The Boxes

The first chapter of the “Satellites” project is a 5-day residency at the Special Collections Library at the University of Arizona in Tucson, to visit the non-digitised Tom Gehrels archive held there. I discovered the archive by chance on a Google search about a year ago. The online listing features only titles of the folders- titles such as ‘Correspondence with Carl Sagan’, ‘Asteroids are Dangerous’ and ‘The Physics and Identity of Dark Energy’- I knew I had to come and see for myself what was beyond these intriguing labels.

On day one, the librarians bring the first 6 of 39 boxes out to me. Little did I know that inside each large crate would be reams and reams of paper- letters, photographs, hastily written notes, manuscripts, diagrams. Lifting the first lid was the beginning of a journey I had hoped to make for quite some time- it took me half a day to trawl through the first half of Box 1. 

It is a strange thing, to hold a box full of thoughts. Initially, it made me feel sad- how could a full, long life so packed with amazing experiences and people be shrunk down to 39 boxes?

What will be left of us, of my generation, when we go? There will be none of this- these carbon copies of typed letters, no printed photographs, no VHS tapes of interviews or recordings from a dictaphone. You can’t store an Instagram story in a vault. All it is is code, series of numbers on a drive somewhere in the Nevada desert- and all could be deleted with the press of a button one day, at the beginning of the Digital Dark Age. 

What are the signs that we did, indeed, exist? What will they dig up of us, hundreds of years from now? And what will they say about us then?

The further I sifted through everything, the more I got the sense that we are who, not what, we leave behind. Every letter spoke of a relationship that was meaningful, professionally, personally or in passing. Every diagram and chart tells of an idea, whether it was seen to its logical conclusion or not. Every photograph was a moment in time, remembered or faded. These boxes are a footprint made in concrete. And in that sense, 39 boxes is not a bad haul, all things considered.

Box 1 of 39, the Tom Gehrels Papers.

Box 1 of 39, the Tom Gehrels Papers.