CAMBRIDGE — There’s a Milan Kundera novel with a supremely sad title, “Life Is Elsewhere.” Is life elsewhere? That depends on how you define “life.” There’s no debating that for the vast majority of people science is elsewhere. To be sure, the handiwork of science, technology, is pretty much everywhere. But science itself? Not really. It is its own realm: opaque, discrete, as daunting to consider as the square root of pi.
Stanley Greenberg seeks to overcome that apartness. He uses his camera to help us appreciate the wonder of science in operation — more specifically, of big physics, with its clean rooms and bubble chambers and toroid magnets and thin gap wheels and neutrino observatories and cryogenic feedboxes and calorimeters. Consider the poetry of those names, the way they evoke the miraculous even as they designate machinery. That’s what the three dozen black-and-white photographs in “Stanley Greenberg: Time Machines” do too. The show runs at the MIT Museum — a most fitting location — through March 30.
Greenberg had previously photographed other notable aspects of the manmade environment: waterworks, turbines, missile silos. In 2006, he encountered the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN, in Switzerland. Greenberg then embarked on documenting these astonishing, one-of-a-kind machines. He is, in a sense, carrying on the noble tradition of Charles Sheeler, conveying the mightiness of Ford’s River Rouge plant nearly a century ago. But these are industrial images of a very different sort. What they make isn’t other machines, but knowledge. They are not themselves the product of mass production. They are bespoke items — one of a kind, like works of art — as, say, Gothic cathedrals are.
There is an argument to be made that these structures — with their blandly inscrutable sci-fi look — are as magnificent an example of the handiwork of man as those churches were. In their very different way, they are dedicated to the spiritual as Amiens and Bourges and Chartres are; and the locations where Greenberg has gone to take these photographs — CERN, Stanford, Fermilab, MIT — form a very modern sort of pilgrimage route.
“Time Machines” as a subtitle refers to the ultimate purpose of these vast scientific instruments Greenberg photographs, to understand the basic structure of the cosmos and take us back to the Big Bang. Truly, in purpose no less than appearance, H. G. Wells’s time machine and that DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” movies are mere Tinkertoys by comparison.
Occasionally, one of the pictures in the show will look familiar, or at least recall some other type of built object. The structure in “15-Foot Bubble Chamber, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois” could be a stand-alone version of one of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s serial water tanks. “Semiconductor Tracker Barrel, ATLAS, Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Geneva Switzerland” looks vaguely look a radio telescope minus its antenna. “Collider Hall, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Palo Alto, California” could double as a handball court for the gods.
These are exceptions. Mostly the machines look like nothing other than their own monumental selves, which adds to the strangeness of their appearance. Greenberg’s straightforward photographic approach, a straightforwardness underscored by the black frames and absence of mattes, diminishes that strangeness, but only so much.
Greenberg leaves people out of “Time Machines,” which adds to the sense of strangeness surrounding these machines, and their majesty, too. Obviously, it’s people who built and operate and maintain them. Not so obviously, there are other creatures who interact with them. The Argentine pampas — flat, elevated, wide open, isolated — are superbly situated for cattle raising, as is well known. Not so well known is that those qualities also makes the pampas ideal for cosmic-ray detection. The facility seen in “Light Detection and Ranging, Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, Malargue, Argentina” is on the pampas. Alas, its array of antennas proved just the thing for cattle seeking to relieve itchiness. The installation of “cow-shields” did double duty: protecting the instruments and letting the cattle scratch themselves. The Swiss being the Swiss, dairy cows near CERN are presumably better behaved.