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  • As nerdy as the following story may seem at first, plow through it to the links at the end to see and hear demonstrations of this one-of-a kind psychedelic light show for grown-ups.

    In the spring of 1969, a graduate student studying city planning took a course on numerical models in geography. He became intrigued by one of them, known as Central Place Theory. Being an electronics hobbyist and a data graphics enthusiast, he decided to build a light box to visually simulate this model of urban and regional structure. As a design for a device crystalized in his mind, he could think of little else but building it. I was that student, and this is the story of the work of art that resulted from my obsession with theoretical geography and DIY electronics.

    The device I built is a shallow hexagonal box with flickering orange lights behind its front panel. The lights animate Central Place Theory, which postulates that cities across a region will tend to be laid out in a triangular grid. Each major city has, say, 3 satellite cities; each of them dominates 3 big town towns, and each town has 3 small towns, and so forth. These places occupy successive levels of nested hexagons, kind of like "turtles all the way down." Because of that arrangement, I called the device Hexagonia. It is an analog computer graphics display, built at a time when no digital computer was able to create such visualizations.

    Hexagonia is both the name of my light box and of an imaginary country whose urban areas are shaped and arranged hexagonally, like bathroom tiles. It animates the pace of life in cities across this urban landscape with 327 pulsating neon glow lamps, one for each city. Its 164 control circuits orchestrate lamps to flicker at certain rates and brightness, representing city size and economic activity. The biggest city flickers 20 times per second and the smallest ones about once every two seconds. Each of the circuits is a simple analog oscillator having two states (on and off). As they all flash independently, however, a gazillion (like 1 followed by 50 zeros) different combinations of on-and-off lamps are possible. Even though the display changes 400 times per second, it would take longer than the life of the Universe to completely run through all of Hexagonia's possible states.

    You may be wondering what could have prompted a graduate student in city planning to spend several hundred hours and as many dollars fabricating a light show in lieu of a paper that might have taken 10 or 15 hours to write and 25 cents for typewriter ribbon and paper. Most likely, it came from an urgent impulse to create works of art that embody timeless mathematical principles, in space and in real time—a mission to bring art to science and science to art. Lest we forget, it was the psychedelic 1960s and the watching this thing strut its stuff promised to be quite a trip, as we liked to say then.

    And so, you don't need to be interested in geographic theory, electronics, or statistics to enjoy watching Hexagonia. In a darkened room, the gyrating orange spots on its panel look like a ballroom full of dancers energetically swirling around as viewed from a skylight. A few moments of viewing it calms you, not unlike trancendental meditation. One uses a yantra, the other a mantra.

    In the decades since I built Hexagonia, it has graced the walls of some of my apartments and slept in the basement of others. I am fortunate to still have the device after moving many times and that it still works. Given that the machine is likely to outlast me, and lest my memory fail, I decided to document my youthful folly. So, if you are curious about what Hexagonia looks like in action, you can find a Powerpoint presentation about it with narration, music, and video clips on my Web site. There's also an mp4 movie of the presentation you can stream and dream if you don't have Powerpoint, plus a companion paper you can download.

    Thank you for letting me share.
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