6 November 2017

Running in the Cloud Chamber


Aerosols ∕ Big Gardens ∕ Deep Topography ∕ Running

I’ve taken up running, spurred on by my marathon-grade brother-in-law who leaves mysterious comb-shaped GPS trails across Leeds, visible in a training app he recommended. Tethered by elaborate descriptions of exertion, our phones have become tracking devices for sweaty meanders mapped onto distant terrains. I show the app to my colleague, who remarks that my own canal-side routes in Berlin seem a little cramped in comparison. I need to loosen-up; find my own signature, open myself to suggestion from the cosmos.

In Athens again, and a friend here has recommended me another app, made by a different sports-wear manufacturer. “It wasn’t a tip,” she protests over coffee. “I’m telling you I want you to use it!” The interface is friendlier: turquoise and egg-yolk yellow, with clearer maps and a chummy typeface. But the audio stats, which hail each passing kilometre, are growled by a canned voice called Kat. You can choose Drill Instructor too, but Kat’s probably fine for now. 

Half-way up Lycabettus.

My first Athens run is on Mount Lycabettus: a literary homage, of sorts, and close to the apartment. In Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names, the banker David Keller is shot at whilst running here. There is conspiracy in the undergrowth. I’m not seeking thrills, as such, though after three kilometres I begin to suspect the hill is made entirely of ascents. There is a chapel at the summit, with divine antenna, fucking with the topography.

More than once I’m told that the National Gardens are a better spot. “I’m off to Smog Park”, I tell my wife one Sunday, and head down into the Athens basin. All Athenian runners seem to have converged here, some bearing numbers on their chests, though an organised race is hard to discern amongst the vegetation and twisting gravel paths. I plunge into the humid space, and beat a random trail. With parakeets screeching overhead, I scan the undergrowth for tortoises.

Divination or free will? GPS trail in the National Gardens of Athens

It wouldn’t be completely facetious to wonder whether the health benefits of running here aren’t offset by Athens’ smog problem. A tripling in cost of heating oil since the crisis began has left many unable to afford their bills, and wood-burning (furniture-burning, trash-burning) is not uncommon. Forest fires don’t help. Scientists are alarmed by airborne levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium.

The benevolent cloud is in possession of a clear edge. There is delight in a puffy cloud. But the edgeless cloud is infused with dread. We give a different name to fog, as the view from inside the cloud obscures the tangible. Fog, and its evil anthropogenic twin, smog (or – worse – the preternatural-terror of ozone, oxygen turned putrid, and one atom too heavy), envelopes and enshrouds, penetrates even. It is our proximity to the cloud which colours our judgement. The deceit of cloud computing is its contradiction of this narrative: it purports to be everywhere, and well-intentioned, but is demonstrably local, and subject to nefarious machinations. 

Cloud Chamber

Ionized gas particles in a Phywe PJ45 diffusion cloud chamber, revealing proton interactions and cosmic ray spallation [source: YouTube]

I save my run-data to the cloud, and review the stats from a sun-lit bench. My pace merits scrutiny. A jagged graph shows temporal changes in elevation, but my route gives me pause: I have drawn a cloud, of sorts, in the fabric of the park. The swirls and loops of my trail are fully characteristic of the National Gardens, which function as a giant cloud chamber, a supersaturated vaporous medium in which my erratic course divines the interactions of protons, cosmic ray spallation or the trajectory of positrons at an urban scale. At a spooky quantum level, notions of free will become conjectural. A passing high-energy muon collides with a subatomic particle in my toe, leading me to prefer one path to another. Or perhaps it was the feral dogs, leering by the fountain, or the shirtless alpha-male alpha-particle who brushes my shoulder on a tight, bright corner.