Archives for posts with tag: RSPB Snettisham

Super happy with the beautiful box, with walnut burr veneer, made by the skilled hands of Bruce Watson to house my cosmic ray detectors for cosmically interactive work The Breath of Stars. Bruce has a workshop opposite my studio at Thames-side Studios. The attention to detail is immaculate.

The Breath of Stars is a digital video work activated in real time by the passage of cosmic particles travelling from distant galaxies. These subatomic visitors from outer space are created during super nova explosions or by phenomena we are yet to discover.

Work in progress continues with tearing down paper squares for the Azimuth Obelisk.

Single vertical forms embody a primitive power. Etymologically, an obelisk should be made from a single quarried stone. To quarry one enormous piece of rock without it fracturing required power and money. To erect it required complex engineering skills. Since the first obelisks were raised in Egypt, often in gateway pairs with gilded tips for the sun god Re to anoint, they have escaped the confines of their original meaning. Originally a motif of immortality and communion between heaven and earth, its phallic symbolism has been co-opted by many nations, institutions and companies for its crude assertion of male power. Mystics shape crystals into obelisks as symbols of pent up negative energy in need of release. Perhaps the many memorials to the dead, marked by an obelisk usually cast in concrete, attempt to embrace the notion of immortality through remembrance in those carved names.

I don’t know why an obelisk was chosen as the azimuth marker at Hartland Magnetic Observatory. It’s hard to establish its actual shape as it can barely be seen now through the woods. Perhaps one day I will go back with binoculars.

I have imagined my obelisk sculpture as sedimentary rock with the layers holding clues to the fluctuations of the Earth’s magnetic field it stands as constant sentinel to. Made from recycled prints it is also a memorial to all the images buried in its form.

Looking North.

After unsuccessfully trying RHS Wisley for a book or advice on growing moss I have got some guides from the Field Studies Council. Hopefully these will help me choose the sort of moss that will be appropriate to use for the north wall of the Absolute Hut Installation. I am also beginning to collect wood to grow the moss on. The exhibition is several months away but I think it can take a while for moss to get established. The advice seems to be to liquidise some moss with yoghurt and spread it on the surface you want it to grow on.

The geographic north pole lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean covered in shifting sea ice where the sun rises and sets only once per year. All lines of longitude converge here and hence all time zones. It is known as true north to distinguish it from the magnetic north pole.

However, as the Earth’s axis of rotation wobbles slightly in an irregular circle called the Chandler wobble this pole is not fixed. Where Earth’s rotational axis meets its surface is known as the instantaneous north pole and the north pole of balance, lies at the centre of this circle. The celestial north pole is where the axis line of the Earth extends into the night sky.

The magnetic north pole is where the planet’s magnetic field is vertical and a compass needle here would dip and try to point straight down – hence its other name: the magnetic dip pole.

The north geomagnetic pole is the northern dipole of the planet. When looked at from space the Earth may look like a bar magnet with two dipoles, but the geomagnetic poles are an approximation arrived at by reducing Earth’s complex and varied magnetic field to that of a simple bar magnet. The north dip pole lies in Northern Canada, the northern dipole is roughly off the northwest coast of Greenland.

The magnetic field lines of the Earth flow from south to north magnetic pole which is the opposite of a bar magnet where the lines flow north to south.  The north magnetic dip pole is where the earth’s magnetic field lines pull toward the planet, acting like the south pole of a bar magnet. The north pole of a bar magnet is attracted to the magnetic north pole of the Earth, not resisted as two north poles on magnets repel one another.

The extraordinary paintings in the Lascaux Caves of southwestern France may include representations of constellations and therefore be the earliest star maps dating back to nearly twenty thousand years ago. The dots set around an Aurochs eye in the Hall of Bulls may be the Hyades star cluster around the star Aldebaran as the eye of Taurus. Other dots are similar in configuration to the Pleiades. Now sealed off from the contamination of human breath the public can visit a replica site to gain a sensory experience of the scale and artistry. Painted on to the wall of the shaft is a bull, a strange bird-man and a mysterious bird on a stick. which according to Dr Rappenglueck, form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, birdman and bird representing the three prominent stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Around 17,000 years ago, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring.

The Pleiades visible to the naked eye from almost anywhere on Earth appear as a small asterism of six or seven stars. At a distance of about 444 light years, it is among the nearest star clusters to Earth. Chased by Orion the seven sisters were transformed by Zeus and flung into the sky to escape the hunter. Through a lens, we can now see there are a lot more sisters drifting through a cloud of interstellar dust which scatters the light into a misty blue cloak. Image by Emil Ivanov.

A third research trip to Snettisham.

This time I shared the experience with good friends Ruth and Odile and we joined an RSPB group visit which allowed parking nearer the viewing site avoiding the usual long walk in the dark. The drive along the narrow potholed track, with no headlights which would alarm the birds, is a challenge and I was grateful for another car who had visited before leading the way. It was a chilling -7 at 7am making it difficult to use the camera with frozen fingers.

Eventually the sun cut through the low mist giving us stunningly beautiful skies to watch the skeins of pink footed geese leave their roost to go in search of sugar beet fields.

Having spent the night on the mudflats to avoid predators they leave at dawn in family groups. If there is a bright moon shining, they might not return from the feeding grounds at night as they can see if there is any danger approaching.

Before leaving Norfolk we visited Welney Wetland Centre, Britain’s largest area of seasonally-flooded land and the setting for mass winter gatherings of many thousands of wild ducks, geese and swans. Each winter thousands of Bewick’s and whooper swans make their winter migration to the UK, to escape colder countries.

They have popular swan feeding sessions and talks about the site and the work they do to protect the wildlife here such as liaising with the electric companies to hang reflectors on the overhead cables to make them more visible to flying birds.

Walking around the frozen fens reminded me of the James Turrell installations of diffuse light that makes it hard for the eye to focus.

The light-sensitive molecules that allow perception of the Earth’s magnetic field, could also influence other responses such as control of circadian rhythms and tracking the difference between night and day. In birds, Cryptochrome molecules are located in photoreceptors in the eye and react to the Earth’s magnetic field when excited by blue light enabling orientation and navigation. Light sensitive molecules can also be found in cell nuclei and may influence physiological processes, such as fattening and migratory motivation, working as a trigger for changes in behaviour.

Light vibrates up and down as it travels in waves and these vibrations can be vertical, horizontal, or at any angle in between. The waves that make up sunlight are evenly distributed across all angles but polarised light is made up of waves with the vibrations at only one angle. Polarising lenses absorb horizontal light while letting through the vertical waves reducing the overall intensity of the light that passes through. Light also becomes partially polarized when it reflects at an angle from a surface such as when the sun is low in the sky. Research led by Rachel Muheim has shown that birds are better able to use their magnetic compass when the direction of polarised light exciting the cryptochrome molecules is parallel to the magnetic field. She suggests that it is more useful for birds to sense the magnetic field during sunrise and sunset for orientation to determine their direction before migrating or leaving the roost. In the middle of the day, when the polarised light is approximately perpendicular to the magnetic field, it can be an advantage that the magnetic field is less visible, so that it does not interfere at a time when visibility is important to locate food and to detect predators.

Gallery Visits

Sarah Kent and Claire Loussouam performance interacting with iterations of the work Graft at the finissage of Liz Elton’s Work in Progress residency at Fitzrovia Gallery. Great to see the gallery filled with these delicate wafting landscapes made from biodegradable materials and natural dyes.

Strange Clay at Hayward Gallery explores the possibilities of thinking through making.

The exhibition features works by Aaron Angell, Salvatore Arancio, Leilah Babirye, Jonathan Baldock, Lubna Chowdhary, Edmund de Waal, Emma Hart, Liu Jianhua, Rachel Kneebone, Serena Korda, Klara Kristalova, Beate Kuhn, Takuro Kuwata, Lindsey Mendick, Ron Nagle, Magdalene Odundo, Woody De Othello, Grayson Perry, Shahpour Pouyan, Ken Price, Brie Ruais, Betty Woodman and David Zink Yi.

Stand out favourites were the dark volcanic and glistening contrasting surfaces of Salvatore Arancio’s work and the extraordinary and impressive scale of the squid in a pool of corn syrup and Japanese ink by David Zink Yi

Abraham Kritzman A Hand Beneath The Hills at Danielle Arnaud. I was intrigued to visit to see the small pillar structures and the interesting use of ceramics. Kritzman doesn’t like to give a lot away about his work so impressions are not pre-directed. The camouflage paintwork on the sculptures, crenellations and frenetic lines in the prints had a war like ambience. The influences however appear to come from the insect world of metamorphism, burrowing and speed.


Being a Human by Charles Foster. I got this book as I thought it might offer some points for discussion at the upcoming debate Being Human in relation to the night sky to be held at Allenheads Contemporary Arts. Unfortunately it didn’t have any useful insights and was rather judgemental and smug despite some clever and comic attempts at self effacement. The sort of smugness that emanates from those of devout faith where the judgement is on those unfortunate enough not to share or even aspire to the same definitive experience as that of the author. It also has some of the smugness of the parent loudly interacting with their offspring in public to show off their parenting skills/precocious/cute child. I did appreciate it was well written and researched. Acres of endnotes and a huge reading list which could turn out to be useful. Some points were well made about the edge as the site of all change and the idea that what is imagined is no less real but the packaging just wasn’t for me.


The Magnetic Mystery – investigate the mysterious power of magnets, with the help of wizard-physicist Dr Felix Flicker and materials scientist Dr Anna Ploszajski.

Editing footage for the video Belly of a Rock which will be shown on an old monitor encased in a sculptural hybrid form relating to both mollusc and rock. The giant sea slug of the mollusc family, can derive directional cues from the magnetic field of the earth which is then modified in response to the lunar cycle. It orients its body between north and east prior to a full moon. In the slug’s nervous system, four particular neurons are stimulated by changes in the applied magnetic field, and two are inhibited by such changes suggesting that the animal uses its magnetic sense continuously to help it travel in a straight line.

The Earth can be divided into the inner core, the outer core, the mantle, and the thin crust. The outer core is about 1,367 miles thick and mostly composed of liquid iron and nickel. It is very malleable and in a state of violent convection. The churning liquid metal of the outer core creates and sustains Earth’s magnetic field. At the boundary between the inner and outer core temperatures can reach 6,000° C which is as hot as the surface of the sun. The inner core is a dense ball of mostly iron, but with a temperature above the melting point of iron, it is not liquid or even molten. Intense pressure from the rest of the planet and its atmosphere prevents the iron inner core from melting as the iron atoms are unable to move into a liquid state. It could be described as a plasma behaving as a solid. The inner core rotates eastward, like the surface of the planet, but it’s a little faster, making an extra rotation about every 1,000 years.  Geoscientists think that the iron crystals in the inner core align north-south, along with Earth’s axis of rotation and magnetic field and are arranged in a hexagonal close-packed pattern. The orientation of the crystal structure means that seismic waves travel faster when going north-south than when going east-west. Seismic waves travel four seconds faster pole-to-pole than through the Equator. 

The Earth is still cooling and as it does so, bits of the liquid outer core solidify or crystallize causing the solid inner core to grow by about a millimetre every year. The growth is not uniform, it is influenced by activity in the mantle and is more concentrated around regions where tectonic plates are slipping from the lithosphere into the mantle, drawing heat from the core and cooling the surrounding area. The crystallization process is very slow, and further slowed by the constant radioactive decay of Earth’s interior. Scientists estimate it would take about 91 billion years for the core to completely solidify but the sun will burn out in just 5 billion years. 

I have nervously passed the cosmic ray detectors over to programmer Jamie. It was hard to let them out of my sight after so much work to get them built but he can’t test the code he has written without them. The Breath of Stars directly interacts with cosmic rays in real time to trigger a digital reaction via a mini computer attached to a block of plastic scintillator and a sensitive photomultiplier. As each particle strikes the plastic scintillator its energy is recorded and a starburst image video relative to the energy released is projected, with the largest images representing the particles with the highest energy.

I am constructing an Obelisk sculpture in response to the concrete obelisk erected in 1955 at Hartland Magnetic Observatory, near the site’s northern boundary as a permanent azimuth mark. It is viewed via a theodolite through a window in the north wall of the Absolute Hut, its azimuth being 11º27’54” E of N and marks the point from which the magnetic north pole is tracked as it drifts westwards. Layers of torn recycled paper are stacked like sedimentary rock that holds clues to the Earth’s magnetic field reversals in its strata.

Copper contours of magnetic field lines have been lacquered to preserve the heat patina from plasma gun cutting. These shapes will be pinned to the north facing mossy wall of the Absolute Hut installation, a reimagining of the Absolute Hut at Hartland Magnetic Observatory. I will also employ a north facing window from which to observe the azimuth mark of the Obelisk sculpture.

A second research visit to RSPB Snettisham, this time to see the pink footed geese (which over winter on the mudflats here) leave their roost at dawn to fly to the fields to feed.

The walk from the car park to the viewing area is over 2km and takes about half an hour to walk. Setting out before first light the weather felt promising but just as I erected the camera tripod the rain came down hard and didn’t stop for the rest of the morning.

Made a second attempt the next morning leaving a little earlier and although it remained dry there was heavy fog over the sea. Not great for filming with my very basic kit but very atmospheric to experience as the geese emerged from the sea mists.

The noise they make is incredible, a constant chattering building to a crescendo of honking calls as they rise from the water and swarm across the sky in their hundreds. They come in waves but look like particles. At one point what sounded like a few gunshots fired out across the bay in the distant darkness. This sudden disturbance set off a slow deep rumble which drew closer accompanied by a low dark cloud growing heavily stronger building and rising as a huge tidal wave of geese rose simultaneously into the sky in panicked disarray. Extraordinary to witness.

Birds are able to “see” Earth’s magnetic field lines and use that information for navigation. Their compass ability comes from a quantum effect in radical pairs, formed photochemically in the eyes. This light sensitive magnetic compass used by birds is affected by the polarisation direction of light. Exposure to blue light excites an electron, which causes the formation of a radical-pair whose electrons are quantum entangled, enabling the precision needed for magnetoreception.

In chemistry a radical is an unpaired electron which is can be highly chemically reactive. In the radical pair mechanism a pair of electrons with opposite spins have a chemical bond. Light can cause the electrons to change spin direction which can break the bond giving the electron a chance to react with other molecules. In magnetoreception two cryptochrome molecules, found in the rod cells in the eyes of birds, each with unpaired electrons, exist in states either with their spin axes in the same direction, or in opposite directions, oscillating rapidly between the two states. That oscillation is extremely sensitive and can detect the weak magnetic field of the Earth. Birds then move their heads to read the spin of the molecules and therefore detect the orientation of the magnetic field.

While in North Norfolk staying in a beach chalet away from light pollution I was able to make a couple of short time lapse videos centering on Polaris.

Birds can detect the slow arc of the sun and the rotation of the constellations across the sky which is imperceptible to humans and allows migrating birds to orient themselves using celestial navigation as well as magnetoreception.

Birds are also able to detect rapid movement such as individual flashes or flickering of a fluorescent light which humans see as a continuous light. Hawks which pursue other birds through dense forests at high speeds, follow the movement of their prey while avoiding branches and other obstacles. To humans travelling at this speed, the fleeing prey, branches and obstacles would just be a blur.

Gallery Visit

Thames-side Gallery ‘The Accurate Perception Available When Our Eye Becomes Single’ is an immersive multi-screen installation evoking the emotional specifics of place (Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast) while exploring the elasticity of time and history. It is an audio-visual collaboration between Richard Ducker (video) and Ian Thompson (sound) with no linear narrative; sound and image are not synchronised, so each viewing is a unique experience. Sarah Sparkes also makes an enigmatic performative appearance both in the video and live in the gallery.

The crashing sea on shingle, open spaces and brutalist bunker architecture of Orford Ness are echoed in the gallery with audio pitched to envelop and resonate but not overwhelm. Nicely done.


I really enjoy the Inside Science podcasts with Gaia Vince and this one interviewing cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton about finding evidence that supports her multiverse theory was particularly fascinating.

Multiverses, melting glaciers and what you can tell from the noise of someone peeing

According to Laura the single universe theory is mathematically impossible.


Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. A remarkable reveal of an other world, so different yet so entwined with our own. Beautifully clear analogies help to bridge an understanding between human and fungi.

The ability to detect and respond to chemicals is a primordial sensory ability.

In humans when a molecule lands on our olfactory epithelium and binds to a receptor it causes nerves to fire triggering thoughts and emotional responses.

A mycelial network is one large chemically sensitive membrane: a molecule can bind to a receptor anywhere on its surface and trigger a signalling cascade that alters fungal behaviour.

Fungal lives are lived in a flood of sensory information.

They have light receptors, are sensitive to touch and it also looks like fungi may form fantastically complex networks of electrically excitable cells – a potential ‘fungal computer’ using electrical signalling as a basis for rapid communication and decision making which could learn and remember.