomy, my special blessed being, my self.

Think this: you have never been anything but mesh. You have spent your whole life looking in the wrong direction. There is no here or over there, you can’t get in, you can’t get out. You are of, and that is all. The water falls. A guard orders you to move right. The balloon has of course floated out of sight.

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Desire

two-products

Desire

In 1988, The New York Times published the first-ever image of a benzene molecule. It looked exactly as Kekulé had envisioned it one hundred and twenty-five years before.[i]

Of course, Kekulé may have made up the story about his vision. He told it only once for the public record, late in his life, nearly thirty years after the event. Some suspect he related the story of the whirling snake to solidify his priority for the discovery. He did not publish his findings until some years later, in part because grief over the death of his wife Stephanie left him sick, unable to work.[ii]

But the Kekulé story persists as one of chemistry’s founding myths, and the image of benzene confirmed his prescience. Scientists at IBM created the picture with a scanning tunneling microscope, which uses an atom-sized probe to track variations in electrical current between it and the surface being mapped.[iii]

The resulting figure looked startlingly like Kekulé’s daydream, and the simple hexagonal line drawings used ever since to represent benzene. It confirmed the reality of what before existed only as idea. Such an image “gives the feeling that one could simply reach out and touch the atoms,” says the chemist David Goodsell.[iv]

But no one has ever seen or touched an atom, and no one ever will. Microscopes do not record pictures of molecules. The machine returns a series of numbers “unreadable to most people, even scientists,” writes the chemist Tami Spector. Technicians use computers to transform the numbers into an image, a sort of topographical map of electrical signals.

Researchers, scientific journal editors and the popular press blank out this mediating factor. They present the figure as if it were an actual picture of atoms and molecules. Scanning microscopes yield numeric data that are transformed “into images disguised as photographs,” writes Spector.[v]

Why? Desire. To see, reveal—to know, a word that is very old. To look with one’s own eyes. It comes as a kind of force like lust, doesn’t it? But never to be satisfied, unless we fake it. Spector: Molecules exist in an “inherently unknowable space … inaccessible but ripe with imaginative yearning.”[vi]

Yearn. It’s an old word also. Kekulé yearned to know molecules. He thought of them constantly. He dreamed about them. He pictured molecules and then built them using sticks and balls made of wood and metal. Kekulé and other nineteenth century chemists created a visual vocabulary for showing how atoms join up. They did not consider these actual models of molecules, only as maps, or keys to their functions. Kekulé didn’t even believe in atoms, at least not as the tiny particles people imagine.[vii]

The valence diagrams he and others pioneered remain the common currency for conveying chemical information. They are taken for granted as actual depictions. But Spector notes they are far from realistic: “they communicate a sense of the molecule’s spatial geometry … [but] reduce experimental evidence, stripping it bare of noise, impurities … presenting instead an idealized abstraction of a single, motionless, molecule.”[viii]

More sophisticated technology creates more sophisticated images, but they remain extrapolations, constructions of entities human senses will never reach. Still, the desire persists. The word microscope itself implies sight.

An article from 2009 titled “Keep your eye on the atom” opens with this: “How many times have chemists wished for a microscope so powerful that they could see right down to the atomic level of an individual molecule? Scientists at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland have now achieved this elusive goal.”

The rhetoric of sight saturates molecular discovery. The image of pentacene — five-fused benzene rings — “speaks for itself,” says the article. Except, apparently, it doesn’t. The rendering is grey and fuzzy. To aid in translation, the editors placed above the microscope image a traditional “ball-and-stick” structure — a digital analogue of Kekulé’s nineteenth century models. Seeing is believing, if belief entails doubt. [ix]

I sent Dr. Tami Spector an email. I explained I was a poet and asked her some questions. She didn’t respond to me. Her name of course conjures image in its most ephemeral sense, a ghost. She writes that what scientists want most, even more than pictures of atoms and molecules, is to capture them in the act of transforming. It is the instant of change, the moment of the swerve they most long for.[x]

In spring 2013, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab issued a press release headlined “A chemical reaction caught in the act.” It claimed scientists had captured the first-ever high-resolution images of a molecule—benzene rings—breaking and reforming chemical bonds.[xi]

The point of the research was to try and engineer graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms bonded in hexagons. That failed, but the news was not the research, it was the imagery. The press release quotes lead scientist Felix Fischer “We weren’t thinking about making beautiful images; the reactions themselves were the goal.” But, he adds, they needed “to really see what was happening at the single-atom level.”

To really see. But Dr. Fischer uses a metaphor of blindness, comparing the atomic-force microscope moving over the surface to reading Braille. “The resulting images,” the press release reports, “bore a startling resemblance to diagrams from a textbook or on the blackboard, used to teach chemistry, except here no imagination is required.”

Science has vanquished the blank, the gap between mind and world, delivered the un-seeable to the human eyeball on a surface of silver. Says Dr. Fischer: “What you see is what you have,” which means “possess,” and comes from the root word for grasp.

Of course the reaction itself can’t be captured. What the images show instead is the “before” and “after” bridged by an arrow. All the meaning hangs on that black connector. Carry us there, O strike us, arrow, arrow. Lust of the flesshe, lust of the eye. All images are after.[xii]


[i] Malcolm W. Browne, “A Pervasive Molecule is Captured in a Photograph,” The New York Times, August 16, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/16/science/a-pervasive-molecule-is-captured-in-a-photograph.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

[ii] Image and Reality, 198-199

Russell D. Larsen, University of Pittsburgh, “Kekulé’s Benzolfest Speech: A Fertile Resource for the Sociology of Science,” Chapter 13 in Kekulé Riddle, 184

[iii] Tami I. Specter, “Nanoaesthetics: From the Molecular to the Machine,” Representations, Vol. 117, No. 1 (Winter 2012), 1-29.

[iv] David Goodsell, “Fact and Fantasy in Nanotech Imagery,” Leonardo, Vol. 42, No.1 (2009), 52-57.

[v] Nanoaesthetics, 21.

[vi] Nanoaesthetics, 15

[vii] Nanoaesthetics, 3

Image and Reality, 225

[viii] Nanoaesthetics, 8.

[x] Nanoaesthetics, 14-15

[xii] “Nanoaesthetics, 14-15

Poethical Wager, 10.