The building that kicked off I.M. Pei’s career as a building architect also featured prominently in the city where two current staffers went to college. The NCAR Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado is the subject of This Week in Tech History, where Faith and Chris talk about the importance of the building, the design, and I.M. Pei’s career.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
How’s it going? Long time, no talk.
I know. It’s been a while.
Chris and I just had our one-on-one right before we recorded this podcast. So, seeing a lot of each other today.
I also realized, I think I told you, I realized that I’ve had my podcast microphone plugged in all day, and so like, all my zooms have been going to this microphone, which, when I’m not recording a podcast is like, tucked way back behind my laptop, and it’s gotta be so hard to hear me, and nobody said anything.
<Laugh>. Including on our call?
Yeah. So I don’t know if people just like, tune me out generally and don’t notice when they can’t hear me or what the deal is, but come on.
I mean, it does sound better now, but it sounded fine.
Oh, good. Okay. You could still hear me. (Chris: Yeah.) That’s good. Well, Chris, this is a very special episode, ‘cause we’re talking about an event in tech history, which I did not actually prepare for. So when we read this, this is gonna be the first time that I’m reading this story. It’s very “fly by the seat of my pants”, and this is my last episode as the host of the Frontier Podcast. So we’re gonna go out with a bang.
I felt like I was supposed to prepare some like, party poppers or something, or like…
<Laugh>. Walk out music.
Some fireworks outside, but I did not, unfortunately.
Oh my god. Well, you’re fired. No, just kidding. Play like, “Graduation” by Vitamin C or something. (MIDI VERSION OF “GRADUATION [FRIENDS FOREVER]” BY VITAMIN C FADES IN)
Yeah, there you go.
Alright. Maybe Bill can work it in. (MIDI VERSION OF “GRADUATION [FRIENDS FOREVER]” BY VITAMIN C FADES OUT)
Oh, that brings me back.
<Laugh>. What a banger. (Chris: Yeah.) What a banger. I mean, no notes on that song. Absolutely no notes. Perfect for every occasion.
Transported back to Dakota High School in Macomb, Michigan. Oh boy.
Oh my gosh. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think we had it incorporated somehow into our graduation sequence of events. I don’t know. I have to, I spent some time with like, my friends from high school a couple weekends ago at a bachelorette party, and the things that these people remember from 20, 25 years ago, like specific moments in class, like, teachers who said certain things, and it wasn’t just like, one person having like this, you know, obviously like, critical memory. Other people are like, “Oh yeah, and then this <emphasis> happened.” I’m like, guys, “What in the…how is this…I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast.” It was wild. Anyway, I’ll ask them about the Vitamin C situation in high school. Chris, are you ready to get into it?
I am. I’m very excited for this one. I used to live on the street below where this place is.
Okay. Well I’m excited to find out what this place is. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) Here we go. Chris, on May 9th, 1967, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also known as NCAR <pronounced phonetically>, which I am gonna say, I’m gonna call it “nascar” at least once today, on accident, (Chris: <Laugh>.) dedicated its new Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. NCAR <pronounced phonetically> has long been known as a pioneer in investigating weather patterns and other atmospheric phenomena using computers and other technology. Studies include meteorology, climate science, atmospheric chemistry, solar terrestrial interactions, ex-squeeze me, environmental and societal impacts. NCAR <pronounced phonetically> with instrumental in developing lidar, A.K.A. light radar, now a key archeological tool, as well as providing a broad array of tools and technologies to the specific community, or to the scientific, also specific, community for studying earth’s atmosphere, including high performance computing and cyber infrastructure, including super computers, whoa, technology transfer to support societal needs, data sets, data services, and other resources.
NCAR <pronounced phonetically> command language, also known as NCL, a programming language designed for use with climate and model data. The laboratory was designed by renowned architect, I.M. Pei. Pei based his design on the Anasazi cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde to use techniques such as bush hammering the concrete, laying out geometric shapes for the buildings, and using a local pinkish aggregate to help the complex blend…blended the complex <laugh>…to help the complex blend in with the surrounding Flatirons hills on the table mesa. He also laid out the building in maze-like fashion to encourage greater interaction among the scientists. That’s genius. The lab won the 1967 Laboratory of the Year award by Industrial Research Magazine and the 1997 American Institute of Architects, Colorado Chapter’s Twenty-five Year award. The latter is given for buildings that continue to serve their original function and have withstood the test of time over a 25 to 35 year period. The center was also named Best Research Center by Go Magazine in 2007. What a decorated research center. I did not even know that there were awards for research centers, and here we are. Bonus fun: the site is a popular short training ride for cyclists in the area, including for Abbey, who is our producer, when she raced for CU Boulder. Wait, I did not know that Abbey was a racer, a cycling racer.
Yeah, she was. So was I, actually. (Faith: What?) She conveniently cut me outta that one.
Oh my gosh. Abbey, we’ve got some words. Chris has some words for you. Oh, wait. “Chris was known to longboard down it.” That was the last piece from her. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Whoa. Okay, so you have experience at this place by nature of living close to it?
I’ve never actually been to the lab, (Faith: <Laugh>.) which I wish I had. I didn’t actually know that it was designed by I.M. Pei, which like, actually looking at it up close, it makes a lot of sense. I can’t think of something that scientists would hate more than a building designed to be maze-like.
Yes, and thus social.
And social. Yes. (Faith: <Laugh>.) But it’s this, if you’ve ever been to Boulder, like, at the Flatirons and just below the Flatirons, the south end of town, there’s this giant, not giant, it’s like five or six stories, but there’s nothing else that tall close to the Flatirons, and it’s this building. But it’s up on top of this mesa, and there’s a long, like, sweeping road that comes down a ridge, and it just kinda, the building just kinda like, fades into the like, red rock of the surroundings. So it’s really cool.
Wow. So you’ve longboarded down said driveway?
I have, back in my youthful sophomore days of living on Table Mesa Road.
Oh my gosh. How are your knees as an adult after doing that?
Totally fine. (Faith: What?) Yeah, yeah. No issues, surprisingly.
I cannot believe that. Okay, this place is crazy. It looks like where I imagine aliens would go first to like, check in. It’s like the welcome center for extraterrestrial life.
It’s very fitting.
Don’t you think? (Chris: Yeah.) They’d be like, “Excuse me? Could I have a map to the rest of this weird planet?” This is where I would go if I were an alien.
I mean, maybe that’s where they’re talking to them. So…
Maybe. Well, okay, so we did read a bit of that. I have a question for you. What is “solar terrestrial interactions”?
That’s a really great question <laugh>.
Okay, well here we go. Back to the Google machine. Solar terrestrial data. It’s probably not at all related to aliens. Yes, correct. It’s not. These are a lot of words that I think…yeah, solar data and images, blah, blah, blah. It seems weather-related, which makes sense, ‘cause this is definitely like, weather-related building. Perhaps not an alien-related building.
I mean, mostly. So it’s kinda part of this complex of buildings that was designed in like, post World War II in the south part of Boulder. There’s like, the National Institute for Standards and Technology is another like, modernist building that is not too far away, just kinda like, down the hill from where this is. That is home to the anatomic clock that happens to be the most accurate clock in the world, (Faith: Whoa.) which is pretty interesting. Yeah.
Colorado coming through.
Yeah, and NOAA <pronounced phonetically> is also located there. So it’s a real like, hub for atmospheric research. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like, back in the day this was, there’s like, it’s a pretty steep hill to get up, but like, the CU cycling team used to hold a bunch of like training rides up this hill because there’s only one-way traffic on it.
So you’re not dealing with like, getting hit by a car, like on most the roads around Boulder.
I’ll have to ask Abbey for these stories. I cannot believe I did not know this fun fact about her. I’m disappointed in myself. Okay. So you knew who I.M. Pei is. I did not know this. Who is this person, and is their name really I.M.? Like…A-I-M?
I mean, I don’t know. He has a, I’m sure he has a full name. But you know, his work, he is a like, a very famous architect that was from China, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) but he was on the faculty at Harvard for a long time. He’s like, most known for the extension at the Louvre that did the pyramids, the pyramid and the inverted pyramid. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And then the eastern building at the National Art Gallery in Washington, but this was the building that he credits with really launching his career. Like before this, he was known for doing a lot of like, work in cities and (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) really like, metropolitan, like, very modern international style, like Corbusier, like, cubist style stuff. And this is like, a very interesting building in that it’s like, if you compare it to a lot of his other buildings, to me, like, you can totally see like, the crossover and that like, cubist style, especially if you look at like, an aerial view looking at the top down. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) It’s how much it’s meant to like, sit into the background with that like, hammered concrete (Faith: Yeah.) is really cool. And it’s like, he says himself, like, this is what launched his like, launched his career, (Faith: Yeah.) and the fact that like, you can live below it. Granted, I was like, an idiot college kid and not know that it’s an I.M. Pei building is pretty wild.
Yeah, it is wild. I’m also reading about him, he died at 102 just four years ago
In New York in 2019.
There was a building at the college I went to that was also built in the ‘60s and very like, it just has that classic kind of like, concrete, blocky kind of feel, and I think there was some kind of important architect who worked on it, but it just reminds me of the NCAR <pronounced phonetically> building, because it’s the same. Like, when you look at it, you’re like, “How could that be functional?” Right? Like, “What’s the point of all of this?” But (Chris: Yeah.) when you’re in it, I mean, it’s there for a reason, whether it’s a good reason or not, right, to be maze-like and make scientists socialize or, you know, make space for the kinda work that they have to do. Who knows? But the vibe is the same.
I was doing some reading and saw that he went through multiple iterations of the building and, at first, the scientist that was in charge of approving the designs was mad. He said like, “Oh, it’s just a, like, it’s just a tall building,” or like, “It’s like, just like, two tall buildings,” or something. And he meant in the scientific like, rigor type of way and like, really angered I.M. Pei. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And then he came back with this like, idea, like, multiple small, like five-story buildings that are like a village and this idea of the maze-like cubist structure to make the scientists interact with each other. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Which, once again, I find hilarious, but it turns out that they were still friends until he died, so… (Faith: Oh, wow.) Apparently it didn’t anger the scientists too much, so that’s good.
I feel like if I lived close to this building, I would be convinced it almost looks like there are little like, robots like looking through binoculars or something. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Okay. Well, we’ll talk about one technical topic here, which is just the insane amount of data that’s required for any sort of study of weather. And I think like, because weather feels so confusing to me, I do not understand how models work, how to read any of that. I’m not Tyler. It almost feels like, the Farmers’ Almanac, to me, almost feels like, similar to astrology <laugh> in a way, where it’s like this…I dunno if I really believe this, but it turns out that there’s an insane amount of data that goes into any sort of like, weather science or predictive, you know, weather studies. And I did not realize that there were whole languages like, programming languages designed to handle that kind of data.
Yeah. I mean, I think this is like, especially relevant now, and I think it’s, you know, it’s really, there’s been that like, it’s especially relevant now, looking at this, for better or worse, like emergent AI technology and how fast everything’s advancing, but there’s always been this like, difference between the American and European model of storm tracking, right? And I think it’ll be really interesting to see just how accurate everything can get, and this is like, coming from someone living on a small island in Carolina. But it definitely makes sense that the like, this laboratory has played a role in the development of supercomputers, right?
Mm-hmm <affirmative>. I mean, what better field of study than weather to test the bounds of a supercomputer? Well Chris, I have a new place that I need to visit and that is Boulder, Colorado, specifically to see this crazy looking building, and I will hit you up for recommendations while I’m there.
Yeah. Have you, speaking of weather predicting, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) have you heard of this bird called the veery? (Faith: No.) There are these birds that are these like, tiny little birds that are a species of thrush that migrate from like, the northeast, and I think like, the guy that studies them is like, primarily in like, Massachusetts I wanna say. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) But they migrate down to South America, and he studies the time of year that they leave and migrate back. And the time of year that they leave predicts the severity of the Atlantic hurricane season better than a lot of leading meteorological models.
Yeah, in the past, and there was a 2019 study that showed that they were more accurate than a bunch of models were. So…
Oh my gosh. This cute little guy?
Oh my goodness. Just a little meteorologist bird. That’s wild. Okay, I will add that to my immediate consumption list. I’m currently in the middle of the like, elephants docu-series. It’s been a journey.
Is that the one with the Don?
No. The who?
The…on National Geographic?
<Scoff>. It’s Natalie Portman who does like, the voice, not voiceover. Natalie Portman. Elephants. Secrets of the Elephants. Yeah, it’s on National Geographic. Yeah.
I just saw an ad for it with an elephant who collects a toll on a highway in Thailand that is used for transporting sugar cane, and he smells out when trucks are coming that have high quality or a lot of sugar cane and stops him and takes sugar cane from the trailer <laugh>.
Okay, I have not gotten to that episode yet. I watched the first episode, which is based in Africa, and I cried. It was a journey. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) So I will watch episode two tonight, and maybe I’ll get to see the tax collector elephants. If we are so lucky.
Well, Chris, this took a turn. This took a turn. (Chris: <Laugh>.) It was fun. We learned about tech history, we learned about birds. Hopefully everyone’s gonna watch this elephant documentary. Great episode, If I say so myself. Thank you for joining.
I don’t know how much we got into tech, but we discussed I.M. Pei, so that’s fun.
It’s, yeah. It counts as tech history.
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