Deep beneath the University of Texas in Austin, the Texas Petawatt Laser can reach a power of 1,000 trillion watts — around 2,000 times that generated by all the country’s power plants combined. Photographer Robert Shults first encountered the facility in 2009 and was awed by its capabilities, which he gave a B-movie influenced treatment through a series of black and white photographs.
“I decided that if I was interested in preserving the sense of mystery inherent in observing the Petawatt, I had to rely on the visual conventions and memories that most of us, as non-experts, utilize to impose meaning on unfamiliar subjects,” Shults explained to Hyperallergic. “In this case, science fiction.”
Last month Daylight Books published his monograph The Superlative Light, arranging shots from his rangefinder camera in a narrative that’s more focused on capturing a sense of awe than documentary, taking visual cues from highbrow sources, like Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, to the less-refined, like Joseph Green’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. The book is arranged like an old two-in-one science fiction pulp, with an introduction by Dr. Todd Ditmire, director of the Texas Center for High Energy Density Science, on one end, and a fictional story by Rudy Rucker inspired by the photographs at the other. The dichotomy of the writing can be a little jarring, but it contributes to the disorientation of encountering the scientists with their sunglasses and plastic shower cap head coverings and distorted perspectives on the machine.
In his essay, Ditmire succinctly explains what the laser does when it focuses a high power to a size “one-tenth the width of a human hair” to “create temperatures that exceed, by thousands of times, the temperatures found at the center of our sun”:
The pulses emitted at the end of the Texas Petawatt laser chain are compressed to a tenth of a trillionth of a second, a duration that is the same fraction of one minute that a minute is a fraction of the age of the universe. These are essentially the fastest man-made events.
Through this process, he notes, scientists can study matter that “is like nothing found on earth.” The slim volume packs a lot, and through Shults’ outsider view you get a real sense of journeying into a realm where the seemingly impossible creation of a light brighter than the sun is fleetingly carried out several times a day.
“I see my job as not merely describing what a thing looks like, but, rather, what it feels like to interact with that thing,” Shults said. “In this way, I was a sort of layperson-by-proxy in this incredibly unique space, charged with communicating the almost metaphysical density of the laser’s capabilities.”
The Superlative Light by Robert Shults is available from Daylight Books.