After Hurricane Katrina left its trail of destruction along the Gulf coast, MIT research affiliate Joe Davis decided to do something to memorialize the hurricane victims and inspire the survivors.
His idea? Build a tower that will capture electricity from lightning, using it to power a laser beam that throws energy back into the sky.
Davis, a 57-year-old biology researcher and artist, has worked at MIT for more than 25 years. He spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Mississippi and still has family there.
"Many members of my extended family lost their homes and livelihoods in Katrina," Davis said. "Everything within a mile of the coast was utterly destroyed."
He says the tower--which he hopes to build on an island or peninsula on Mississippi's Gulf coast--will be not only a beacon of inspiration, but a scientific tool that could gather meteorological data for research projects.
"I want this to impact technology and research as well as tourism and the arts. I want it to help with the economic and technological and scientific recovery of the coast," he said.
Davis, whose work has been exhibited at international events such as Ars Electronica, was recently awarded a $35,000 Rockefeller New Media Fellowship to help with the project, which he has dubbed "Call Me Ishmael." He has gotten additional technical and financial support from private donors.
The Mississippi Gulf coast has one of the highest lightning incidence rates in the United States, and Davis hopes that studies involving his sculpture may help to resolve the mysterious electrodynamics of natural storms.
The 106-foot tower would be similar to a lightning rod but would differ in several important ways.
When lightning strikes the tower, its three vertical aluminum masts will form the electrodes of a resonant cavity that would electrically break down nitrogen in the air and trigger an ultraviolet laser discharge that sends beams back into the sky.
According to Davis, these beams may in turn trigger powerful secondary lightning discharges; as a consequence, enormously powerful secondary laser discharges will also be produced. Davis points out that solar sail researchers await such powerful lasers to propel solar sails beyond the inner solar system.
Davis has already had some contact with officers of the Mississippi Arts Commission about his ideas for the project and he has been invited to present his plans to community arts groups in South Mississippi.
Davis says he is saddened by the destruction caused by Katrina and the failure to rehabilitate the Gulf region. Sluggish recovery efforts there are "a source of national shame," he says.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 2008 (download PDF).