Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place
There is a sign in front of a pile of rubble, cinderblocks and piping and small metal tangles heaped into a doorway. Danger, it says. Nothing more.
The destruction is ongoing and incomplete. Yet every person walking the dim hallways lit by work lights or sunlight improbably bouncing around corners into the building’s center is happy. Proud. The scene looks like so many on the evening news—the result of mortar fire in some sad town—but nothing could be more untrue.
This is a science building on a college campus in the middle of the North American Prairie. To be more exact, this is an old science building being gutted, remade, renewed, expanded, and made exciting again.
A college science building, large or small, is sacred space. This is where the physics department will engage in a quantum entanglement experiment, where they will use phrases like “spooky action at a distance” because that is the best way to describe the dance of entangled particles. This is where they will use Mössbauer spectroscopy to study magnetism and nuclear structure with gamma rays. On another floor, the biology department will open doors to electrophoresis, microdissection, molecular cloning, modelling, immunohistochemistry, and electrophysiology. The chemistry department’s organic chemistry course will cause sophomores deep fear and profound joy while older students move into neurochemistry, biochemistry, amino acid identification, polymerase chain reactions, gene therapy, gene slicing, thin layer chromatography, and sequencing alignments of DNA, RNA, and proteins. This list doesn’t begin to consider the field work: animal behavior, ecology, climate physiology, limnology, geology.
None of that is visible today. Today, there is a shovel leaning against a pillar next to a puddle of water. Today, the large beams have arrived. Today, a stairwell without stairs collects debris from the demolition, an eerie blue light in the well. Today, steel studs are being set in place to define the classroom spaces. One floor is being torn apart. Another floor is being remade. Space for the laboratory air handling equipment is being framed on the roof. Giant tubs for filtering wastewater from the laboratories, for neutralizing acids and bases, are being set in the earth.
I have come to look at the transformation, the metamorphosis of one building into another. Physical space can define as well as limit imagination and experiments, and this new building is an effort to push those limits back. This is the built environment built to study the natural environment, and it strikes me that the whole of the universe, as we know it, is possible here. This is the space where math gets real, where experiments open the foundations, where theories are acts of insight, and where the sciences create philosophies.
Yes, I admit my Romantic infatuation with science. Give me rocket ships and instruments with dials. Give me laboratories (always pronounced the British way) with Bunsen burners and microscopes. Give me radio telescopes and a way to measure the red-shift of starlight. This is exploration and adventure. This is discovery and truth.
I stand in the middle of a construction site. Nothing more, really. Just another building going up with a few interesting quirks. The same could be said if this were a cathedral. Just another building going up, with a few interesting quirks. But the heart of the project, invisible if all you look for is hammer and nail, beats loudly. Already, there are animal tracks outside.
I wonder if the carpenters know this. I wonder if the electricians, the plumbers, the mason workers know the building they are making will do nothing less than illuminate reality, or realities—the effects of oxygen levels at various lake depths as well as the speed and age of stars. I watch them move about the project, the way they assemble and build.
I am convinced they do.
Available Light | Metamorphosis Gallery by W. Scott Olsen
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W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where is also edits the literary journal Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016). A previous contributor to Terrain.org, his individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review Online, North Dakota Quarterly, Utne Reader, Lensculture.com, The Forum, Plane & Pilot, AOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.