the-largest-scientific-structure-ever-powers-up-in-africa

This dish antenna rises seven stories above an ancient seabed in the Karoo, a remote semidesert in South Africa. Later this year it will start scanning the universe for radio waves emanating from charged particles billions of light-years away, probing some of science’s deepest questions: Was Einstein right about gravity? What are the origins of magnetism? Are we humans alone?

The 50-foot-wide dish, though, will have friends. It’s among the first of up to 3,000 dishes that will eventually spread from South Africa into eight additional African countries. That spiraling array of mid-frequency dishes will join up to 1 million much smaller low-frequency antennas planned for Australia. Combined, they’ll form a single observatory called the Square Kilometre Array, the largest scientific structure on the planet, to gather 10.8 million square feet of radio waves.

Unlike visible light, radio waves can reveal phenomena like hydrogen ionized in the early days of the universe, pulsars orbiting black holes, and maybe even alien signals. But detecting those long, frail frequencies requires a monstrous instrument, and dish antennas top out around 1,600 feet in diameter. So engineers build sprawling arrays to simulate much bigger telescopes. When complete, SKA will be 1,800 miles wide, and it’ll see 50 times as much detail as the Hubble Space Telescope and record electromagnetic radiation up to a quadrillion times weaker than what your cell phone emits.

SKA was dreamed up over beers at a conference in 1990. Some 1,500 engineers have worked on it since. But it took until 2011 to form the 13-country consortium that’ll fund the project and share its data. Collaboration, says director-general Philip Diamond, is SKA’s biggest challenge. “I sometimes spend more time being a diplomat and firefighter than a scientist.” The first phase of construction, expected to end in 2027 and cost nearly $1 billion, will erect 133 dishes. On each, incoming waves will bounce off the reflector to a 16-foot subreflector that focuses them onto receivers. Each second, 8.8 terabytes of data will fly down fiber-optic lines to a main supercomputer. The timeline for phase 2? “It’s something for my successor to pursue,” Diamond says.


This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.


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Last June, a California college student named Matty Roberts created a Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” It called for people to converge on the secretive Air Force test facility in Nevada on September 20. “Let’s see them aliens,” Roberts wrote. The event quickly went viral; within days, hundreds of thousands of people had clicked the page’s “Going” button. Although intended as a joke, the event drew very real attention from the US Air Force, which warned the public not to try to enter the site, and from the state of Nevada, which started preparing for a possible tourist invasion.

Intrigued by the media coverage of Roberts’ prank, photographers Ryan Koopmans and Alice Wexell decided to take a look at this remote patch of Nevada desert for themselves. In August, they spent three days documenting the area’s few residents and their businesses for GQ Australia. What they found was mostly empty ranchland—which is, of course, why the military built the facility there in the first place. In the 1950s, it was the perfect place to test experimental spy planes, which some locals mistook for alien spacecraft.

“I knew there wasn’t much there, but there was even less than I had imagined,” Koopmans says. The closest town, Rachel, has a population of around 50 people. Other than one alien-themed restaurant and bar, the Little A’Le’Inn, there’s little for outsiders to do—this isn’t Roswell. Most of the residents Koopmans met just wanted to be left alone. “People move out there for a reason,” Koopmans says. “They were nice, but it’s not a super-inviting place.”

Photograph: Ryan Koopmans & Alice Wexell

Koopmans and Wexell did convince a local to give them directions to the unmarked dirt road that leads from from Nevada State Route 375—known as the Extraterrestrial Highway—to the edge of Area 51. After exiting the highway, they drove for about 45 minutes until they reached a gate with a No Trespassing sign. A white Ford truck was parked on a nearby mound overlooking the entrance. When Koopmans photographed the truck, it flashed its high beams at him. Only later, while looking at the photograph on his computer, did he realize the truck was empty; a security guard must have triggered the high beams remotely. “That was a little weird,” Koopmans says.

In the end, the Storm Area 51 event was a bit of a bust. Roberts tried to capitalize on the attention by announcing an “Alienstock” festival in Rachel, only to relocate the festivities to Las Vegas at the last minute. On September 20, around 40 people gathered at one of the gates to Area 51, where they were dispersed by law enforcement. Only one arrest was made, for public urination.

Or at least that’s what the authorities want you to believe. Koopmans says he’s encountered UFO enthusiasts online who believe the September 20 raid was bigger than the media reported and that its true size has been suppressed by the government. In other words: The truth may still be out there.


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Our solar system has amazing moons. Our own moon is pretty great, but no offense to our planet, the outer solar system is where all the action is. Our two gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, have dozens of moons, some of which are the most bizarre and scientifically interesting in the entire solar system. Some are tiny, oddly shaped rocks, some are larger mixtures of ice and rock, and some even have entire oceans below their surface. We’re still only learning about the range of possible moons in the solar system. This week we’re going to visit just a few of our solar system’s standouts.

Pluto’s moon Charon is one of the most interesting moons in the solar system. In 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft flew by the Pluto system and produced a wealth of new information about it. A standout feature is Charon’s red northern pole, composed of material stolen from Pluto’s atmosphere. This red, tar-like substance is made of irradiated hydrocarbons called “tholins.” It is also found on Pluto, Saturn’s moon Titan, and other icy bodies in the solar system.Photograph: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Perhaps the most famous moon in the solar system (aside from our own) is Jupiter’s Europa. This waterworld houses more water below its ice crust than all the oceans on Earth. While en route to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Jupiter and caught Europa rising over the giant planet.Photograph: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Coming in second in the fame category is Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This moon is covered in tiger stripes and has plumes that spew water into space. The Cassini spacecraft even flew threw them before its mission ended. In 2011 the spacecraft captured this spectacular photo of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings blurred behind. Despite the artistic nature of this photo, it gives a sense of just how large Saturn is in relation to its icy moon.Photograph: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Enceladus is famous for its stripes, or “sulci.” This close-up looks like elephant skin but is of two sulci called Baghdad and Cairo, which are both known to have plumes. While Cassini orbited Saturn it studied Enceladus and its geological activity to learn more about the possible ocean below.Photograph: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
In 1989 after visiting the outer planets, Voyager 2 flew past Neptune and its large moon Triton. This photo was one of just a few images it captured of this bizarre world. Triton may not be the most famous moon in the solar system, but with plumes like Enceladus’s and snakeskin terrain like Pluto’s, it is one of the more notable moons around.Photograph: NASA
This Death Star wannabe is Mimas, one of Saturn’s many moons. The large impact basin on the right is Herschel Crater, which takes up a significant portion of the surface of this tiny moon. By surface area Mimas is about the size of Spain, although unlike Spain, this moon is one big snowball made mostly of water ice.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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The village of Sagara B sits along a red dirt road in the baobab-dotted Dodoma region of central Tanzania, where half-desert savanna meets the Rubeho mountains. It’s home to less than 5,000 people and is so remote no one ever bothered to set up an internet connection. Until four years ago.

Over a week, engineers from Copenhagen-based company Bluetown erected an 80-foot Wi-Fi tower topped with shiny solar panels and a microwave link antenna. It connected to a fiber backhaul 15 miles away, creating a half-mile-wide hot spot with download speeds up to 10 Mbps—fast enough for Netflix. Villagers rented smartphones from the company and paid 50 cents per gigabyte for the data they used, just over 1 percent of the average monthly income. And just like that, life began to change.

“You can see that something happened with the internet,” says Danish photojournalist Lars Just. “The world sort of opened up.”

As of 2018, more than half of the world’s 7.7 billion people had access to the internet. Africa has seen huge growth, with the percentage of residents online increasing from 2.1 in 2005 to 24.4 last year. In an attempt to connect the rest—not just to the web, but to its proven socio-economic benefits—the African Union and World Bank recently launched Moonshot Africa, an initiative to double broadband access on the continent by 2021, and make it universal by 2030.

Sagara B resident Paul Jackson started a business recharging phones for less than 1 cent per charge. Photograph: Lars Just

The challenges are as big as the continent itself. Those offline often can scarcely afford food, much less expensive data packages. They tend to live in rural areas without existing fiber-optic lines, cell towers, or routers. Telecoms don’t invest because of the high capital expenditure and low potential revenue. Governments sometimes lack the resources to bridge the gap and are slow to enact policies fostering growth.

“In many places, it takes public and private resources to improve connectivity,” says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “Areas that are extremely poor or lack sufficient population density likely will need government resources or incentives to get wired.”

Locals wash the mobile mast and solar panels in Sagara B. Photograph: Lars Just
A woman checks her smartphone, her face lit by the rectangle of light. Photograph: Lars Just

Bluetown—helmed by an ex-Nokia Denmark executive—has found an innovative way to reach this market, bringing nearly 1,000 villages in Tanzania, Ghana, Rwanda, Mozambique, and India online since 2014. The company circumvents the cost of pricey, high-power hardware with a green energy setup it now delivers in three IKEA-like boxes. Installation costs one-tenth of a standard 3G base station, and the system runs on free, unlicensed bands like 2.4ghz, 5.8ghz, and TV White Space. The company doesn’t profit much from selling data, so instead it boosts revenue by selling content distribution services to local organizations via a local cloud, providing articles and videos about agriculture, education, government, and healthcare free to users.

“Four billion people don’t have access to the internet,” says Emil Damholt, Bluetown’s impact manager. “It’s not low-hanging fruit, for sure, but the potential is massive and that’s what we’re going after.”

After hearing about Bluetown’s model a couple years ago, Just contacted the company, and they invited him to shoot its second Sagara B installation. He flew from Copenhagen to Dar es Salaam, boarded a plane west to Dodoma, then took a Land Cruiser three hours east, his driver speeding down dusty, bumpy roads so fast the vehicle occasionally went airborne. On arriving in Sagara B, he visited the mast—easily the tallest thing in town—and FaceTimed his wife. “She took a screenshot and put it on Instagram, because it was so great to her,” Just says. “She’s used to me being somewhere where we can’t talk for three days.”

Just photographed internet use in the village over three days, guided by a local named Titus who helped maintain the equipment. Some 250 villagers had rented smartphones from Bluetown, from a tailor who began using WhatsApp to communicate with clients, saving him countless trips to the city, to a teacher who started relying on YouTube to check his English pronunciation. But it also has its critics. One woman Just met complained her husband spent too much time on Facebook and her daughters didn’t help as much with the housework anymore.

Sagara B sits in the red dirt, baobab-dotted Dodoma region of central Tanzania, where half-desert savanna meets the Rubeho mountains.Photograph: Lars Just

In an unfortunate twist, Bluetown couldn’t scale its business in Tanzania due to a difficult regulatory environment. Earlier this year, it handed over its operations at nine sites to Mobiwire Tanzania. It’s now focusing on India, where it’s already connected more than 750 villages, and Ghana, where it’s partnering with Microsoft to bring internet to 800,000 people—many in places as far-flung as Sagara B.


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Despite being the source of all life on Earth and the definitional center of the solar system, the sun is still something of an enigma. How fast does the solar wind blow? How do those particles streaming from the sun’s surface actually achieve liftoff? What’s going on in the corona, the sun’s atmosphere? Well, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on its way to shed some light on those mysteries. This week the mission’s researchers released new results in the journal Nature—a tantalizing, preliminary look at our star. Some of the answers are there, along with a close-up look at subatomic particle events invisible from Earth. And more answers are coming in 2024, when the Parker Solar Probe enters its official “science orbit.” So in the plucky probe’s honor, here’s a journey through some of the existing stellar science. Grab your sunglasses.

Medium-sized solar flares like this burst of radiation captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory in 2013 generally don’t affect things back on Earth, but they can interfere with GPS satellites and other objects in orbit. It’s a small price to pay for beauty; these solar burps are also partially responsible for the atmospheric ionization that causes aurora events at Earth’s poles.

Photograph: NASA Goddard

The European Space Agency’s PROBA2 satellite captured this unusually detailed photo of the corona—plasma that can be millions of degrees hotter than the star’s actual surface.

Video: ESA

This sunspot, captured in ultraviolet by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory in 2017, only looks small. That dark region of plasma churning in the sun’s magnetic field is actually several times bigger than Earth.

Photograph: NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory

This is not Mordor; this is our very own star. Sometimes bursts of plasma like this one, called filaments, are actually visible from Earth’s surface with a good telescope. The Solar Dynamic Observatory caught this one in 2017.

Photograph: NASA Goddard

A particularly active sunspot phase in October of 2013 gave the sun this spooky jack-o-lantern look. The brighter regions get hotter and more energetic as they interact more intensely with the sun’s magnetic field.

Photograph: NASA Goddard

In 2018, the Parker Solar Probe was still under construction in a clean room near Kennedy Space Center. The probe recently came within 15 million miles of the sun, and it’s now just two weeks away from a second flyby of the planet Venus that’ll whip it back around again—which means it had to be built to withstand scorching temperatures. Its heat shield, a specially made composite of lightweight superheated carbon foam, will bear the brunt, keeping instruments on the other side at nearly room temperature.

Photograph: Leif Heimbold/NASA

Wise up with WIRED’s collection of space photos here.


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Apollo 12 pilot Alan Bean stands on the moon during the second lunar landing in November 1969. A Hasselblad camera is fixed to his chest, and mission commander Pete Conrad is crisply reflected on his helmet’s visor, as Bean holds up a gleaming cylinder filled with lunar dust.

Space-philes can download a high-resolution version of this iconic black-and-white photograph for free from NASA’s website at any time. But if you’re looking for something a bit more luxe and have $3,000 to spend, you can buy a much rarer, vintage silver gelatin print from Sotheby’s. The image, developed in NASA’s photographic laboratories immediately after the mission and autographed by Bean himself, is one of more than 200 prints peddled by the auction house in its first-ever space photos sale, taking place today.

“I love the stuff, people love the stuff,” says Cassandra Hatton, who started up space exploration auctions at Sotheby’s three years ago. “Give the people what they want, you know?”

The market for space memorabilia is growing. Five years ago, Hatton handled a Bonham’s sale that brought in $1 million for just under 300 lots; her most recent in July at Sotheby’s, involving 218 lots, nabbed $5.5 million. The 275-year-old auction house began dealing in space in 1993, when it sold three moon pebbles weighing .0007 ounces—about as much as a raindrop—for $442,500. Hatton resold them last year for nearly twice that. She’s also brokered the $1.8 million sale of the cloth bag Neil Armstrong used to bring back the first lunar samples and a number of spacesuits. “I usually put them on and model them for our catalog,” she says. “Can’t resist.”

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has further fueled attention on space—particularly photos. In July, Hatton sold a vintage print of Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder of the lunar module during the Apollo 11 mission for $40,000, her biggest image sale yet. People bid from all over—the Middle East, Central America, Asia—though buyers from the US, UK, and France dominate. While some have a niche, like 19th century lunar photography, others are less discriminating. “I have one client in particular who is just an obsessive space photography collector and this is all they do,” Hatton says. “They’re just constantly buying.”

NASA offerings in the current sale include official photographs numbered in red or black ink—most taken with Hasselblads by the astronauts themselves and printed directly after the mission on glossy 8×10 Kodak paper for distribution among the press. Since they were frequently handled, finding popular images—like Earthrise from Apollo 8, the first American spacewalk, or Buzz Aldrin’s space selfie—that aren’t scuffed or ripped isn’t easy.

It’s a similar story for the Lunar Orbiter prints on sale. Those were shot by unmanned aircraft between 1966 and 1975 for the purpose of locating potential landing sites. Most depict dirt, craters, and other terrain. More exciting, off-mission shots—like the first view of Earth from the moon—aren’t as common. “Those would usually be printed at the request of a higher-up person in the military or NASA,” Hatton says. “They weren’t printed in large batches.”

The more pristine prints tend to come to Sotheby’s from former government workers in the military and at NASA who received them through their jobs, Hatton says. Years ago, someone found a bunch in a dumpster outside Edwards Air Force Base in California—a “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure kind of deal.” Most in the current sale come from private collector Phillip Kulpa. There are also some intimate, candid snapshots from the estate of NASA’s first senior photographer, Bill Taub, who documented the Project Mercury and Apollo missions and hung his favorite snapshots on the walls of his home.

Oh also: UFO pics. The auction includes several taken in 1976 by “Billy” Eduard Albert Meier, a Swiss ufologist who claimed that aliens began communicating with him at age 5 in 1942. Most famously, one image appeared prominently on a poster in the office of David Duchovny’s character on The X-Files. “A lot of my clients who are interested in space exploration are also kind of interested in the concept of alien life and UFOs,” Hatton says. “It’s not too far off base.” Or, perhaps, one person’s space shuttle is another person’s spaceship.


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In 2008, Vanity Fair Italia dispatched veteran English society photographer Dafydd Jones to Miami to cover the glamorous Vogue Italia party at Art Basel. Midway through the evening, Jones noticed a single man staring down at his phone, seemingly oblivious to the beautiful people around him. Smartphones were still in their infancy—the iPhone had just debuted the previous year—but over the subsequent years, Jones began noticing the same phenomenon at events around the world. Although the pictures seldom made it into the magazines for which Jones worked (one editor complained that he wasn’t capturing enough people interacting) the photographer kept shooting these smartphone-obsessed socialites and posting the images on his website.

“Quite often the people look beautiful, transfixed or hypnotized by the light from their screens,” Jones says. “But it’s also sad that people would rather interact with their phones than with the other guests. I’ve noticed that at the end of a party, when people should be deciding who to go home with, now they just whip out their phones and go into a corner.”

Two men stare at a smartphone during a 2017 party at Spencer House in London.Photograph: Dafydd Jones
A pair shares a kiss while one holds a smartphone at a party in London in 2010.Photograph: Dafydd Jones

A book of Jones’ images taken over the past decade, Screen Time, was recently published by Circa. Among Jones’ subjects are the rich and famous—including Ronnie Wood, Damien Hirst, and Stephen Fry—as well as ordinary people captured in Jones’ street photography. Now that nearly everyone owns a smartphone, the plague of screen addiction has spread democratically throughout the world. There’s even a name for the fear of being without a phone: nomophobia. (Get it?) “I think it’s a serious problem,” says the photographer, who by carefully tracking his screen time has managed to whittle his usage down to under an hour a day, mainly email and Instagram.

Jones has major concerns about smartphones, but his photographs of the smartphone-addicted are playful rather than scolding. “I don’t want to shame people, as if I’m going around trying to catch them,” he explains. The subjects who have seen his photographs have mostly just laughed and shrugged it off; journalist Harriet Quick, whom Jones captured staring at her phone, even posted the image on Instagram.

“People look at their phones for all sorts of reasons—they might just be trying to find their way,” Jones says. “But I would say that for about three-quarters of the pictures in the book, the people should really be enjoying where they are.”


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NASA’s new exoplanet telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short, recently released a new panoramic photo of the arc of our Milky Way surrounded by an endless array of stars.

TESS—a successor to the Kepler Space Telescope, which ran out of fuel in 2018 after almost a decade in space—spends its time staring at other stars looking for other planets. We’re not the only solar system in the universe, after all! In fact, Kepler has so far identified more than 5,000 planets orbiting other stars. These planets sometimes look similar to Earth, but many look a lot like Venus or Neptune.

The discovery of exoplanets not only has shifted our way of thinking about planet formation, but also has given us an opportunity to consider other places where life might be lurking in the universe. Looking up always fills us with wonder, but so does looking down—the Earth from above inspires just as much awe.

The mission of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which launched in 2018, is to hunt for planets in other solar systems. TESS, as it’s known, finds these exoplanets by watching a star and waiting for a planet to pass in front; when that happens it can detect a slight dip in the light from the star. To create this picture, the team combined 208 images of 13 different patches of sky. Twenty-nine exoplanets are hiding in there, though we can’t see them in this image. Photograph: NASA/MIT/TESS
This dazzling nebula is called NGC 2174. The photo was taken with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer—a telescope with a very wide lens that looks at the universe in infrared light. The agency also calls WISE the Van Gogh of space: Its infrared filters reveal a painterly flurry of movement. NGC 2174 is known as the Monkey Head nebula, and scientists aren’t entirely sure how it formed. They think a nearby supernova explosion could have forced this star out of equilibrium, causing it to burp up a bunch of gas and dust.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This cropped image was taken in 1965 from NASA’s Gemini 7 spacecraft. Inside that compact tin can were astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell. As they were floating above Earth, they captured clouds along the eastern ridge of the Andes mountains, with the thin blue haze of our atmosphere marking the blurry line between our planet and the rest of the universe.NASA
In 1975, an Apollo spacecraft encountered a Russian Soyuz, making for a rare photo of two spacecraft having a rendezvous. Not long after this photo was taken, the Soyuz docked with the Apollo spacecraft, and the Russian and American astronauts visited each other.JSC
NASA’s WISE spacecraft (aka the Van Gogh of space) snapped this stellar image of a star called Alpha Camelopardalis, seen here at dead center. The red material looks like the stroke of a paintbrush, but it’s actually a swoop of hot gas and dust from the star moving through the frame.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
The Hubble Space Telescope spotted a swarm of cosmic bees! Actually, it’s a so-called irregular galaxy named NGC 4789A. If you look closely, you’ll see little swaths of blue stars—those are massive stars that are relatively young and burn very bright and hot, while the red stars are much older.Photograph: NASA Goddard

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There’s no shortage of natural beauty in Hawaii, from aquamarine beaches to majestic volcanoes. But to see it you have to look past all the human-built junk in the way: 46-story condos, 12-lane highways, and concrete viaducts blocking out the sun.

Leah Schretenthaler makes taking in the Aloha State’s wonders a little easier in her series Invasive Species of the Built Environment. In it, she takes photographs of scenic attractions around Hawaii, prints the images, and laser-burns offending structures (and sometimes people) out of the way. “I really wanted to see how this land used to be,” she says.

Hawaii’s development took off in 1959, when the 132-island archipelago became America’s 50th state and commercial jets began flying in tourists. Beachfront hotels (like the Ilikai of Hawaii Five-O fame), shopping malls, luxury high-rises, power plants, military training centers, freeways, and even telescopes went up—drawing ire from native residents and environmentalists, and leading to the oft-repeated joke that Hawaii’s state bird is the construction crane. (It’s actually the nene, a threatened species of goose.)

Construction experienced another boom five years ago and continues with many projects planned—though not without controversy. Protesters have picketed against the Na Put Makani wind farm on Oahu (which some say could impact wildlife), the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea (a dormant volcano native Hawaiians consider sacred), and the $9 billion Honolulu Rail Transit project (several billion over budget and infamously mismanaged). Former Hawaii governor Benjamin Cayetanom has said the latter, involving 20 miles of elevated steel track, will “change the beauty and ambience of the city forever.”

These developments already have, according to Schretenthaler. She grew up in a military family on Oahu, their home nestled on the Ko’olau Mountain Range with postcard views of Pearl Harbor, Ford Island, and Mamala Bay. Though a swimming scholarship took her to South Dakota in 2008, and she now lives in Wisconsin, she visits Hawaii often and saw the rail line ploughing through her old Aiea neighborhood and nearby Pearl City a couple years ago. In some places, she says, it “dominates, blocking any view of the mountains behind it.”

Schretenthaler started photographing the rail and other developments on trips back home, shooting on medium-format film. She then made prints of the landscapes and scanned them into her computer. Once uploaded, she used Illustrator to fill in the built-up areas with black and printed the results back onto the original images with a laser etcher. The process took about 20 minutes for each print, the cutting head traveling back and forth over the image, spitting tiny flashes of light that burn away the emulsion.

The result: gaping scars that highlight just how much humans have altered Hawaii—so much, sometimes, that there’s nothing left to see at all.


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Few countries in history have experienced as sudden a transformation as Saudi Arabia. Until the founding of the modern state by the Saud family in the early 20th century, the vast Arabian Peninsula was inhabited mainly by nomadic groups living a traditional lifestyle that hadn’t changed much in thousands of years. The discovery and exploitation of oil brought an unprecedented influx of wealth that, almost overnight, catapulted the country into the top echelon of the world’s economies. That affluence, combined with traditional values, has led to some of the country’s most compelling apparent paradoxes.

“Development happened so fast that they haven’t really had a chance to keep up with it the way other societies have,” says Peter Bogaczewicz a Canadian architect and photographer who has lived in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh for the past five years. Examples of the country’s mixture of tradition and modernity are everywhere in Bogaczewicz’s new book, including its title: Kingdom of Sand and Cement. Bogaczewicz has spent the past half-decade traveling the country, initially out of a desire to document historic sites threatened by the rapid pace of development. During that time, he photographed abandoned villages disappearing back into the desert as well as 10,000-year-old petroglyphs.

“The petroglyphs are just these rocks at the side of the road,” he says. “You can drive off the highway and a couple hundred meters away you’re faced with this amazing scene. Anywhere else you’d have a museum built around it. Here, there were just a few people scratching their names into the side.” As part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to promote Saudi Arabian tourism, the country is now working to preserve some historic sites. But countless others—including some documented in Bogaczewicz’s book—have already been destroyed in the country’s rush to modernize.

Bogaczewicz got the rare opportunity to photograph the Kaaba at the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Peter Bogaczewicz

In other ways, though, Saudis manage to hold onto their cultural past. On weekends, many young men drive their cars out to the desert to go off-roading, slaloming down the sides of sand dunes as spectators watch. Another of Bogaczewicz’s photographs captures a Saudi family having a picnic under a highway overpass, much as their bedouin ancestors might have stopped their caravansary by a desert wadi to have a meal. And, of course, Islam remains central to Saudi identity. Bogaczewicz even got the opportunity to photograph Mecca’s Great Mosque. “It was a little nerve-racking at the time, but I realized it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.