Friday, April 22, 2016

For Earth Day: on viewing a home planet at great distance

by J J Cohen

Science enacts knowledge that we have long had: that the round Earth, should we ever be able to look back upon it, would be beautiful. Or so I once said on Twitter. I was thinking about this image, and this one.

Below you will find an exchange between Lindy Elkins-Tanton and me about such images. The conversation unfolded as we sat in her office at the School of Earth & Space Exploration at ASU, chatting with each other by text even though we were in the same room. This dialogue occurs in the middle of our short book Earth, which will be published by Bloomsbury in the not too distant future as part of their wonderful Object Lessons series. Enjoy ... and happy Earth Day!

The climates of the Earth (Macrobius)
J: In a letter to you earlier in this book I described how beauty invites the hand to grasp before the mind apprehends the motion of palming a smooth pebble. I wrote a book on stone because its beauty won’t leave me alone. I also think a great deal about the relation of medieval people to the planet they inhabited. On the one hand the cosmological diagrams they drew are wrong: the Earth is at the center! The moon and the sun are orbiting around the planet at nearly the same distance! There are not enough planets! There’s a god or some angels placed in Outer Space! And yet those concentric rings revolving around each other, drawn with precision and often vibrant in their colors, make we want to know more about this world view, and maybe even recover from it something that is not error, something that might be a spur to telling better stories about our Earth now. And it is interesting that your answer about science and beauty is full of Earth fragments (lava, the molten planetary heart, subatomic particles) and personal fragments (not everyone gets to choose between law and physics as a career, for example -- and not everyone is drawn to rocks or to inhuman forces). We write our own experience best. We are embodied and we compose from our lived perspective. But I am also wondering how we widen that personal point of view to embrace objects on a scale that exceed us and yet guard ourselves from losing the words to narrate, or the desire to connect. I wonder how we trigger communal widenings of perspective in the hope of a more just or at least more sustainable world. Let me ask this specifically of Earth: do beautiful images of the planet impede or enable?

Blue Marble
L: I suddenly see the old maps of the cosmos with Earth as the center a more true representation of our experience, in a way I have not before. I do think that the same unconscious constructs that can impel us to therapy also drive our passions and what we find beautiful. Devoting one’s life to the pursuit of knowledge and education, as an academic often does, or to a singular art, or any intense, large, driven pursuit, is a pure reflection of the strength of the unconscious construct. So suddenly I see that the Earth-centered cosmos is not a simple scientific misunderstanding but a true expression of our lives inside our heads, of our necessarily individual, separate experiences. OK. So, to your question, do beautiful images impede or enable widening of communal determination to produce a more just and sustainable world (in my paraphrase)? I suspect they may impede, unless connected to a far broader dialogue. What does a beautiful image do but connect to and thus reinforce our existing interior constructs and beliefs? How to share our sense of the meaning of the beauty, the message of the beauty. How to share, with those who don’t immediately apprehend this themselves, that our beautiful little world can be better. We can so easily ruin this world for ourselves (though the world and other life will persist, no worries!). We can also so easily make improvements that lead to less suffering. I am not sure an image of the world speaks those words to most people.

J: Sometimes, in fact, the desire to see the Earth as if you are not living upon it can be a way of escaping those tough questions: pretending you can inhabit a disembodied perspective, pretending you are not part of the object you behold. Can we really escape the planet on which we dwell? Can we know Earth more factually, more dispassionately when we look back from the moon? This morning when you were on a teleconference and I was sitting in the visiting faculty office, thinking about what we might chat about today, I found myself re-reading Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, in which a Roman general dreams that he is lifted into space to look back upon the dwindled Earth. The Milky Way shimmers around him and he can see that his beloved city of Rome has from this distance shrunk to insignificance. Planetary spheres revolve and from this perspective Earth appears as a banded globe, snow fields at its polar regions and burning desert along its middle. Two temperate zones line either side of the torrid middle section. These two thin and fragile strips bounded by extremes of heat and cold are the only parts of the planet that can be made a home. This story survived by an accumulation of accidents, and was a spur to all kinds of geographical and cosmological inquiry in later ages, as well as to some beautiful images that make Earth resemble Jupiter with its colored stripes. In the Middle Ages for example text of the Dream was extant only within an extensive fifth century commentary upon it by another Roman, Macrobius. The narrative tries to imagine an impossible perspective, one in which the Eternal City is just a dot, nothing all that important. The vastness of both Earth and the cosmos are overwhelming to Scipio, who awakens full of Stoic resignation to leading a good life in a world that utterly exceeds him. But that seems a very personal choice, one Roman general’s decision of what to do when overwhelmed by cosmic beauty. No community is conjured up to try to make the Earth more habitable or just (in fact Scipio goes to Africa two years later and utterly destroys Carthage, razing its buildings and sowing its fields with salt). I guess I am wondering -- since we have been thinking about emotions that cross the centuries -- if the awe we might feel when we look upon the Earth as a radiant sphere (and humans have been imagining that perspective for millennia) is too often a prod only to personal revelations and selfish resolutions. Nothing changes.

L: Astonishing. We need to start an encyclopedia of the responses to the realization that the Earth is a tiny speck, not the center of the universe, and that natural disasters occur with an impersonal randomness, and that we are microscopically small. In James Secord’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, he talks about the effects of Lyell’s work on the emotions of the time. George Eliot concludes The Mill on the Floss with a great flood that kills her characters, and she writes that its damage was soon overprinted with new trees and grass. This was part of a despondency that settled in the wake of Principles of Geology in those who felt that taking the times and events of the Earth out of God’s hands and leaving them in a thoughtless cacophony of natural disasters similarly robbed our own lives of meaning. Why strive, why improve, when we can be wiped away by a random event, and so will all be wiped away by random events in the end? So, the very realizations that comfort me with the idea that our wrong acts are dissolved by time and their miniscule nature in the broader universe, and thus give me strength and courage to go forth and be able to make mistakes and still persist, caused others to give up their striving.

J: And -- as we just said to each other, because we are in the same room, chatting online but also sometimes speaking to each other in ways that don’t get recorded here -- that necessary encyclopedia requires an entry for the recurring human impulse to imagine the Earth as inscribed with art that you can only see if you are not an ordinary human living and dying on its surface. I’m thinking of those desert images called Nasca Lines, massive geoglyphs in Peru that depict animals, strange human forms, and geometric designs. They are only viewable as coherent images only from far above … and so were created by imagining a perspective that could not be physically inhabited by their artists. Other such works exist all over the world, and continue to be constructed today (crop circles, anyone?) Yes they often get explained as visual offerings to gods or to aliens, but I think they are also transhistorical signals of the human desire to be above the planet we are bound to in life and in death. We send these messages to ourselves, and to those who come after us. It’s about sharing a world view, or an above-the-world view, 

L: As a quiet tired sigh at the end of this excellent writing session this morning, I will say here that we have reached the heart of the matter. Earth is an object and an icon not because we live here and it is our home, but because there is a universal, ageless, and completely bizarre drive in humans to see it from far, far above, as Scipio, Cicero, Macrobius and the ancient peoples did, and in fact to leave it, to fly away into the universe as we do in our fiction and as we have begun to do in reality. 

coming soon!

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