In The Field

APS 2010: Sculpting physics

kryptos2.jpg During a press conference today, I was pleased to meet the artist Jim Sanborn, a specialist in scientific sculptures who is probably one of the Washington DC’s most important artists. Sanborn is currently most famous for a piece, pictured here, that sits near the entrance to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Using techniques taught to him by a former CIA spook, Sanborn in 1990 created the undulating copper screen with its 1,800 encrypted characters. Most have already been hacked, and the letters translate to three ambiguous and slightly sinister messages. But the last part, 97 or 98 characters long, has remained unsolved. Sanborn, a tall, rugged man at once both coy and curmudgeonly, says he wouldn’t mind if it stayed unsolved for another 20 years, even after his “demise”. (According to Wired, his will contains the solution.) I asked Jim to throw a bone to the armies of amateur cryptologists who hang on his every word. He said that they should wait for a book he’s working on that will “contain more clues.”

Jim also described a forthcoming work, one that will open this summer in Denver. It looks terrifying and magnificent, and continues to reflect his interest in the history of nuclear weapons. In an earlier work, called “Atomic Time”, Sanborn recreated Manhattan Project equipment, like nuclear still-lifes – and even reconstructed bomb models that pretty much just needed uranium or plutonium to work. For the new show, called “Terrestrial Physics”, Sanborn built a working Van de Graaf particle accelerator that he uses to actually fission uranium – having modeled the giant pieces after stuff he found gathering dust nearby at the Carnegie Institutes of Washington, where in 1939, physicists made one of the first confirmations that fission existed. Part of the point, he says, is to show how relatively easy it is to build the equipment and infrastructure of nuclear weapons some 70 years after it all began. “I felt that it was important for people to see the real thing,” he says. “So far a nuclear device has never failed to work. It’s that easy. The whole point is, absolutely, to reduce and stop the production of fissile materials.”

Image: CIA


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