Austin photographer takes rare pictures of Texas Petawatt Laser facility

Emily Gibson and Mary Cantrell

As popularized in the science fiction novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the answer to the universe is 42. That’s also the number of photographs in Austin photographer Robert Shults’ sci-fi-inspired project on the highest peak power laser in the world. 

“We got it down to 41, but we decided that was kind of a weird number,” Shults said. “So we added another one to get to 42 because it’s a popular number in science fiction.” 

The photo project titled “The Superlative Light” documents the Texas Petawatt Laser facility located on the first three floors of Robert Lee Morris Hall. Shults took photographs in the Petawatt facility nearly every weekday for nine months.

Photographing a laser posed challenges to Shults. Shults shot the project on an analog range-finder camera because of the conditions in the underground laboratory and the fear of burning out his eyes or his camera’s lens. 

“The laser dictates how it can be photographed,” Shults said. 

He also had to wait until one of the people he was authorized to follow entered the lab and then make sure he stayed in their line of sight. 

When he finished, he had taken 50 rolls of film and roughly 1,000 pictures of the ongoing experiments at the laser facility. 

“It’s literally right there under our feet — the brightest light in the universe, the most powerful laser in the world, this completely unparalleled thing,” Shults said. “There’s tens of thousands of students who walk across that space everyday and have no idea that they’re standing on the roof of this very historically significant device.”

The images will be on display in the Art.Science.Gallery. until April 11. Shults will speak at the gallery as part of South By Southwest on Saturday and on March 28 about the relationship between art and science and the influence of science fiction movies on the work, respectively. 

Shults said the project was a chance for him to convey the awe he felt when looking at the laser and capture the beauty of the lab for people who don’t have access to it. 

“It’s a big responsibility for me to be the designated observer,” Shults said. 

Mikael Martinez, chief of operations in the Petawatt facility, said the photographs offer an artistic view of what happens in the lab.

“It shows the lab in a different light — no pun intended,” Martinez said. “It shows a bunch of our hardware and physicists working in the lab, and you can get a picture of what it looks like and what it is that we’re actually doing.” 

Gilliss Dyer, a research associate in the college of natural sciences who works at the center that manages the laser, said the project helps people who aren’t science experts understand the laser’s power. 

“We see a lot of beauty in the science ourselves, which requires you to have an understanding of the physics,” Dyer said. “[Shults] shows [the laser] in a different way and captures it in another light that captures the sense of wonder you feel when you’re first learning about the laser.”