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Tianhe 天河区: Parables of the Celestial River

‘Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world; we are drifting together toward the noise and the black depths of the universe, and our diverse systemic complexions are flowing up the entropic stream, toward the solar origin, itself adrift. Knowledge is at most the reversal of drifting, that strange conversion of times, always paid for by additional drift; but this is complexity itself, which was once called being. Virtually stable turbulence within the flow.’ 

— Michel Serres[1]

Tianhe-2 is a 33.86 petaflop supercomputer, the fastest on the planet, located in southern China in the sub-provincial city of Guangzhou in the eponymous district: Tianhe.  Tianhe, however, is not merely a region within a Chinese province housing the world’s fastest supercomputer of the same name.  Tianhe is also the region where every star we can see with our naked eyes dances in its galactic choreography—it is where we all reside.  Tianhe translates to English as celestial river, and is the Chinese equivalent for ‘Milky Way’.

In the center of Tianhe, our vortical, starry-river home, is what cosmologists call an Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN): a luminous and spectrally saturated accretion of matter amplified by a supermassive black hole.  AGNs are the largest and most persistently radiant objects in the entire cosmos and represent an active area of research in physical cosmology, not least because they are known to emanate extremely energetic particles into the domains of interstellar space.

In the core of Tianhe-2, are over one hundred thousand microprocessors, each a complex silicate lattice with billions of transistors.  Since computation occurs via charged particles within semiconductive microprocessors, any interference by forces, or other charged particles, can cause failures in long-term strings of the computer’s modelling operations, ruining weeks or months of computations.  As processors become smaller and computation becomes more omniscient and ambient, industries have begun to apply ECCs, or Error Correction Code, to deal with the constant environmental bombardment of charged particles, the atmospheric noise that interferes with the circuitous processes of microprocessors.  Given Moore’s Law,[2] the importance of ECCs to the smooth functioning of the computational future should not be underestimated.


In August 1912, the Austrian-American physicist Victor Francis Hess was lured by unexplainable phenomena into the troposphere with a series of six balloon flights.  Hess studied the conductivity of air and the amount of ionization above the Earth’s surface.  His discoveries would win him the Nobel Prize twenty-four years later.  But what he measured still mystifies physicists and astronomers alike, and is the locus of millions of dollars in research and collaboration around the globe.

Reaching an altitude of 5500 metres between Vienna and Germany, Hess discovered an increase in radiation as he ascended past 2km into the troposphere.  This ionizing radiation was soon shown (to great scepticism) to be neither terrestrial (since it increased as one ascended away from the ground) nor solar in origin (as it was shown to radiate at night and during solar eclipses). This unknown radiation—at the dawn of human understanding of radioactivity—was posited to be Galactic in origin, meriting the name cosmic rays.  Decades of subsequent balloon experiments revealed an ionization maximum between 20 and 25 kilometres above Earth’s surface: the Pfotzer Curve.

Cosmic rays and other astrophysical phenomena would also seduce the French space agency, Centre Nationale des Études Spatiales (CNES), into the realm of the Pfotzer Curve: more specifically a threshold spanning the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, between 20km and 32km high.[3] From the 1970s CNES’ long-duration, stratospheric missions employed the Montgolfiere Infrarouge (MIR) balloon.  The MIR, a solar relative of the Aerocene, dwells in this airy milieu above the paths of airplanes both day and night by exploiting cascades of energy from our nearest star, Sol, as well as the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth – its uses no other gases than air.  MIR and Aerocene freely ride the isopycnal surfaces of this atmospheric ‘critical zone’[4], resonating with exotic perturbations from far beyond the Solar System’s heliospheric reach, eddying in the galactic tide-pools of Tianhe.

A “cosmic dancer on history’s stage,”[5] the Aerocene is part of a legacy of experiments,  initially led by mere noise, lured by specific conditions of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.  This unique atmospheric zone is the most critical for analyzing Earth’s radiative budget, for measuring turbulence and atmospheric pollution, and for detecting high-energy cosmic rays.  It is also precisely at 20 km that Google is now deploying Project Loon: a fleet of balloons that will beam LTE Internet to Earthbound smartphone users.  Sri Lanka will be the first country to be “covered” by March 2016.[6] Indeed the Earth may soon be veiled by another lattice of processing power, borne by the very thermodynamic infrastructure that has always insulated us and our machines from the cold, dark, deep waves beyond.

The Catatumbo is a river in Venezuela where vast amounts of Ozone is regenerated on a near-nightly basis by the planet’s most consistent lightning storms, storms named after the river over which they emerge an average of 300 times a year.  Earth itself is wondrously illuminated by around 3 million lightning flashes per day (or 40 per second, 1.4 billion a year).  Contrary to common understanding, the ground itself produces upward flowing “positive streamers:” invitations to down-flowing plasmas. [7]  A bolt of lightning is: “a stuttering chatter between the ground and the sky,” during which these fields of virtual potential actualize and equalize for a radiative moment. [8] These electromagnetic surges generate not only atmospheric plasma and Ozone, but also the atmosphere’s extremely low radio frequency of 7.83 Hz: Schumann Resonance.  This means that every atom, molecule, or crystal—the DNA in our mitochondria, the information in fibre-optic cables and the silicate bodies of computer chips—are alive with persistent, electrochemical fields of resonance.  Somewhere, between ground and sky, lightning events, like every beat in a drum roll, continually accentuate and inflect the planet’s elemental vibratory dances.

Such reciprocal, pulsating choreographies light up the bifurcating path of the Aerocene, and other high-altitude objects.  In Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbital Program, John Powell (by no accident a close friend of Tomás Saraceno) describes a ‘Zoo of Lightning.’[9] Such spectacles include “Blue jets,” or azure cones that project from the top of cumulonimbus clouds; “Elves,” or extremely dim discs of light that occur with fiery red “Sprites”; as well as “Gnomes,” “Trolls” and “Pixies.”  All of these high-altitude Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) will in 2017, for the first time, be methodically investigated by CNES’ new Satellite TARANIS, aptly named after the Celtic God of Thunder.

Why are “Trolls” and “Elves” the object of a new satellite mission?  The past 15 years has witnessed the stunning discovery that lightning is a catalyst for Earth’s own emissions of cosmic and gamma radiation,[10]as well as annihilations of antimatter.  In 2009, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in Earth orbit observed an intense burst of gamma rays and positrons (antimatter) coming out of a thunderstorm over Namibia.  Scientists would not have been surprised to see a few positrons, but the flash detected by Fermi produced about 100 trillion positrons, a phenomenon never previously observed.[11] Our hydrogen-blue Earth creates interference-patterns in celestial tributaries not so unlike those rippling out from Tianhe’s AGN.


What do such parables tell us?  Just as Earth’s electrically charged surface reaches up to the clouds to co-produce lightning (a meeting in mid-air!) so too does the Earth extend its reach, sending its own streamers of ionized and electromagnetic invitation to the corners of the cosmos.  The Earth (and those reading this essay) are not passive to such phenomena.  We are writ into fields of energy and force that are patterned in specific currents.  These are fields that extend from ions to photons to electron cascades, from storms to balloons to microprocessors, from silicates to scripts to cells, and through the genetic codes and enzymes of all Earthly species.

Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene is alive to cosmic energies in the way that the molecules of Earth’s crust are alive to the charge in atmospheric storm-systems, and in the way that the Earth itself is alive to the AGN in the far-off turbulence of the celestial river.  The Aerocene is a cascade experiment with force-fields and phenomena that are far more cosmic, far more promiscuous, than most individuals of our species realize.  Like “Sprites,” “Blue Jets,” and “Elves,” like Victor Hess himself, the Aerocene prehends the charged matter of Earth, the atmosphere, Sol, and Tianhe’s Active Galactic Nuclei, finding, like so many other phenomena, a path to weave between and within.

The genealogy of the Aerocene is composed of the buoyant search for answers to seemingly simple questions, questions that upon investigation become cosmo-logical in scope.  This fact should not be underestimated.  Like the atmospheric noise that confused and drove Hess to the sky, the clapping noise of lightning on distant horizons, the quasi-noise of spacetimematter(s) patternings—these ancient and primordial static-interferences, floating or spinning now, charged and cascading, reaching and joining—these have been great lures for thought, exploration and invention, for physical and epistemological risk and renewal.  Such noisy, wandering potentials are a reminder that terrestrial life is not now, nor has ever been, insulated from the vast astronomical plenum.  And it is thus that we find ourselves, led by an indistinct babel, to detect the whisper of a blackhole-Shiva[12] hinting that yes, indeed, we probably do reside within the luminous logic of a holographic supercomputer of the same name . . . [13]


Dr. James Gates: What I’ve come to understand is that there are these incredible pictures that contain all the information of a set of equations that are related to String Theory.  And what’s even more bizarre then is when you try to understand these pictures, you find out that buried in them are computer codes just like the type that you find in a browser when you surf the web.  And so I’m left with the puzzle of trying to figure out whether I live in the Matrix or not.

Niel deGrasse Tyson: You’re blowing my mind at this moment. So you’re saying, are you saying your attempt to understand the fundamental operations of Nature leads you to a set of equations that are indistinguishable from the equations that drive search engines and browsers on our computers?

JG: Yes that is correct.

NT: Wait, wait I’m still—I have to just be silent for a minute here… So you’re saying as you dig deeper and deeper [bending over and miming a digging motion] you find computer code writ in the fabric of the cosmos?

JG: Into the equations that we want to use to describe the cosmos, yes.

NT: Computer code.

JG: Computer code.  Strings and bits of ones and zeros.

NT: And it’s not just that it resembles computer code, you’re saying it IS COMPUTER CODE?

JG: … and it’s a special kind of computer code that was invented by a scientist named Claude Shannon in the 1940s. That’s what we find very deeply inside the equations that occur in String Theory and in general in systems that we say are Supersymmetric.[14]


—Jol Thomson and Sasha Engelmann

[1] Michel Serres. Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 83.

[2] Moore’s Law is the observation that approximately every two years since 1975 computational power has doubled (and we could add, miniaturized by a similar factor).  It is suspected that the inherent limit to this doubling is the width of the atom itself, a limit we are already rubbing up against. See: Gibbs, S.  “At the limit of Moore’s law: scientists develop molecule-sized transistors”, The Guardian, July 21, 2015.

[3] I. Sadourny. “The French balloon programme: capabilities and scientific programmes,” Advances in Space Research, 30(5) (2002): 1105-1110.

[4] Bruno Latour. “Some advantages of the notion of “Critical Zone” for geopolitics,” Procedia Earth and Planetary Science, 10 (2014): 3-6.

[5] Mike Davis. “Cosmic Dancers On History’s Stage? The Permanent Revolution in the Earth Sciences.” New Left Review I/217 (1996).

[6] <>

[7] D.R., MacGorman, et al. The electrical nature of storms. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

[8]  Vicky Kirby. Quantum anthropologies: Life at large. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 10. 

[9] La Frenais, R., Saraceno, T., & Powell, J. “Floating into Deep Space,” European Planetary Science Congress 2014, EPSC Abstracts, Vol. 9, (2014), 843.

[10] Gamma rays are a class of high frequency electromagnetic radiation composed of high energy photons.  Gamma rays are produced when charged cosmic rays interact with atomic nuclei as they escape the vortices of gravitational fields.  As such they serve as beacons for the presence of cosmic rays. 

[11] “Thunderstorms shoot antimatter beams into space” National Geographic News (2011) <>

[12] “Shiva” is the name given by Stephen Jay Gould to the pattern or “cycle of impacts [of objects on Earth] driven by a galactic tide, probably the Sun’s vertical oscillation in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy.” Shiva-shakti is also the processual Hindu god of destruction and transformation.

[13] Nick Bostrom.”Are we living in a computer simulation?” The Philosophical Quarterly 53.211 (2003) 243-255. See also, Beane, S.R., et al. “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” arXiv preprint arXiv:1210.1847 (2012).

[14] “The Theory of Everything”, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2011) <>