My Photo


  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« the power of the pickle | Main | the importance of being nitpicky »


The Chinati Foundation, which houses most of the art, was the main reason my husband and I went last year. It's a worthy pilgrimage for those who want to encounter contemporary art in a unique and focused setting and stretch their minds a little.

I was skeptical of some of the art I saw, but Judd's masterpiece of 100 untitled works in mill aluminum is one installation that physicists might appreciate. The subtle permutations among the repeated forms are vaguely mathematical in the manner of much of Sol Lewitt's work from the 1960s and '70s. The effect of light reflecting off of these polished surfaces with the bleak horizon and broad sky through the windows of the hangar seems a phenomenon unto itself. You have to be there.

And the Dan Flavin fluorescent lightbulb installation is an exercise in pattern, space, and time--and I do mean exercise, because you walk through a sequence of six barracks to experience it. Is it beautiful? I don't know. It's conceptual. But it's not like any encounter with art that you'll get in a conventional museum with more traditionally appealing works competing with your attention. It's kind of like seeing art under laboratory conditions, tweaking one parameter at a time.

We looked for the Marfa lights, too, though my view was through a gimlet eye (the physics students confirmed my suspicions). We overheard other viewers who seemed to really believe in it, unless they were being over-the-top ironic.

If sealing stuff up and leaving it to rot is art, just call me Marcel Duchamp, 'cause my refrigerator's a ready-made.

My newest piece I call, "Quasi-sentient fungal growth on cheese, descending a staircase."


The Marfa Lights! ... I seen 'em with my own two eyes! and all I can say is that I was impressed ... and very confused and - oh - just a teensy weensy little bit rattled. Sure they look like headlights, but we saw them when there were no cars for miles in any direction. And highway 67 was several miles to the right of the viewing area. And although there is another road through there, it is a tiny tiny ranch road with nowhere close to enough traffic. And they moved up and down, not left to right (unlike the linked report above). And it just didn't make any sense. And and... I dunno, but not much leaves me speechless and I was at a loss.

The trip, 500 hundred miles into the middle of nowhere (part of the Judd experience), with a room at the restored Paisano is well worth it.

I'm always so gratified and impressed by the quality of the comments here. Seriously. :) Now I wish I had time to visit Marfa during my stay; I won't, alas, since a 500-mile drive is a bit much. But I will try and make the 45-minute drive to nearby Fort Worth to see the annual Main Street Arts Festival, which should feature some pretty cool stuff.

Some specific responses:

1. Trust the LA TIMES to focus only on the wasted Prada merchandise in their coverage of the arts center in Marfa. :) In general, while I like creative and funky art installations, I'm not a fan of minimalism -- I have one of those messy "catchall" brains -- but the exhibits Kristin describes sound intriguing and definitely out of the norm.

2. I think Blake should conduct experiments to determine is his fungal growth exhibits "quantum consciousness." He can then make a feature film on the topic and enlighten millions.

3. I noted that the SPS students carefully phrased their conclusion to limit it only to the lights they specifically observed. I'm inclined to favor some kind of an "atmospheric effects" explanation, but the reflected light need not necessarily be just from car headlights. After all, the first reports of sightings occurred in the 1880s when, as one "true believer" pointed out, there weren't any car headlights in the area.

None of the scientific theories espoused detracts from admiring the wonder of natural phenomena, in my book...

By "enlighten," I presume you mean "fleece." Well, pollen season is starting, and I do have to pay for my allergy medications **somehow**. . . .

The Prada "store" was erected since we went in March 2005. I don't know anything about it beyond what I've seen on a few websites (Google "Prada Marfa"). It must be a statement about how well-to-do New Yorkers are snapping up real estate here right and left and driving up the prices to levels unsustainable by what there is of the local economy. People like the authenticity of the place, so they move in and immediately start to change it to become more like the place they left.

If you read the history of Marfa, it really was complete nowheresville as recently as 1994, when Donald Judd died and his foundation only had something like a few hundred dollars in the bank. He didn't promote Marfa as a destination while he was alive--it was up to people to come if they wanted to. Then after his death, the foundation did have to get more aggressive with fundraising so that they could preserve the installations that were by and large completed. I first heard of the art in Marfa in 1995 or '96 in a newspaper article. So now more people have visited and discovered the stark remote beauty of this outpost. Outside of the art, the lights, and hang-gliding (which we didn't do), though, there isn't a heck of a lot else to do there--Alpine is the center of commerce in the region, and Marfa still feels kind of like a ghost town, with a conspicuously closed motel on 90 across from the Thunderbird Motel and the main street to the courthouse filled with blank store facades. Why tumbledown adobe cottages are now selling for $300K is beyond me. We stayed in Marfa for two days, at the El Paisano, and that felt like the right length of time.

If you ever do travel to Marfa, tie it in with a road trip to Big Bend National Park in the springtime (April is best) when the cacti are in flower and before the really unpleasant summer heat. Driving down Hwy. 67 to Presidio just before the Mexican border and then taking the road east towards Big Bend is one of the most rewarding road trip experiences you could ever hope to have: rugged scenery that is constantly changing with scarcely another car on the road.

Marfa has hang-gliding too? definitely makes it worth checking out...


Read your article on "mystery" lights and thought you might enjoy these links to actual data, including spectral overflights and radio comm. On Google it's:

For YouTube it's:

Dowsing Rods

A joke, right? As long as you're not looking for water they do move, and [gasp!] according to physical laws. Here's the reference:

"Utility and Limits of Dowsing Rods to Chart the Subsurface," Frontier Perspectives, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 26-31.

I tried following your site and story from English to Science, but it became wa-a-ay too confusing - and predictable. Typical "English-Student-Sees-the-Wisdom-of-Scientists" fawning. Had to get some relief, so tried your drinks.

I'm on "Laser Beam." Whew!

Maybe it's the "Laser Beam" talking, but why don't you "converts" publish the way many discoveries were really greeted? Ignac Semmelweis was rewarded for his discovery of anaseptics by first being fired, then thrown into a mental institution and beaten to death by the guards. Bolyston was threatened with death for the first immunization against Smallpox. Physician Oliver Wendall Holmes was dismissed early in his career as "the rumblings of a sophmore..." for his ideas on Child-Bed Fever.

Ah, but what about those experts who really are at the top? The ones who sit back, arms crossed, smiling like baked possums at every new idea. Phillip VI of France consulted with the best and brightest medical minds of his day to explain why a little illness called "The Black Death" was killing half his population. Their answer: "On 20 March 1345, at 1 PM there occurred a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the house of Aquarius. The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter notoriously caused death...Mars and Jupiter spread pestilence..." OK, thanks, guys.

I'm not as think as you drunk I am right now, but I'm like you, I like to exercise and look "buff," even at my age. But really, I think you could have picked a better jacket cover for your book on the subject...

I've just read your article and enjoyed most of what I read. I must say that the U.T. children haven't a clue. That being said, if they persue science as their life work, then we're for big problems.

Having grown up in that area, I know the area and lights well, better than most folks who travel to or through the area. The area where the viewing stand is located is the location of the Marfa Army Air Field that was in operation from 1942-1945. Some 3,000 pilots earned their wings there. With that bit of knowledge, you can see that it was not a small air base by anyone's imagination. In the 60's & 70's, many of the kids in Marfa and Alpine, including me, used to drive out the runways and chase the lights with our cars, headlights off.

Now back to our "educated children." With that bit of information, they would then know that the lights are not vehicle head lights. Another "tool" that the soon to be famous academics could use is a road map from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Standing in the viewing area at night you will see two area lights to your left. Those two lights are located on two ranches. They're on 365 nights a year. To your right you'll see a blinking red light. That's a radio tower on the Casa Piedra road south of Marfa. Any light you see to the right of that red light are vehicles traveling to Marfa from Presido. Watch those lights, they follow the same path each time, come on at the same place and go off at the place. That's because of the highway traveling over the hills. They are not the "Marfa Lights." Yes, you can see for miles around you in the Big Bend area.

The lights you're looking for occur between the ranch lights and the red light on the tower. Many times I've stood at night just outside the viewing area watching the lights. Every time the one of the visitors is leaving the stand I simply ask "Did you see them?" Most often the answer is no, so I invite them to see what I see. They always thank me for showing them, otherwise they would've left thinking they just "got had."

What are they? I don't know. I don't think anyone around there can tell anyone what they are. It's not that it's a secret, it's just that we don't know. I do think that the atmosphere, temperature and weather combined offer the best available reason for the lights.

Beyond that, I'm just a proud son of that area and would one day love to move back there. As for the "kids" who think they know, they go to tu, better luck next time.

Blake Stacey said:

If sealing stuff up and leaving it to rot is art, just call me Marcel Duchamp, 'cause my refrigerator's a ready-made.

My newest piece I call, "Quasi-sentient fungal growth on cheese, descending a staircase."


Talking about art & science in the article Daniel wrote over at Cosmic Variance reminded me of Marcel Duchamp and some of his "controversial" pieces as he broke with convention. Or I should I was thinking about the whole question of "What is art?"

Perusing this excellent site on Duchamp today,
I was reminded of Blake's hysterical comment (or at least to me it was!)that he made while he was in France last year, which is in reference to Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase" painting.

Then I just saw this online and had to laugh all over again:

If you fiddle through the Duchamp slide show, it will make more sense.

Kristin had some apropos comments to Daniel's article, too.

(See, threads never die - isn't the Internet great?)

People (including physics students) who go looking for car lights do not have too much difficulty finding them and proving they exist but this accomplishment only adds to the myth that all Marfa Lights are car lights. Visit for information regarding Marfa Lights of the more interesting kind.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.