In a parking lot behind the Comstock Art Facility at Syracuse University, geologist Jeff Karson and sculptor Bob Wysocki cook up something almost unimaginable – homemade lava. Using a gas furnace the size of a small truck, the two professors melt gravel typically used for roadbeds into hot molten rock that they pour onto sand to recreate natural lava flows seen in places like Hawaii, Iceland and Italy.
In this episode, listen to Bob and Jeff describe their eight-year lava-making journey, from googling “how to buy basalt” to pouring hot lava into the cavity of a frozen chicken. Learn what Jeff has discovered about the dynamics of volcanic eruptions and hear how Bob has turned pouring lava into an artistic performance. And finally, find out what happens when a scientist and an artist team up to create something truly unique and spectacular.
This episode was produced by Lauren Lipuma and mixed by Tori Kerr.
Shane: Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s Podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Nanci: And I’m Nanci Bompey.
Shane: And Welcome to Third Pod from the Sun.
Shane: Okay, I wanted to ask you, did you ever do the science fair experiment thing in middle school or high school when you were growing up.
Nanci: Well never did the science fairs, but I do distinctly remember in elementary school cooking hotdogs on the roof of the school using some set-up with tin foil perhaps to learn about solar energy or something like that—not quite sure.
Shane: Or about multiple health code violations.
Nanci: Or that.
Shane: I think that I did. And I remember some of them and none of them were really noteworthy, but I wanted to ask you, did you ever do the kind of pinnacle science experiment? The baking soda volcano.
Nanci: So I do remember that. I think doing them in my kitchen at home and my mom getting mad because we made a mess. You know something like that. What about you?
Shane: You know, I never did it. Part of it was because I don’t think my mother would have tolerated it. We had, there’s no way we were making that mess in our house. But also, I just don’t think I was really impressed with it. I just really wanted to see the real thing, go to some exotic location and see lava.
Nanci: Well, as it turns out you don’t need to go to some exotic remote location to see lava. You can actually see real live lava in a parking lot in Syracuse, New York.
Shane: Wait, what are you talking about?
Nanci: So, a few weeks ago Lauren Lipuma, who’s another one of our producers, and I took a road trip up to Syracuse, New York to see lava being made!
Lauren Lipuma: Hey Shane.
Shane: Hey Lauren.
Lauren: Yeah, it was so amazing. So there are these two professors at Syracuse, Jeff Karson, who’s a geologist.
Jeff Karson: I am a professor of Geology in the department of earth sciences.
Lauren: And Bob Wysocki, who’s an artist.
Bob Wysocki: Associate professor in the school of art. I teach sculpture.
Lauren: And Jeff and Bob have cooked up this crazy project where they have a giant furnace and they take rock, melt it down to make lava, in a parking lot behind the Comstock Art facility.
Shane: Yeah, and all without having to go to an actual volcano.
Lauren: Yeah, so the project actually started because Bob is a sculptor and he was making what he calls geomorphically accurate sand dunes in galleries for a couple of years. Then, in 2009 he saw some slag that came off of an iron furnace that looked like lava, and he had this idea. He was like, well maybe I can make lava myself. So what he did was he went to the Syracuse University website and went to the Earth Sciences department and looked up the first person he could find with lava next to their name and that happened to be Jeff Karson.
Nanci: So, without further ado, let’s hear from Bob.
Bob: My desire and interest in making lava was out of … I wanted to be a landscape painter, but all the great landscape painting, in my mind and historically has been done 2 to 3 hundred years ago. So instead of painting, I actually wanted to make my own landscapes as accurately as possible. I had been making geo-morphically accurate sand dunes in galleries and museums and art centers for three years. I wanted to shift to something a little more involved and I had seen something in October of 2009 out of an iron furnace that looked like lava. And I researched it for two weeks, and I looked up Jeff to see who in Earth Science could tell me what to melt down. And he was the department chair and I was an untenured faculty member. As this, … I don’t wanna say it was … It was a social contract in academia, but he’s … He had-
Jeff: Professional courtesy.
Bob: Professional courtesies. He had to talk to me for at least two to three minutes. Seriously, like it was two to three mins I figure. Because he’s the chair, I could just post up outside his office and he has to talk to me. His secretary said he has about five minutes before he has a meeting.
Jeff: Yeah, she’s winking at me.
Bob: Yes and we have the whack job from the art department down here wants to talk to you about melting some rocks. Seriously. I’m sure it was like whack job.
Jeff: All geologist have people who come in and say, ” Is this gold?” Some piece of rock they found in their driveway-
Bob: To the physicists always asked. The physics guys are always asked, I just need to suspend gravity in this gallery for 30 seconds. Not even that long. Five seconds. Just no gravity. I knew from that and I went in and asked him and I said, ” Look. I can do this. I can hit these temperatures. I’ve looked, these are kinda the melting temperatures, these different rocks, but do I just … And I almost it was very tongue in cheek. Do I just go out in the driveway behind our building and throw a bunch of gravel in the crucible? And he said no, no, no. You’d wanna start from a known quantity and there’s certain rocks and we can get them. Easy enough to get. That will melt and become lava.
Jeff: You know there’s lots of big scientific questions regarding how lava behaves. The physics of how it flows, not to mention you know related questions like how do you live with lava flows. People in Hawaii know all about this. Are there ways to divert the lava flow. Can we use it commercially, in various ways? All of these things that would be worth exploring and boy these things came to mind for me in this incredible rush as Bob was telling me about this. And as I realized that he wasn’t just interested in making ash trays or something like that. That we weren’t just going to be making summer camp crafts or something.
Bob: I can tell you what he thought. What was supposed to be the courtesy three to five minute talk, or meeting. I didn’t get out of his office for almost an hour. Yeah.
Jeff: And by the time he got back to his office, I’d sent him an email [cross talk]
Bob: of all the things we could do.
Shane: Right, but not to sound tacky but this sounds like a match made in academic heaven. But I want to know how did they actually get to, what’s the science of it?
Nanci: Basically, they needed rock, lava is just melted rock basically.
Lauren: Yes, they had to find a source of rock. The rock they use is called basalt and basalt is just old lava that has cooled and hardened into rock. So, Jeff and Bob just Googled “where to buy basalt”
Jeff: Basalt is the most common volcanic rock on our planet. When you look at our planet, I always tell our students, there’s the yellow continents and then there’s the blue part, right? And we always think, oh yes, the water, right? That waters on top of volcanic terrain. It’s all lava underneath there. What we’re doing is pouring this rejuvenated, or reincarnated old lava. It’s about a billion years old. We get it from the mid-continent rift, a big giant rift zone that was very much like the east African rift is today. We just buy that material. It’s all ground up and cost very little.
Bob: I don’t want to say it’s no nothing rock, but it’s just that rock that’s used for lots of things. Primarily it’s quarried for road construction and also, railroad the base, railroad bits. The hardest basalt in North America.
Shane: What did they do, did they just put rock in a furnace and melt it?
Nanci: Well first they had to find a furnace that was hot enough to melt rock.
Lauren: Yeah, and then they discovered that melting rock is a little more complicated than they actually thought it was.
Bob: I knew that the gas furnace that we have in the floor that we use in the art foundry was hot enough. We have to be around, above twelve fifty to thirteen hundred C
Jeff: This isn’t just Campbell Soup that you put on your stove top and heat up. The amount of R&D and just flying blind, it’s like Bob said. “Sure. Go ahead and look on the internet.” There’s nothin’ there. It’s a complete air ball. He has done it all.
Bob: we got lucky with the dresser trap rock that we started with. It happened to have the right amount of water on a molecular level that was locked up in it, molecule by molecule.
Jeff: Technically, it’s a meta-basalt for those interested in those types of things. It was advantageous for us that that water that’s in those relatively low temperature hydrous minerals that are in that meta-basalt. When we cook it, they dehydrate. That water helps the, allows the lava to melt at a lower temperature. It sort of acts like a flux that goes away, then. After we make a nice convecting, homogenous masses material, it de-gasses, which is actually, Bob can tell you painful stories about the problems with that. It has to be watched. Just like a pot of pasta on your stove.
Jeff: It will boil over.
Bob: Milk. It’s milk, is the best example when you’re trying to simmer milk and it hits that point where, to the boiling, and it volume metrically changes. It’s like, you’re not ready for it. It’s the same with this guy down here. It overflows and it kills itself.
Nanci: So, now they got the rock, they outfitted the furnace. They figured out how to heat it up enough to melt the rock and voila!
Bob: On January 22, about 11 o’clock at night, in 2010, as had our first pour. And we, it took us a couple of hours longer than we thought to melt it, because we didn’t know what we were doing. But we poured out about 25 kilograms of lava out of the furnace indoors, the indoor furnace. There was a snowstorm out back, outside at the time.
Jeff: It was just stunning. Geologists kid one another, especially those who are sort of neophytes in terms of volcanology, and have often said that they have “red rock fever,” hang out and see this glowing, orange lava, and they’re just sort of mesmerized by it. I’m afraid I was afflicted. Me and almost everyone who’s been here I think is afflicted to some extent.
Every single volcanologist, every scientist that we’ve had come to witness these things, regardless of exactly what their specialties were, they just start spewing ideas. “Why have you done this? What if you did that? Could you pour it on this? Could you make this?” They all have great ideas. There’s just an endless number of experiments that could be done. Those are the things that run through your head while you’re getting this sort of indoor sunburn from being too close and too mesmerized, you can feel the heat. You can hear it crackling and making various sounds and evolving so rapidly. Just over a few minutes.
Jeff: We started out and for the first, I guess it was almost a year, wasn’t it? Bob was using this four furnace he that he mentioned earlier, and learning how to melt this ground up basaltic material. And the crucible that we were melting the material in was about the size of a five gallon can. Something like that. We had big crowds of people from the university coming down to see it. It was, it was really a lot of fun. We poured lava over all sorts of things. Doing all sorts of different experiments. Pouring it onto ice, pouring it onto dry ice. Wet sand, dry sand. Steel sheets, all sorts of different sorts of things. Just sort of proof of concept to see where we might go.
Bob acquired this larger furnace in Canada and got some help to get it customized for our purposes. This thing can hold, how much is it, Bob? It’s a few hundred pounds-
Bob: 700 pounds of material, a little over 300 kilograms.
Jeff: Right, so it’s enough that we can pour the lava out and make a lava flow. It’s about the size of a tabletop, easily.
Bob: It weighs 12,000 pounds, and it’s been so customized that it’s pretty much for lava.
Shane: What did other people think of their work. I can imagine if I saw lava in a parking lot I’d wanna know what the heck was going on.
Nanci: Yeah, I mean they had people coming by and asking them and they invited people to come see them pour in the parking lot. They even invited other scientists who just kind of were, didn’t believe them that they could pour lava, the stuff they’d see out in the field. You know, a real volcano.
Lauren: One of the things they did was build a special furnace that allowed them to pour lava continuously for several hours. And they took this furnace on the road with them up to Toronto and poured lava for a crowd of thousands at this overnight art festival.
Bob: Yeah, that was an exciting time. People were stunned. We were listed as the it thing to see that night. Was, the lava because it was in downtown Toronto. We saw pours down there that were big. That you only see on vents. That you see on vents on real volcanos. I brought some samples back and um, it was, one was from the edge of this pool or the rampart that formed in front of the spout itself. And it’s a very different looking formation.
I had this sample sitting in the back and a geochemist, Karen, is a geochemist from Colgate University, she goes, “hey, who brought that to you from Mt. Etna?” I go “It’s not from Mt. Etna.” She goes: “Yeah, that looks like the vents on Etna from last year’s eruption.” I go: “It’s not from Etna, I made this up in Toronto.” She goes: “You did not effing make this.” “Yes I effing did.” She goes “really?” Because her biggest criticism, she’s always been open to this, is [crosstalk] we’d be limited on the different kinds of lava that we’d be able to make. The different phenomena that you see around a lava pour and I was, we were always very cognizant of that, right. That we were de-gassing the stuff out of our furnace way too much. We were getting this glass-like, very clean. You know that doesn’t do much. It’s almost too perfect, it’s a little too perfect. It’s like what a computer graphics person would generate, it’s not, it doesn’t have it’s all the texture and the beauty that lava has. It was a serious performance. And that’s when for me it moved for me from doing these landscape pieces or this traditional sculpture that a lot of people wouldn’t understand what land art is in terms of traditional sculpture to something else that was about spectacle and performance and this installation. I created this environment and it truly was volcanic.
Shane: All right, I can certainly appreciate art and science together. But I’m a scientist, so I’m interested in what did Jeff get out of this as a geologist?
Nanci: So, what Jeff told us is that most geologists, even those who study volcanos, they haven’t seen an active lava flow. They happen in remote places, they happen at the bottom of the ocean, so for the most part, you know a lot of geologists have just seen that final product. That hard rock.
Lauren: Yeah, they see that end shape the lava ended up in but they don’t know how it got in that shape. So this lava project allows Jeff and Bob to see how those shapes form and figure out what the eruption was like when the lava came out.
Jeff: Ironically, most of the volcanic eruptions on our planet take place on mid-ocean ridges, and yet we’ve never even seen an active eruption on a mid-ocean ridges. But we’ve seen lots of different shaped lava flows. We’d love to know what accounts for those different shapes. Is it the slope? Is it the rate the lava came out? The temperature? The crystals, the bubbles that were in the lava? The details of the composition?
So, that’s one of the powers of our project. We can vary those parameters one at a time, or more than one and pour out lava flows of a size that is comparable to the individual small lobes of lava from which larger lava flow fields are built, and we can look at the details of those shapes and we can watch exactly how they develop. One of the really interesting things, and hard to quantify and understand, I think, is how the crust behaves on a lava flow. The viscous core of the lava flow is beautiful, bright orange. Like we like to say, Syracuse orange, and the black crust, though, is a visco-elastic sort of material, and then even brittle on top. But that’s really what controls the shape of the lava flow. It’s a race between the formation of that crust and the way the lava is moving and trying to break up that crust.
I think probably one of the most dramatic things that we’ve seen so far, is one of my graduate students over the summer did a whole series of experiments with Bob, pouring lava out over very gentle slopes, maybe from two to ten degrees, something like that, over wet sand, ice, dry ice, as lavas might have encountered on Mars, for example.
And one of the weird things that happens is, the ice, or moisture is vaporized, and it makes an air cushion for the lava flow, so that it can basically hydroplane down the slope. And I’ve talked to lots of other vulcanologists, they say, well that just doesn’t happen. But, of course, they haven’t seen a lot of lava flows moving, you know. How do you know it didn’t happen?
Shane: This is pretty impressive. But, I have to know. What is the craziest thing that they’ve done. Nanci: Well you have to hear them talk about the pillow lava.
Shane: What is the pillow lava?
Lauren: Pillow lava is, exactly what it sounds like. When lava erupts on the bottom of the ocean, something about the water temperature and pressure, makes the lava freeze into these pillow shapes. Almost looks like the top of a mushroom, these beautiful, billowy round parts.
Jeff: I spent a lot of time working on the bottom of the ocean, lava flows on the bottom of the ocean…And so, of course, Bob’s response to this was, oh, we’ll build a swimming pool. So, he built a, I guess it’s about let’s see-
Bob: Four by four by eight feet.
Jeff: Four by four by eight feet. Yeah.
Bob: Plexiglass tank.
Jeff: Yeah, the size of a big hot tub, with a plexiglass side so we could watch sideways and pour the lava in various ways. Sometimes, under the water, sometimes on top of the water. And it would make beautiful pillow lavas that looks exactly like the videos that you can see, that have been shot off Hawaii. Terrific. Well, first we had to figure out how to introduce the lava at the bottom of the tank. Because dumping it in the top through the water it fragments.
Bob: And we don’t get that. So, we came up with a tube that we could introduce in the bottom of the tank, a meter down. And how fast it moved across the bottom of the tank. And after our first time, it was like that scene out of Jaws, where we need a bigger tank. Like, it wasn’t big enough. So, we need a swimming pool.
Jeff: I have to say, we do a lot of things that lead to a lot of surprises.
Jeff: But those surprises, you know, about within hours after we’ve stopping ooing and ahhing about what just happened, there’s some really logical and interesting thing that we have learned
Bob: And probably one of the most interesting things, and this is one of the most bizarre things we’ve ever done. Undergraduate students move each summer from one place to the next place for the next fall. And there’s always the food that comes out of the refrigerators, right? We had one of my early assistants, Philip Evans. Philip showed up here with a bunch of stuff and he put it in the refrigerator, and we don’t allow food in the refrigerator in the shop, because it’s made for putting in molds and as well as cooling wax down stuff for different art processes. We had a frozen, chicken in there. And one day we were just pouring on whatever we could find, and the chicken came out and we held it under the frozen lava. We held it under the lava. Poured it into the cavity of this chicken. We thought it would cook the chicken. We were interested-
Jeff: It smelled great.
Bob: Smelled great.
Jeff: But we’re going to have the lava chicken.
Bob: Lava chicken, then we’re going to franchise this. We’re going to license it, right? We’re going to patent it or trademark it or whatever, and-
Jeff: This will be Colonel Sanders next option. Super crunchy lava chicken.
Bob: Whatever it was. What we got out of it was probably the greatest thing ever cast in lava in the history of species. It is the perfect interior of the cavity, of the chest cavity, of this chicken. It only cooked about the first quarter inch of the chicken. The rest of it was raw and sat out in the summer sun and was putrid.
Jeff: Every detail of the texture of the inside of that chicken cavity was-
Bob: And it was that perfect black glass. What it was, it was the moisture from the chicken generated some kind of barrier, or whatever it was, and it yielded just so, that the thing didn’t fracture. It’s got this beautiful glossy coat on it, and it’s perfect. But that’s the craziest thing. It was just a stupid idea that we had extra material, and like, yeah, let’s just do this.
Shane: Lava chicken?
Nanci: Yeah, lava chicken.
Lauren: Who would have ever thought that an artist, plus a scientist, plus rock, plus a thirteen hundred degrees equals lava chicken.
Bob: I think still the first couple of years, I’m quite sure Jeff was like … I’m quite sure some of the people in the AGU thought, Jeff you have a resume no one’s going to touch. You’ve been down [00:16:00] in Alvin more than most people, What the hell are you doing playing with this art guy?
Lauren: What’s it like for you two working together, coming from your very different backgrounds?
Jeff: Oh, we could run a clinic. We could write a book.
Bob: We could run … This could become a 13-part series. This is a bizarre marriage. It’s like it’s your parents. They get along, there’s reasons they’re together, but oh my God. They stuck it out for the kids or something. Art is not about … Art is all about “What are we doing today?” “Well, let’s just try this,” and you throw things together until something works. No one takes measurements. No one takes notes, and repeatability is not in our lexicon. [00:22:00] It’s all about repeatability. So in that way, we’ve had to learn
Jeff: Yeah. We understand each other’s perspectives. This has been a road.
Bob: I give you examples both in the right and left hand is, when they have an art and science project, usually the art is parasitic to the science.
Or, the flip side of that is looking at Pollack’s painting, where they’ll bring in a chaos theory person and they map the painting and say, it actually wasn’t random. Again, now the sciences, the math, those people, are parasitic to this finished piece of art. This is truly unique and scary. But I’ll tell you the power of those moments out there when we do have all those people around, regardless of their understanding of what we’re doing. I have a picture. It’s one of the few pictures I have of lava flows, but it’s not of the lava. It’s of the crowd. There is a pre-K student … He’s four years old … and a doctoral student, [00:08:30] and they’re about six feet away from each other. You can see the glow of the lava in their face, ’cause the lava’s pouring out. It’s winter. There was like 8 or 10 inches of snow out there. It was late afternoon. Everybody’s in snowsuits. They have the same look of …
Jeff: Utter wonder.
Bob: Wonder, of like, “Wow.” And to be a teacher, I never thought at this level, any level, to do something. It’s an incredible privilege, and I’m humbled by it, that you would do something that would appeal to the full spectrum.
Jeff: I think one of my favorite moments, really, is … Actually, I think it’s actually the same lava pouring Bob was just mentioning. We sometimes bring out sticks with hotdogs and marshmallows, and kids can roast marshmallows and things over the cooling lava flow, which is very fun for them. But the best thing is, they turn to you and start asking you questions. How much time do you spend as an educator, “Well, Johnny, what do you think’s going to happen,” and “Mary, why is it doing that?” Yeah, and it’s like, “Stop texting for a minute.” “Huh? What?” We wonder why university students, so many students come in, “Oh, I hate math and science.” It’s ’cause they haven’t gotten to DO science. To see something like that, and it is a great teaching moment. You’re so grabbed by it, and it’s an opportunity we take advantage of.
Bob: Yep. And I would say at the end of the day, if I don’t make any art with it, or we don’t get much science out of it, but we hear about somebody, an elementary school kid that saw this, that knew at that moment in fifth grade, “I was going to become a scientist ’cause I saw that,” we win.
Bob: Right? No, that’s “scoreboard us.” Like we win.
Shane: wow, that is not what I was expecting when you said lava in a parking lot.
Nanci: Yeah, it was pretty awesome, it definitely beats the whole you know baking soda volcano in my kitchen in fourth grade.
Lauren: It definitely does. To check out more videos of Jeff and Bob’s crazy experiments, go to the Syracuse Lava Project website or see photos and videos on AGU’s social media channels.
Shane: Alright, everyone, that’s our first episode of Third Pod from the Sun.
Nanci: Special thanks to Lauren for traveling to Syracuse with me and editing this interview, and of course, thanks to Bob and Jeff for sharing their amazing project with us.
Shane: This podcast was also produced with help from Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, and Caitlyn Camacho. And thanks to Tori Kerr for producing this episode.
Nanci: AGU would love to hear your thoughts on this podcast, please rate and review us. You can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at ThirdPodfromtheSun.com.
Shane: Thanks all, we’ll see you next time.