Giant Geometry

Long before machine production, humans marvelled at nature’s ability to produce streamlined, seemingly manufactured forms. Traditionally (at least in the Western world), organic, curvilinear and irregular features are seen as characteristic of nature’s work, whilst geometry remains its unseen, underlying logic. As late as the 19th century, John Ruskin felt compelled to explain ‘the straight lined’ (as exhibited by rocks, minerals and crystals) as an unfinished, crude phase of natural expression, best left concealed beneath the earth’s surface. Geometry on a smaller scale is somehow less spectacular (perhaps because the detail of snowflakes or cell structures remain invisible to the naked eye), but something about seeing it writ large on the landscape evokes fascination, unease, and even scepticism. What is it about big geometry that seems so unnatural?

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Polygonal basalt columns, Giant’s Causeway, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast is famous for its geometric rock formations. Over 40,000 polygonal basalt columns (between 4 and 7 sides, though most are hexagonal), appear to be slotted together seamlessly, as if by some great, careful hand. Geologists have since discovered that the columns did not grow cumulatively (like crystals), but were formed collectively as lava flows cooled and gradually shrank, with starlike cracks forming across a large surface and extending vertically down into the earth. Recent studies have demonstrated that the slower the lava cools, the bigger the basalt formations [1]. Over a longer period of cooling the vertical columns broke into shorter sections, each break neatly fitted with a ball and socket join.

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Konrad Gesner, ‘De omni rerum fossilium genere’, Zurich: excudebat Iacobus Gesnerus, 1565.

Before their geological origins were confirmed, many believed the columns were either enormous crystals or the fossilised remains of giant sea creatures. The latter must have evoked sublime and terrible visions of beasts with tentacles, teeth or vertebrae caught in animated suspension. In 1816, Edward Jenner wrote that fossils are ‘monuments to departed worlds’. At one time the Giant’s Causeway might have held such dualities in tension: architecture and biology; earthly and extraterrestrial; naturally occurring and engineered. The natural philosophy of a pre-Enlightenment era allowed such contemplative spaces; even for mythology to merge with theories of the earth and its origins. For some, the feature continues to complicate an understanding of time and the way the earth was conceived and constructed. In 2012, controversy around the inclusion of a Creationist exhibition at the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre forced the National Trust to amend a learning display, a U-turn that highlighted the longstanding geological importance of the site and what it means for Earth’s history (scientific evidence places it some 60m years ago; Young Earth Creationists believe the earth is no more than 40,000 years old).

81a22b3b1eb9c602eae16c302836282fAs if to account for its fabricated quality, legend has it that the Causeway was built by an Irish Giant, Fionn MacCool, after picking a fight with the Scottish giant Benadonner. Upon catching a glimpse of Benadonner’s enormous figure crossing the sea, Fionn panicked and asked his wife disguise him as a baby so as to fool his adversary into thinking that proportionally, the infant’s father must be a giant among giants. The ruse was successful, and as Benadonner fled back to Scotland he destroyed the Causeway behind him, leaving only the remnants of a matching basalt formation on the Isle of Staffa, known as Fingal’s Cave. Unlike the Pillars of Hercules, the remains of this mythological feat of engineering are in evidence.

For hundreds of years the site has attracted scientists and tourists eager to see the spectacle of earth’s geometry on a macro scale. The shapes and variations are pleasingly refined, with edges almost machine-finished, and further smoothed by the elements. Standing upon them and looking down at their patterns, it’s easy to imagine that each was individually designed to fit together, like a giant jigsaw (or a bundle of pencil crayons, as sometimes observed). Visitors as early as the 18th century remarked upon the manmade character of the Causeway. Sir Robert Redding, first reporting his ‘discovery’ to the Royal Society in 1688, observed that ‘these Columns are so regularly ranged and fitted one to the other that it seems rather the work of art than nature’ [2]. There is something impossible or otherworldly about its precise formations, which continues to draw a healthy flow of tourists eager to traverse its polygons (and which was taken to its psychedelic conclusion in a 1973 Led Zeppelin album cover).

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Album cover by Hipgnosis for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, 1973

Having recently visited the Causeway for the first time, I was swept away by its giant geometry. Couched within the varied beauty of the Antrim coastline, its ordered striations are indeed transfixing, though I struggle to explain exactly why. What is it about straight lines, regularity and pattern on a macro scale that leads us to think (even if we know better) that something, or someone, must have designed or created them? Why do we associate nature with irregularity, and manmade or artificial features with more balanced calculations? Susanna Drury’s illustration from 1768 shows Victorian figures surrounded by column fragments, so neatly described that they resemble bolts shaken loose from a great machine, or else the detritus of some future empire. Like the figures, we are made small by association, complex micro organisms that can relate to the formations through the delicate components of our biological systems, or the mechanical works of our own making.

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Engraving of Susanna Drury’s ‘A View of the Giant’s Causeway: East Prospect’, 1768

Perhaps it is the combination of monumentality and seemingly measured features that makes the Causeway so remarkable. It is as if an otherwise concealed blueprint has been exposed, the inner workings of the earth turned inside out. Ruskin’s observation has relevance here, for it is the subterranean world to which these columns belong. Their presence on the surface is interpreted as alien, misplaced. The Earth’s interior exists on a magnitude that is difficult for us to imagine or visualise without diagrams or the cruel cross sections of quarries and industrial scale mining. On the Antrim coast we see this underworld reveal itself naturally, short circuiting our spatial and proportional perspective. It is evidence of a natural design that, until fairly recently, was beyond our comprehension. Yet even with an understanding of the geological processes which produced it, the Causeway persists as a grand and peculiar site of natural artifice.

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[1] University of Toronto. (2008, December 25). ‘Mystery Of Hexagonal Column Formations Such As Giant’s Causeway Solved With Kitchen Materials’, ScienceDaily. Accessed 8 January, 2016: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081216104325.htm

[2] In Alasdair Kennedy, “In Search of the ‘True Prospect’: Making and Knowing the Giant’s Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century.” British Society for the History of Science 10.10 (2007): 21-22.

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