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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin's own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin's work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.




Flipping open his laptop, Arvin began by showing us a "greatest hits" reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi-truck jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backwards into a telegraph pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew that an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moment(s) of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—of lives, it was hard not to imagine, as well as the scattered vehicles.



As we went on to discuss, it is precisely that disjuncture, between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior, that The Reconstructionist, takes as its territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. The edited transcript is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: How do you go about building car crash reconstruction animations?

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. We fed the motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.


A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the "Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present," and that "up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project."

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.


A screenshot of PC-Crash's "Collision Optimizer."


As the demo promises, "in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired."

Often you have a Point A and a Point B, and you need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one to the other. Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.” But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities that you can then look for evidence of on the ground? In the book, your reconstructionists seem to do both, for example, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet. So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened. In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on, a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times, we printed out a big map of the accident site. It was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle rolled through a barbed wire fence, and there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly does the driver begin braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. And then as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.



But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

Twilley: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Geoff Manaugh: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, some little kid throws a water balloon into the street that distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. Clearly something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman…

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on this one case where a guy’s car was hit by the train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet.

He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he’d probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train. So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the gray area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.


Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new "multibody pedestrian" functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: to what extent, once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, is a place not the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives of crashes that define it for a legal purpose and yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Manaugh: While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and how, in a sense, its discovery was all a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

Manaugh: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective as opposed to a bad detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to this kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. And then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—and Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

Twilley: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from point A to point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.


A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

Manaugh: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? And if so, then you can imagine at one end of it, the super-crash—the crash that maybe happens once every generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

Manaugh: Exactly—Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on. So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.



Twilley: Before we wrap up, I want to talk about some of your other work, too. An earlier novel, Articles of War, was chosen for “One Book, One Denver.” I’d love to hear about the experience of having a whole city read your book: did that level of public appropriation reshape the book for you?

Arvin: That’s an interesting question. There were some great programs: they had a professional reader reading portions of it, and there was a guy who put part of it to music, so it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways. That was really, really fun for me. It brought out facets of the book that I hadn’t been fully aware of.

The whole thing gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people around the city who had read the book. I did a radio interview with high school students who had read the book—this was when we were deeper into the Iraq war and there were a lot of parallels being drawn with that war. And these were kids who were potentially going off to that war, so that was very much on their mind.

You had this concentrated group of people looking at the book and reading it and talking about it, and everybody’s got their own way of receiving it. It helped me see how, once a book is out there, it isn’t mine anymore. Every reader makes it their own.

Manaugh: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.


In what would turn out to be, in retrospect, the northernmost stop on the 16-month Venue itinerary, we drove into the iron ranges and boreal forests of Minnesota to see a 6,000-ton machine buried inside the earth.

The Soudan Underground Mine State Park offers two ticketed tours, each very worthwhile, and we took both of them.



One tour offers a look back at the mine's history, descending 2,300 feet below the surface of the earth to explore the old drifts and stopes. Soudan was Minnesota's oldest and richest mine until U.S. Steel ceased operations in 1963, and the iron extracted here fueled East Coast steel mills, where it was transformed into the nation's railways, machinery, bridges, and weaponry.

The tour begins with a disconcertingly cold, and extraordinarily loud elevator ride shuddering deep into the artificial caverns of this now-derelict site. The ride down is itself spectacular, an all-encompassing roar of noise and darkness, occasionally broken by the film-strip like regular appearance of voids that, we learned, were the entrances of other mine levels we were dropping past. Wondering what was on that level—or that level, or the next level, or this other one—as they flickered by in the gloom allowed the full, nearly overwhelming size of the mine to sink in.

While the historic tour lacks the hokey, interpretive dimension of many other such mine tours, the genuinely hive-like nature of the Soudan Mine—a volumetrically incomprehensible human-carved labyrinth—is only loosely communicated. Only half-joking, we speculated that this might very well be to keep unprepared visitors from experiencing a kind of existential panic upon descent into the 50-plus miles of subterranean chambers.



What sets the Soudan Mine apart, though, is the gigantic high energy physics experiment buried in its bowels. On the accompanying "science tour," visitors have the chance to marvel at the three-story tall, 6,000-ton MINOS "far detector," a kind of catcher's mitt for subatomic particles called neutrinos.

More specifically, these are artificially generated neutrinos fired north from Fermilab outside Chicago. The neutrinos are produced by a complex series of subterranean graphite targets and vacuum pipes just outside Chicago, which transform a spray of protons from Fermilab's "Main Injector" particle accelerator into a focused beam of tiny neutrinos, traveling the 455 miles through the planet between their source and the detector in just 0.0025 seconds.



The neutrinos can make that journey without getting deflected or absorbed by layers of dense bedrock in between because they almost never interact with matter, zipping straight through earth, air, water, and, indeed, people, at a rate of 100 trillion per second, without leaving a single trace.

That same property, however, makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect—they have been nicknamed the "ghost particle." Not altogether inaccurately compared to a huge camera, the MINOS detector is made from 485 iron plates studded with sensors, each of which is a buffer for slowing down and, in the end, capturing any neutrinos that spiraled through the room. With a trap rate of about one neutrino every two hours, MINOS is able to measure their oscillation speed, which, our guide explained, holds the key to understanding whether these ubiquitous yet elusive particles have mass, and, if so, how much.



While an advanced degree in physics would probably be necessary to tease out the specifics of the experiment and its findings thus far, it's equally awe-inspiring just to gaze on the dense nest of magnetized steel plates, bunched cables, and a multilevel maze of walkways that we were unable to explore, all constructed to capture evidence of an unlikely and otherwise invisible interaction. It's like sci-fi spy technology, with hidden machines picking up and decoding secret broadcasts within the earth.

Elsewhere in the cavern lay the remains of an abandoned earlier experiment designed to witness proton decay (an event that has still not been observed) and a cryogenic dark matter detector, hunting for WIMPs — the heavy, slow, and potentially even more difficult-to-detect cousins of neutrinos.



Interestingly, MINOS, while being an acronym for Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, also refers to Minos, the mythological king who commissioned Daedalus's labyrinth but went on to be a judge in Hades, the underworld of lost souls.

In the end, it was hard not to wonder what will happen to the machine itself—so heavy it seems effectively pointless for anyone ever to dismantle it—and the brightly lit room it is now housed in. Within even 100, let alone 1,000, 10,000, or even hundreds of thousands of years, this huge gate of iron like a camera lens buried inside the earth, will inevitably fall into disuse, its experimental value gone, its costs too expensive to meet.



Then, someday, if it is not removed piece by piece in a mirror image of the construction process that brought it here, it will outlast even the pyramids, just as mysterious to future generations and just as geometrically abstract as those monumental constructions in the sand.
Screenshot of our own SimCity (called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons) after three hours of game play.

In the nearly quarter-century since designer Will Wright launched the iconic urban planning computer game, SimCity, not only has the world's population become majoritatively urban for the first time in human history, but interest in cities and their design has gone mainstream.

Once a byword for boring, city planning is now a hot topic, claimed by technology companies, economists, so-called "Supermayors," and cultural institutions alike as the key to humanity's future. Indeed, if we are to believe the hype, the city has become our species' greatest triumph.

A shot from photographer Michael Wolf's extraordinary Architecture of Density series, newly available in hardcover.

In March 2013, the first new iteration of SimCity in a decade was launched, amidst a flurry of critical praise mingled with fan disappointment at Electronic Arts' "always-online" digital rights management policy and repeated server failures.

A few weeks before the launch, Venue had the opportunity to play the new SimCity at its Manhattan premiere, during which time we feverishly laid out curving roads and parks, drilled for oil while installing a token wind turbine, and tried to ignore our city's residents'—known as Sims—complaints as their homes burned before we could afford to build a fire station.



We emerged three hours later, blinking and dazed, into the gleaming white and purple lights of Times Square, and were immediately struck by the abstractions required to translate such a complex, dynamic environment into a coherent game structure, and the assumptions and values embedded in that translation.

Fortunately, the game's lead designer, Stone Librande, was happy to talk with us further about his research and decision-making process, as well as some of the ways in which real-world players have already surprised him. We spoke to him both in person and by telephone, and our conversation appears below.

• • •



Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start by asking what sorts of sources you used to get ideas for SimCity, whether it be reading books, interviewing urban experts, or visiting different cities?

Stone Librande: From working on SimCity games in the past, we already have a library here with a lot of city planning books. Those were really good as a reference, but I found, personally, that the thing I was most attracted to was using Google Earth and Google Street View to go anywhere in the world and look down on real cities. I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions.

Google has a tool in there that you can use to measure out how big things are. When I first started out, I used that a lot to investigate different cities. I’d bring up San Francisco and measure the parks and the streets, and then I’d go to my home town and measure it, to figure out how it differed and so on. My inspiration wasn’t really drawn from urban planning books; it was more from deconstructing the existing world.

Then I also really got into Netflix streaming documentaries. There is just so much good stuff there, and Netflix is good at suggesting things. That opened up a whole series of documentaries that I would watch almost every night after dinner. There were videos on water problems, oil problems, the food industry, manufacturing, sewage systems, and on and on—all sorts of things. Those covered a lot of different territory and were really enlightening to me.



Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive.


Using the zoning tool for the city designed by We Are the Champignons.

Twilley: I’d love to hear more about the design process and how you went about testing different iterations. Did you storyboard narratives for possible cities and urban forms that you might want to include in the game?

Librande: The way the game is set up, it’s kind of infinite. What I mean by that is that you could play it so many different ways that it’s basically impossible to storyboard or have a defined set of narratives for how the player will play it.


Stone Librande's storyboards for "Green City" and "Mining City" at the start of play.

Instead, what I did was that I came up with two extreme cases—around the office we call them “Berkeley” and “Pittsburgh,” or “Green City” and “Dirty City.” We said, if you are the kind of player who wants to make utopia—a city with wind power, solar power, lots of education and culture, and everything’s beautiful and green and low density—then this would be the path you would take in our game.

But then we made a parallel path for a really greedy player who just wants to make as much money as possible, and is just exploiting or even torturing their Sims. In that scenario, you’re not educating them; you’re just using them as slave labor to make money for your city. You put coal power plants in, you put dumps everywhere, and you don’t care about their health.


Stone Librande's storyboard for "Green City" at mid-game.

I made a series of panels, showing those two cities from beginning to late stage, where everything falls apart. Then, later on, when we got to multiplayer, I joined those two diagrams together and said, “If both of these cities start working together, then they can actually solve each other’s problems.”

The idea was to set them up like bookends—these are the extremes of our game. A real player will do a thousand things that fall somewhere in between those extremes and create all sorts of weird combinations. We can’t predict all of that.

Basically, we figured that if we set the bookends, then we would at least understand the boundaries of what kind of art we need to build, and what kind of game play experiences we need to design for.


Stone Librande's storyboard for "Mining City" at mid-game.

Twilley: In going through that process, did you discover things that you needed to change to make game play more gripping for either the dirty city or the clean city?

Librande: It was pretty straightforward to look at Pittsburgh, the dirty city, and understand why it was going to fail, but you have to try to understand why the clean one might fail, as well. If you have one city—one path—that always fails, and one that always succeeds, in a video game, that’s really bad design. Each path has to have its own unique problems.

What happened was that we just started to look at the two diagrams side-by-side, and we knew all the systems we wanted to support in our game—things like power, utilities, wealth levels, population numbers, and all that kind of stuff—and we basically divided them up.

We literally said: “Let’s put all of this on this side over in Pittsburgh and the rest of it over onto Berkeley.” That’s why, at the very end, when they join together, they are able to solve each other’s problems because, between the two of them, they have all the problems but they also have all the answers.


Stone Librande's storyboard for the "Green City" and "Mining City" end-game symbiosis.

Twilley: One thing that struck me, after playing, was that you do incorporate a lot of different and complex systems in the game, both physical ones like water, and more abstract ones, like the economy. But—and this seems particularly surprising, given that one of your bookend cities was nicknamed Berkeley—the food system doesn’t come into the game at all. Why not?

Librande: Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it—it just became a scoping issue. The early design actually did call for agriculture and food systems, but, as part of the natural process of creating a video game, or any situation where you have deadlines and budgets that you have to meet, we had to make the decision that it was going to be one of the things that the Sims take care of on their own, and that the Mayor—that is, the player—has nothing to do with it.

I watched some amazing food system documentaries, though, so it was really kind of sad to not include any of that in the game.


Data layer showing ore deposits.


Data layer showing happiness levels. In SimCity, happiness is increased by wealth, good road connections, and public safety, and decreased by traffic jams and pollution.

Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?

Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.

So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.

Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win—they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.


A regional view of a SimCity game, showing different cities and their painfully small footprints.

So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning.

Twilley: Building on that idea of different sorts of players and ways of playing, are there a variety of ways of “winning” at SimCity? Have you personally built cities that you would define as particularly successful within the game, and, if so, what made them “winners”?

Librande: For sure, there is no way to win at SimCity other then what you decide to put into the game. If you come in with a certain goal in mind—perhaps, say, that you want a high approval rating and everyone should be happy all the time— then you would play very differently than if you went in wanting to make a million dollars or have a city with a million people in it.

As far as my personal city planning goes, it has varied. I’ve played the game so much, because early on I just had to play every system at least once to understand it. I tried to build a power city, a casino city, a mining city—I tried to build one of everything.

Now that I’m done with that phase, and I’m just playing for fun at home, I’ve learned that I enjoy mid-density cities much more then high-density cities. To me, high-density cities are just a nightmare to run and operate. I don’t want to be the mayor of New York; I want to be the mayor of a small town. The job is a lot easier!

Basically, I build in such a way as to not make skyscrapers. At the most, I might have just one or two because they look cool—but that’s it.


Screenshot from SimCity 4.

Manaugh: I’m curious how you dealt with previous versions of SimCity, and whether there was any anxiety about following that legacy or changing things. What are the major innovations or changes in this version of the game, and what kinds of things did you think were too iconic to get rid of?

Librande: First of all, when we started the project, and there were just a few people on the team, we all agreed that we didn’t want this game to be called SimCity 5. We just wanted to call it SimCity, because if we had a 5 on the box, everybody would think it had to be SimCity 4 with more stuff thrown in. That had the potential to be quite alienating, because SimCity 4 was already too complicated for a lot of people. That was the feedback we had gotten.

Once we made that title decision, it was very liberating—we felt like, “OK, now we can reimagine what the brand might be and how cities are built, almost from scratch.”

Technically, the big difference is the “GlassBox” engine that we have, in which all the agents promote a bottom-up simulation. All the previous SimCity games were literally built on spreadsheets where you would type a number into a grid cell, and then it propagated out into adjacent grid cells, and the whole city was a formula.

SimCity 4 was literally prototyped in Excel. There were no graphics—it was just a bunch of numbers—but you could type a code that represented a particular type of building and the formulae built into the spreadsheet would then decide how much power it had and how many people would work there. It just statically calculated the city as if it were a bunch of snapshots.


A fire breaks out in the city designed by We Are The Champignons.

Because our SimCity—the new SimCity—is really about getting these agents to move around, it’s much more about flows. Things have to be in motion. I can’t look at anybody’s city as a screenshot and tell you what’s going on; I have to see it live and moving before I can fully understand if your roads are OK, if your power is flowing, if your water is flowing, if your sewage is getting dumped out, if your garbage is getting picked up, and so on. All that stuff depends on trucks actually getting to the garbage cans, for example, and there’s no way to tell that through a snapshot.


Sims queue for the bus at dawn.

Once we made that decision—to go with an agent-driven simulation and make it work from the bottom up—then all the design has to work around that. The largest part of the design work was to say: “Now that we know agents are going to run this, how do schools work with those agents? How do fire and police systems work with these agents? How do time systems work?” All the previous editions of SimCity never had to deal with that question—they could just make a little table of crimes per capita and run those equations.

Manaugh: When you turned things over to the agents, did that have any kind of spatial effect on game play that you weren’t expecting?

Librande: It had an effect, but it was one that we were expecting. Because everything has to be in motion, we had to have good calculations about how distance and time are tied together. We had to do a lot of measurements about how long it would really take for one guy to walk from one side of the city to the other, in real time, and then what that should be in game time—including how fast the cars needed to move in relationship to the people walking in order to make it look right, compared to how fast would they really be moving, both in game time and real time. We had all these issues where the cars would be moving at eighty miles an hour in real time, but they looked really slow in the game, or where the people were walking way, way too fast, but actually they were only walking at two miles an hour.

We knew this would happen, but we just had to tweak the real-life metrics so that the motion and flow look real in the game. We worked with the animators, and followed our intuition, and tried to mimic the motion and flow of crowds.


We Are The Champignons' industrial zone, carefully positioned downwind of the residential areas.

In the end, it’s not one hundred percent based on real-life metrics; it just has to look like real life, and that’s true throughout the game. For example, if we made the airport runways actual size, they would cover up the entire city. Those are the kinds of things where we just had to make a compromise and hope that it looked good.

Twilley: Actually, one of the questions we wanted to ask was about time in the game. I found it quite intriguing that there are different speeds that you can choose to play at, but then there’s also a distinct sense of the phases of building a city and how many days and nights have to pass for certain changes to occur. Did you do any research into how fast cities change and even how the pace of city life is different in different places?

Librande: We found an amazing article about walking speeds in different cities. That was something I found really interesting. In cities like New York, people walk faster, and in medium-sized or small towns, they walk a lot slower. At one point, we had Sims walking faster as the city gets bigger, but we didn’t take it that far in the final version.



I know what you are talking about, though: in the game, bigger cities feel a lot busier and faster moving. But there’s nothing really built into the game to do that; it’s just the cumulative effect of more moving parts, I guess. In kind of a counter-intuitive way, when you start getting big traffic jams, it feels like a bigger, busier city even though nothing is moving—it’s just to do with the way we imagine rush-hour gridlock as being a characteristic of a really big city.

The fact that there’s even a real rush hour shows how important timing is for an agent-based game. We spent a lot of time trying to make the game clock tick, to pull you forward into the experience. In previous SimCities, the day/night cycle was just a graphical effect—you could actually turn it off if you didn’t like it, and it had no effect on the simulation. In our game, there is a rush hour in the morning and one at night, there are school hours, and there are shopping hours. Factories are open twenty-four hours a day, but stores close down at night, so different agents are all working on different schedules.



The result is that you end up getting really interesting cycles—these flows of Sims build up at certain times and then the buses and streets are empty and then they build back up again. There’s something really hypnotic about that when you play the game. I find myself not doing anything but just watching in this mesmerized state—almost hypnotized—where I just want to watch people drive and move around in these flows. At that point, you’re not looking at any one person; you’re looking at the aggregate of them all. It’s like watching waves flow back and forth like on a beach.

For me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of our game. The timing just pulls you forward. We hear this all the time—people will say, “I sat down to play, and three hours had passed, and I thought, wait, how did that happen?” Part of that is the flow that comes from focusing, but another part of it is the success of our game in pulling you into its time frame and away from the real-world time frame of your desk.



Twilley: Has anything about the way people play or respond to the game surprised you? Is there anything that you already want to change?

Librande: One thing that amazed me is that, even with the issues at the launch, we had the equivalent of nine hundred man-years put into SimCity in less than a week.

Most of the stuff that people are doing, we had hoped or predicted would happen. For example, I anticipated a lot of the story-telling and a lot of the creativity—people making movies in the cities, and so on—and we’re already seeing that. YouTube is already filled with how-to videos and people putting up all these filters, like film noir cities, and it’s just really beautiful.


Screen shot from SimCity player Calvin Chan's film noir montage of his city at night.

The thing I didn’t predict was that, in the first week, two StarCraft players—that’s a very fast-paced space action game, in case you’re not familiar with it, and it’s fairly common for hardcore players to stream their StarCraft battles out to a big audience—decided to have a live-streamed SimCity battle against each other. They were in a race to be the first to a population of 100,000; they live-streamed their game; and there were twenty thousand people in the chat room, cheering them on and typing in advice—things like “No, don’t build there!” and “ What are you doing—why are you putting down street cars?” and “Come on, dude, turn your oil up!” It was like that, nonstop, for three hours. It was like a spectator sport, with twenty thousand people cheering their favorite on, and, basically, backseat city planning. That really took me by surprise.

I’m not sure where we are going to go with that, though, because we’re not really an eSport, but it seems like the game has the ability to pull that out of people. I started to try to analyze what’s going on there, and it seems that if you watch people play StarCraft and you don’t know a lot about it, your response is going to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at; I don’t know if I should be cheering now; and I don’t know if what I just saw was exciting or not.”

But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.


Thanks to a well-timed tip from landscape blogger Alex Trevi of Pruned, Venue made a detour on our exit out of Flagstaff, Arizona, to visit the old black cinder fields of an extinct volcano—where, incredibly, NASA and its Apollo astronauts once practiced their, at the time, forthcoming landing on the moon.



The straight-forwardly named Cinder Lake, just a short car ride north by northeast from downtown Flagstaff, is what NASA describes as a "lunar analogue": a simulated offworld landscape used to test key pieces of gear and equipment, including hand tools, scientific instruments, and wheeled rovers.

Astronauts Jim Irwin and Dave Scott in experimental vehicle "Grover." Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS, from this informative PDF.

As Northern Arizona University explains, NASA's Astrogeology Research Program "started in 1963 when USGS and NASA scientists transformed the northern Arizona landscape into a re-creation of the Moon. They blasted hundreds of different-sized craters in the earth to form the Cinder Lake crater field, creating an ideal training ground for astronauts."

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

The sculpting of the landscape began in July 1967, with a series of carefully timed and very precisely located explosions.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

In the first round alone, this required 312.5 pounds of dynamite and 13,492 pounds of fertilizer mixed with fuel oil.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

At the end of a four-day period of controlled explosions, USGS scientists had succeeded in creating a 500 square foot "simulated lunar environment" in Northern Arizona—forty-seven craters of between five and forty feet in diameter designed to duplicate at a 1:1 scale a specific location (and future Apollo 11 landing site) on the moon, in a region called the Mare Tranquillitatis.

On the left, an aerial view of the first stage of Cinder Lake Crater Field, designed to duplicate a small area of the Apollo 11 landing site shown in the Lunar Orbiter image to the right. Photographs courtesy NASA/USGS; see PDF

An aerial view of the second crater field constructed at Cinder Lake. This is more than double the size of the first field, and contains 354 craters. Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Geologic map of the crater field that was used to plan astronaut EVA traverses. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Sadly, the craters today are very much reduced both in scale and in perceptibility.

Indeed, at a certain point nearly every dent and divot in the landscape began to seem like it might also be part of this monumental project of planetary simulation, a possible detail in the stage-set used to rehearse hopeful astronauts.



This pronounced fading of the craters is due to at least two things.

One factor, of course, is simply long-term weathering and exposure in the absence of any plans for the historic preservation of the site.

As we'll discuss in a future post in relation to another of Venue's visits—specifically, to see the so-called "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena—these sites of offworld simulation are intellectually thrilling but also integral parts of the U.S. national space project.



That these locations—works of scientific utility, not art—can be discarded so easily is a shame, although exactly how, and under what departmental authority, they would be preserved is a thorny question.



Of course, all questions of budget or federal jurisdiction aside, an Offworld Landscapes National Park or National Monument is an incredible thing to contemplate.

A National Park—or, why not, a UNESCO Offworld Heritage Site—that consists only and entirely of landscapes designed to simulate other planets!



In any case, the other major factor in the craters' gradual disappearance is Cinder Lake's current recreational status as a place for off-road vehicles of a much more terrestrial kind.



Indeed, for much of the two hours or so that Venue spent out on the volcanic field—where walking is very slow, at best, as you sink ankle-deep into tiny pieces of black gravel that make a sound remarkably like dipping a spoon into dry Ovaltine—distant bikes, buggies, and trucks kicked up dust clouds, giving the landscape a distinct and quite literal holiday buzz.

Oddly, though, it's hard to complain about such a use, as this is more or less exactly what NASA was doing, albeit with taxpayer support, better costumes, and a much larger budget.

Apollo Field Test-13: astronauts Tim Hait and David Schleicher are in spacesuits, testing equipment and protocols, with a simulated Lunar Module ascent stage in the background. Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

As Northern Arizona University goes on to describe, the astronauts "ran lunar rover simulations and practiced soil sampling techniques wearing replica space suits in the shadows of the San Francisco Peaks. The training gave them the skills essential for the first successful manned missions to the Moon."

Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Off-road to off-world, by way of a black lake of pumice on the outskirts of a college town in Arizona.

Astronauts Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan practice describing crater morphology to Mission Control. Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF

Better yet, you can visit the lake quite easily; here is a map, with driving directions from the best breakfast in Flagstaff.

Final photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.
After a long drive down toward the Shenandoah Valley, passing southwest across Pennsylvania into the mountains of Virginia, Venue arrived near sunset at Luray Caverns, just in time for their final tour of the day.

The surreally ordinary door through which you access Luray Caverns.

Discovered in 1878, the caves at Luray remain on private property. This means that, unlike their counterparts in the National Park Service, whose educational and recreational programs are constrained by strict ecological and historic preservation guidelines, Luray is a show cave—an artful blend of natural and built subterranean forms, visited by roughly five million people a year.

State laws extend into the subterranean world.

Also a popular destination for school field trips, the caverns are by no means wild or remote; they are well-lit, family-friendly, and not insignificantly altered, with as much as twenty percent of the original cave, our guide explained, removed or expanded to accommodate human passage.


The caverns, which extend throughout an area nearly sixty-four acres in size, are home to an array of formations, from dripping pillars that look as much like lithified swarms of ancient jellyfish as they do columns of rock to semi-translucent rippling curtain forms known as "cave bacon" and an extraordinary reflective lake filled with crystal-clear (although very shallow) water.

Their showpiece, however, is a nearly four-acre underground musical instrument made from the stalactites of the cave itself.

Yes, that's acres.


This organ, the Luray Cavern's website explains, was "conceived" by a man named Leland W. Sprinkle, "a mathematician and electronics scientist at the Pentagon."

The keyboard of the organ.

The instrument visitors now encounter, extensively wired up to the labyrinth of stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, actually takes its inspiration from an earlier version, as Russell H. Gurnee explains in his informative booklet Discovery of Luray Caverns, Virginia.

"A wall decoration not far from the Saracen's Tent," Gurnee writes, describing the "original natural instrument" from which Sprinkle's invention takes its cue, was not invented, as such, but instead "consisted of fifty-six graduated columns arranged like the pipes of an organ."

These graduated columns could be played: tapped with hammers or a flashlight, and resonant tones would result.

The mallets are remarkably easy to miss.

Sprinkle's organ relies on the same principle—tapping stalactites of different size and resonance, like a xylophone—but at a much more awe-inspiring scale. The organ keys are connected to small rubber mallets strung up to the rocks by way of five miles' worth of wires.

In the words of Luray's administrators, this "stalactite-tapping instrument" apparently took thirty-six years to perfect: "Three years alone were spent searching the vast chambers of the caverns to select and carefully sand stalactites to precisely match the musical scale. Only two stalactites were found to be in tune naturally."


The deliberately theatrical, Willy Wonka-like red keyboard adds to the sense of tourist gimmickry that pervades most show-caves—the addition of manmade wonders ("the largest musical instrument on earth!") sitting uncomfortably alongside the subterranean sublime.

The organ's music is, nonetheless, sonorous, omnidirectional, and highly atmospheric, as well as a virtuoso display of mechanical invention.

Instagrams of mallets and wires cobwebbed across the cave.

Only one man plays the organ, our guide informed us, but in his absence, we instead listened to a preprogrammed sequence, a kind of geological piano player; the song we thus heard was an old hymn by Martin Luther, called "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

It percussed and rang across the cobweb of rubber hammers in speleological surroundsound, indicating through echoes that there were yet more distant parts of the cave we would not have time to explore.


We stood there for three or four minutes in appreciative silence, listening to this electrical contraption that formalized the otherwise random actions of an earlier generation of explorers who merely tapped on the rocks around them. A habit, you might say, became a machine.

Hearing the Earth ping with music written centuries ago, it was hard not to wonder how literally fantastic it would be to have one's own, secret access to some vast subterranean instrument wired together in tangles of valves, mallets, and wires—sitting alone at night in a mansion in the mountains of Virginia, perhaps, as a fog sets in, playing this buried machine that uses the planet itself as a resonation chamber, hollow cavities, from the smallest tunnels to gigantic chasms several counties away, shivering with the induced seismicity of your own music. Sounds hum up through your old wooden floorboards, and glassware in the kitchen begins to vibrate.

Until such a day, it's easy enough just to listen to Luray on CD: indeed, we picked up a copy of a 2001 album offered by the shop upstairs called Midnight in the Caverns by Monte Maxwell. In that recording, the triggering of the mallets is clearly audible as a kind of secondary clicking beneath the music, which gives the songs a slightly robotic feel—an extra layer of strangeness that, like the addition of the organ to the caverns, it didn't need but, in the end, isn't any the worse for. We put the CD on repeat for the next few hours as Venue left Luray behind.
 
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