In the Groove
The NOVA obelisk heads toward the heavens as engineers
atop the container wall study the ropes and workers below remove sand from
by Peter Tyson
September 1, 1999
I'll cut to the chase: We got the obelisk into the turning groove just as the
sun was setting last night, and it now rests at a proud angle of roughly
75°, ready for the attempt to pull it the final 15° to upright a week
from Saturday. The sand-pit operation was a complete, unmitigated success.
Now, I thought of writing this dispatch in such a way as to build the tension
slowly, drag out the day's events, keep you guessing about how well we did, and
only at the very end, just when you were becoming exasperated with not knowing
the result, have Rick Brown or one of his colleagues blurt out, "We're in the
But that's not the way it worked yesterday at the quarry. Not at
all. Though the day did have its moments of heightened expectancy and muted
wonder and celebratory high-fives, all in all it had about as much drama as a
And that's what was so impressive about it.
Brown and his crack team of timberframers, engineers, sculptors, and
ready-for-anything laborers had thought of everything, had planned for
everything, had tested everything. Their skill and professionalism shone
through in every action. There were no disagreements, no moments of doubt, not
a single unexpected surprise. The operation went like clockwork. To wit:
When I arrive at the quarry, Brown's crew has been removing the sand from the
pit since Monday afternoon, and the obelisk lies at an angle of about 40°.
This is already higher than crews on the two previous attempts to raise an
view of the obelisk settling down as sand is cleared.
"We're approaching a critical threshold of 45°, when the ropes will become
stressed," <Mark Lehner> tells me. This is the point at which a much
greater portion of the 25-ton stone's weight begins bearing down on the
three-inch ropes slung around its butt end and on the ever-lowering sand pile
on which it rests.
With a sudden creak of the ropes tightening around the pivot and braking
timbers, the obelisk shifts down a few more inches, stopping at an angle of
46°. Each creak is a teeth-clenching, all-bets-are-off kind of sound, as
primal and unsettling and unignorable as thunder.
"Rick, what happened?" Julia Cort, the NOVA producer, calls from ground level
as a loud creak and obelisk-shifting occurs and a flurry of voices is heard 20
feet above. Brown, crouching out of sight on the high wall of the sand pit,
answers with the calm assurance of one fully in control: "It rolled down,
rolled forward, and shifted a little bit." Just what he expected: In the team's
effort to bring the obelisk flawlessly into the turning groove, those three
elements are the ones he and his team are ever striving to balance, namely,
guiding the obelisk butt end down toward the pedestal stone while also pivoting
it back toward the ramp wall and keeping it aligned with the pedestal stone's
turning groove, which remains invisible several feet down beneath the sand.
The monolith early
Another sit-up-and-take-notice creak of the ropes, and the obelisk lies at
52°. Though the ropes and timbers are making all the noise, the sand, on
which the obelisk has rested from the get-go, is doing most of the work.
Strangely, a moment comes when none of the 30 or so people on the construction
and film crews is talking, and a brief, startling silence reigns over the
After a pause for lunch, we go at it again, and now there's a big leap, from
52° to 58° in one great, gut-crunching lurch. "We knew everything
would intensify after 45°, and that's exactly what's happening," Brown
tells me as we gaze at the ever-sinking sand. It's mesmerizing to watch the
sand's angle of repose suddenly become disrupted as workers dig out the heap
from below. A leading edge of cascading sand triggered by a new cavity below
advances up the heap of its own accord, like a living thing. "It's very
fractal," Lehner says, standing beside us. "A little avalanche within a bigger
avalanche." With the operation going so smoothly, we're free to admire such a
riveting force of nature.
Continue: 2:30 p.m.
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