Serge van Duijnhoven
The Society of Researchers in Theoretical Mathematics, Physics and Astrophysics, meeting by the banks of the Baltic Sea for a European Union conference on space travel, hobbled along the roads of the seaside resort, scattered and struggling, with great ceremony and noise. To left and to right lay ruined villas, once hurriedly abandoned by rich East-Prussian families as the Red Army arrived. These stately homes had then been packed with six, seven or eight families brought here from distant regions by the Father of the People to prevent the return of the Krauts. This had a drastic effect. A friend of mine, who lives comfortably in Moscow, still eats every day with silver cutlery his wife’s parents found in the accommodation assigned to them by the Soviet authorities.
When I got back to the hotel I discovered a note slipped under the door of my room. It was from Levon Zarubian, the famous astronomer, asking me to come and see him at his institute in Armenia to discuss something in complete confidentiality. He assured me that it was a most important matter, and that he was unsure, he who had spent his entire life establishing missing factors of space and time, how much time remained before certain parties would take advantage of the situation in which he found hi mself, in his entirely decrepit institute. “I hope you can excuse yourself to your colleagues for your unforeseen departure without necessarily giving them any precise explanation. You will find a train ticket in the envelope, which will enable you to get here quickly. For various reasons, it is better to avoid airports and major transport centres of this type where you may come into contact with people from the wider world. Have a good trip, my dear friend, and try to be well rested when you arrive in Yerevan. In any case, I look forward to seeing you, and I am counting on your discretion.”
Levon Zarubian was a space specialist whose eminence was matched only by his eccentricity. He had made a name for himself in the 1960s and ’70s through his research into the UV-rays and X-rays from the sun, and on the appearance of sunspots. He had reached the pinnacle of his career with the launch, on board Soyuz 13, of the space observatories Orion 1 and 2, which he had equipped with a Cassegrain meniscus wide-angle telescope, built by his own hands. He was thus able to locate on the map, with great precision and up to magnitude 13, the ghosts of stars which had once been completely invisible, and he had surprised everyone with the findings of his work on the level of ultraviolet rays in planetary nebula and on the influence of black holes and white dwarves on their surrounding environment. By way of comparison, the observational strength of the American space telescope installed in the Skylab during the same period was only magnitude 7. As early as the 1960s, Zarubian was announcing the presence of magnetic fields in space nebula, something which would only be proved forty years later through observations made by the Hubble telescope (which he helped to design). Zarubian was an authority in the area of interstellar matter, binary stars, white dwarves, common chromospheres (still known as “roundchromes”) and binary globular clusters. In an academic capacity, he had lectured on theoretical astrophysics and astromechanics at the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute and at Princeton University. He was also renowned as a painter, philosopher, essayist and enthusiast of artistic science methodology. When my book Cosmic Catastrophes was published, we had exchanged intensive correspondence on the subject of the inexistence, as then supposed, of a black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.
The train made numerous unexplained halts en route, and we often found ourselves at a standstill in the middle of nowhere. At other moments, we were able to just about make out our location on the panels of unoccupied or burnt-out signal boxes where the place names were written in Cyrillic lettering. The wait during these stops (in the course of which we were unable to leave the train) also gave us the impression to some extent of taking a trip back in time. Journeys across eastern Europe are certainly also journeys across time. Going forwards also means going backwards. You go forwards but the clocks are turned back drastically. In Kaliningrad it is Russian time, an hour later than in Poland. Further east, in Lithuania, you suddenly have to turn your watch back an hour, since this country no longer wants anything to do with Russian time. A little further along, at the border between Estonia and Belarus, the attitude changes. From there onwards, the time everywhere is that of Moscow, the city of a thousand and one bell-towers. Many a western despot has lost his way trying to capture the bell-towers of that city. At the border between Russia and Georgia, rigorous, silent customs officers checked the travellers with Geiger counters to prevent the smuggling of radioactive materials. A wit muttered between his teeth that the only thing being smuggled in were “a few paradigms”. Most of the passengers seemed to have nothing to declare. The customs officers quietly completed their inspections. The needle of the Geiger counter remained at rest.
Smugglers of paradigms. A clever expression for the battalion of babblers on board this Caucasian Express as it jolted along, making slow progress.
In the corridor of the Erebuni Hotel in Yerevan, guests off the train are reunited with their luggage which the porters have lined up on the floor, in long rows, like body bags. At the bar, taxi drivers sit on stools passing the time playing cards. The steps of the reception room are of fake marble, and the place is unheated. Even the enormous chandeliers fill the room with a cold light. The atmosphere is slightly warmer on the upper floors, where a red carpet stretches along the endlessly long corridors and where chambermaids watch sphinx-like over the premises from their walnut-panelled offices. They give guests keys in exchange for slips of paper, or give them slips of paper in exchange for keys. Halfway along the corridors are the “buffets”, little bars where you can order something to eat and where, hidden behind huge ceramic vases full of sansevieria in full bloom, sitting around like bored cats, young, and even very young, female companions await a sign from the chambermaids to go off to one of the hotel rooms.
“The Hotel offers comfortable rooms for one or two persons as well as triples and suites, corresponding to all the modern requirements,” I read in the hotel brochure left out for me, along with a red semi-liquid sweet, on the pillow of my single bed. Exhausted by the journey, still in my clothes, I allow myself to fall asleep.
Shortly after I lay down on my bed to rest, the telephone began to ring. I woke up with a start, at first not knowing where I was. It was two o’clock in the morning, I was still exhausted by the journey in the dusty carriage of the antique diesel train which had brought me there at a snail’s pace, from Moscow to this dried-out Caucasian plateau. This volcano-shaped wilderness. This kingdom of crying stones, as Ossip Mandelstam called Armenia.
“Intimat Servis,” a woman announced, in a cold, impersonal voice. “Would you like some company in your room?”
“Call back tomorrow,” I answered, amazed as much as angry, before violently hanging up. In the morning, I felt as if I had dreamt the whole thing, until at breakfast I heard other male guests telling how they too had been dragged from their slumbers by intimidating calls.
Road 34 leading to the observatory did not appear particularly crowded with traffic. The minibus driver, who was taking me there with two other passengers, started the vehicle with a roar and, passing the cable car station in the centre of Yerevan, took a steep path which bent off into the mountains. The landscape on all sides could be described as lush, with apricot orchards and lapping irrigation canals. But what stood out most were the soulless high-rise blocks of a Soviet housing scheme and the bus-shelters in the shape of hollow fish. Opposite the plateau overlooking the capital, beyond the dusty heights of Arak, rose the four cooling towers of Metsamor nuclear power station. The plant, equipped with the same kind of double reactor as Chernobyl, had withstood earthquakes measuring 7.6 on the MSK scale, but the Austrian Institute of Applied Ecology unequivocally rates it as one of the most dangerous power stations on the continent. Its status has gone from “exceptionally worrying” to “unquestionably disastrous” in terms of safety, location, state of dilapidation, maintenance, and levels of corruption among management and staff.
After the power station, we passed through a dazzling village full of brightly lit casinos and brothels on both sides of the road: Stardust, Cameo, Monte Carlo, Fortuna, Gloria, Casa Blanca. Their permanently lit front windows were filled with pole-dancing girls, palm-tree beaches and Formula 1 cars. In front of the gaming rooms, gangsters’ Humvee vehicles were parked along the footpaths, waiting like armoured cars.
Further along, I saw many bare, treeless areas among the mountains. “It’s because of the cold winters we’ve had recently,” the minibus driver explained. “Now that we’re free of the Soviet Union, we’re also cut off from their supplies of fuel. People have to get it where they can.”
The mountains of Armenia stretch as far as the eye can see. A dry land of volcanic origin, purified by soda. Shining between the rocks I could see obsidian, a black crystal formed when lava comes into contact with water. These flakes are known as the devil’s fingernails. Between the few trees still standing on the bends below, the glimmering lake Sevan seems to be slowly emptying, like the country itself. Apparently the water of the lake has been pumped out in great quantities to produce electricity since Armenia broke away from the Soviet Union and the latter switched off, one by one, the supplies of money, gas and petrol to its outlying republics. Underground channels connect the lake to a hydro-electric power station which supplies the current required for the strict maintenance under any circumstances of electrical power to hospitals, factories and laboratories, including the space observatory for which we were bound, perched high in the mountains of Gerhard (pronounced “Geckhard”), famous for the medieval stone monastery where apostolic monks keep the spearhead with which a Roman guard is said to have pierced the side of Jesus Christ on the cross to see if the Messiah was still alive.
I was horrified to think that the astrophysics institute of the Garni fault, once so renowned, and which Levon still headed despite his eighty-seven years, was to be found here. The office buildings had been abandoned one after the other, and were now missing windows and door frames. It seemed as if either a fire had ravaged the premises or an earthquake had shaken the interiors of the buildings. All around, there were papers blowing in the wind, cabinets lying on their sides, upturned tables and chairs.
A sickly secretary led me to the first floor where the master was ensconced in his office. There, behind a pile of books as tall as a tower, I found him in his chair: Levon Zurabian, the scholar, astrophysicist, painter and honorary member of the Armenian Writers’ Union. A very old man, half deaf, with a speckled white beard, residing here like a king abandoned to his solitude in a ruined palace, open to the elements, riddled with damp, invaded by nature and decay, like something out of Sleeping Beauty. On seeing me, the old man jumped up clumsily from his chair, made his way slowly towards me, and greeted me with enthusiasm.
“Ah! Perfect timing! I’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad to meet you at last.”.
I asked him why his institute was in such a state of dilapidation.
“Lack of money. Since the Russians left, we’ve had to fend for ourselves.”
With great enthusiasm, he showed me the latest photographs received from Hubble, the telescope he had helped to develop. There were images of Pluto, the furthest planet in our solar system. “I was right all along: Pluto appears to be a double planet. And, at the same time, it appears not to be a planet at all. But it’s odd to see photos which prove it…”
Zarubian walked before me up the spiral staircase leading to the domed observatory directly above his office. He proudly showed me the operation of the Mercator telescope he had assembled himself and which captured cosmic radiation using a whole arsenal of interconnected devices. The light could be analysed in its entirety on a perforated aluminium plate on which each hole corresponded very precisely to the place of the stars, solar systems, and quasars. The aluminium plate could be copied simultaneously, via 640 different light sources running through an impressive heap of fibre-optic cables, to two separate spectrographs.
It was scarcely believable that, from this makeshift castle tower, the most ambitious astronomical research ever undertaken was being conducted: the Mercator Zarubian project, which sought to determine the position, size, radiation and colour of more than a million stars situated in one quarter of the celestial vault, and to calculate the distance separating more than a million solar systems and quasars – the flickering beacons which appear where black holes have swallowed up the surrounding stars and gas. When the work was complete, it would be possible to create the first standardised atlas of the universe using pentachrome images of the northern region of the firmament.
“Now, my friend, I’m going to tell you the real reason for my invitation. Come over here. Do you see this capsule?” Levon pointed to a glass booth, located in the middle of the observatory, to which were connected a great number of cables. “In this capsule I keep the spectrogram, which I can say with certainty deserves your very close attention, but which has also given me no end of problems. Because the ultraviolet rays and gamma rays, captured at the exact centre of the Milky Way, have jointly produced, for some inexplicable reason, certainly optical and ultimately chemical reactions in the aluminium cover of the lens of the Binocular Telescope, which has a radius of 8.4 metres.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“Goodness, I can’t put it any other way. At a given moment, God knows why, the spectrogram started to react. As if the aerial passage we were able to take from the occluded star in our Milky Way had come to life in some limited form. The radio radiation coming from the area around the black hole, as we observed it, resulted in the formation of a closed eye.”
“You can say that again. But wait, that’s not all. This closed eye moves as well.”
I looked at the scientist in stupefaction.
“It’s not me you should be looking at, you should be looking at that eye, there,” he told me, wide-eyed. “I have placed the eye in a transparent container maintained at a constant temperature of 7° Kelvin, which should keep the Cosmic Ocular Organism, or whatever other name might be given to the thing, in perfect condition.”
“That must use an awful lot of energy. Where do you get it from, in this ruined institute?”
“I have had a direct link set up with Lake Sevan hydroelectric power plant, which supplies a continuous and entirely secure current, so that the basic conditions in the capsule are kept constant. For the rest, I supply the organism with all possible light waves and all possible forms of radiation which come to us from the universe.”
I studied the elliptical material very closely, which appeared to be gently quivering in the incubator.
“Take another look at it, at your leisure. And now have a look at what happens if I release the gamma radiation energy field or the radiographic spectrum of a background noise over the capsule! Look!”
I watched, open-mouthed, as the blob in the chamber quivered for a brief instant, then unquestionably drew back to reveal the translucid surface of the internal organ, before covering it over once again.
“See? The eye winks…”
“Towards us? Do you think it’s winking at us?”
“I think, dear chap, that it’s winking at the universe.”
Directly below the observatory, unsteady pyramids of rubble mounted up against the rocks, reorganising themselves with a frightening roar several times per day, as soon as another pebble came loose. At times, the sound of these mini-avalanches was amplified and drowned out that of the icy river which murmured its way from the mountains to the valley and which grew calmer as it reached the level of the institute, where it divided into two small irrigation canals.
“The obvious question is: what does it all mean?”
“And what do you think?”
“I think, to be entirely frank, that it represents further evidence in support of my thesis that everything in this universe is subject to a principle of self-organisation. The universe is its own mother. And it is constantly giving birth to more children.”
“But what power does a child have which emerges from the complex reflection of a black hole?”
“That’s a good question. How about sleeping on it? Perhaps we can continue our discussion tomorrow.” Levon remarked, without batting an eyelid, and with a friendly pat on the shoulder: “I think we’re finally breaking into the mystery of the universe. I think the existence of this eye represents a significant breakthrough. See you tomorrow, my friend. Give yourself some time to digest all this.”
Before leaving the institute, I felt the urge to take a walk through the rooms and offices of the ramshackle building, invaded by rodents and weeds. The atmosphere of desolation and abandonment was reminiscent of the Tarkovsky film Stalker. I called out to hear my voice echo around an abandoned assembly room, empty and suffocating, where shafts of light beamed through holes in the roof. There was rubble on the ground, and I could hear low noises. Passing the assembly room, which had partly collapsed, where the Salyut capsules were once designed and assembled piece by piece, I climbed up a cinder path to gain a view over the whole site, and ascended the steps of a pylon above which swung the loose cables of a crane. Then I went and sat on the grass, in a shaded spot. I watched the butterflies frolicking, rocked by the breeze, and the domes of the observatory shining in the sun. Around noon, I stood up, brushed off my trousers, which were yellow with volcanic dust, and quickly went back down.
© Serge van Duijnhoven, Brussels 2011