The Frontal Cortex

The Blue Planet

Oliver Morton has a lyrical and thoughtful op-ed today in the Times, in which he re-interprets the famous images of Planet earth seen from space:

They came for the Moon, and for the first three orbits it was to the Moon that the astronauts of Apollo 8 devoted their attention. Only on their fourth time round did they lift their eyes to see their home world, rising silently above the Moon’s desert plains, blue and white and beautiful. When, later on that Christmas Eve in 1968, they read the opening lines of Genesis on live television, they did it with a sense of the heavens and the Earth, of the form and the void, enriched by the wonder they had seen rising into the Moon’s black sky.

The photograph of that earthrise by the astronaut Bill Anders forms part of the Apollo program’s enduring legacy — eclipsing, in many memories, any discoveries about the Moon or renewed sense of national pride. It and other pictures looking back at the Earth provided a new perspective on the thing that all humanity shares. As Robert Poole documents in his history, “Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth,” that perspective had deep cultural effects, notably in the emotional resonance it offered the growing environmental movement. Seen from the Moon, the Earth seemed so small, so isolated, so terribly fragile.

It takes nothing from the beauty and power of the image, though, to point out that it was the photographer, far more than its subject, who was isolated, and that the fragility is an illusion. The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing, and this strength flows from its ancient and intimate connection to the cosmos beyond. To see the photo this way does not undermine its environmental relevance — but it does recast it.

That the Earth is small is undeniable. If the inner solar system were the size of the United States, the Earth would be the size of a football field; if the distance to the center of the galaxy were a mile, the Earth would be less than an atom. But if the “Earthrise” photo could have captured our planet in the dimension of time instead of space, things would look different. In its duration, as opposed to its diameter, the Earth demands to be measured on a cosmic scale. At more than four billion years old, it stretches a third of the way across the history of the universe, a third of the way back to the Big Bang itself. Many of the stars you can see on a clear winter’s night are younger than the planet beneath your feet.

Mere persistence is not, in itself, that great a feat. The barren rocks of the Moon have persisted almost as long. But the Earth has not merely endured; it has lived. For almost 90 percent of its history the planet has been inhabited, and shaped by life. The biological mechanisms that first operated in the dawn of life animate the creatures of the Earth to this day, forming an unbroken chain at least 3.8 billion years long.



  1. #1 Martin
    December 24, 2008

    Some shameless self-promotion, but I’ve been blogging on Apollo 8 myself today, although I was taking a different angle, looking at the lawsuit an atheist brought against NASA as a result of their Christmas Eve television broadcast.

  2. #2 VJBinCT
    December 24, 2008

    The Big Blue Marble, our Home Planet… Some trite labels from half a generation ago, but still worthy. The images from space never will cease to amaze and inspire awe.

  3. #3 jb
    December 25, 2008

    Blue Planet

    Within my mind, I live on a small blue planet.
    Everyone seems far away.
    Everywhere is blackness,
    Yet when I look around me,
    Abundant life consumes each moment.
    I wish everyone could see this blue fragile life
    Floating in the blackness
    Next time they miss the bus,
    Next time they forget to look and smile.

    We float on a blue dot.
    We should all be frightfully concerned.
    No matter what you think, what I think,
    We will always be on this blue dot,
    Unless you are the master of darkness
    Or the emperor of blackness.

    Look at each other.
    Be kind,
    Look up,
    See blue.
    Realize that color came from somewhere.
    It could be another color if we don’t play our cards right.
    We should hold our worst enemies,
    Because even they love blue.

    Paris, 10 June 2002
    Sakyong Mipham

  4. #4 Daniel
    December 25, 2008

    I remember the voyage of Apollo 8. I was 26 years old at the time, had recently completed studies in science and engineering, and was full of hope for the world and its environment.

    It had been a bad year for America, what with the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, and the futility of the Vietnam War was becoming more and more apparent. But, as a country we (at least us younger folk) seemed to be waking up to the need to change our ways.

    The photo of “Spaceship Earth” from Apollo 8 reminded us that we were in this survival-of-the-species thing together.

    In 1968, the population of the world was estimated at 3.5 billion people. Concerned scientists were calling for a plan to curb the growth of the planet’s population, predicting dire consequences if we did not do so.

    Today, there will be an estimated 6.75 billion people inhabiting the planet on January 1, 2009. We’ve almost doubled the number of people, but we haven’t yet caught on to the inconvenient truth that we can’t continue to have more things for more people forever. The Earth simply cannot support unlimited growth.

    I’ve become more pessimistic as I’ve aged. I feel that the battle for the environment is already lost worldwide, mainly due to population growth and rising expectations.

    I think the focus should now be on preserving reservoirs of life that can regenerate the planet after the inevitable collapse of life-sustaining systems occurs.

  5. #5 yogi-one
    December 26, 2008

    There is hope. There are ways to start using the very waste we produce as a clean energy source (plasma gasification), as well as cattle manure (arguably humankind’s first major contribution to greenhouse gases).

    The fishing industry will remain a challenge, as long as industrial scale netting and trawling rules the day, but we can make progress as it becomes apparent to them that they are ruining their own bottom line with unsustainable practices. How would you like to be in an industry that will be out of raw material in 10 years or less?

    I see a lot of hard times ahead and starvation and poverty and disease for a possibly a majority of the world’s people. But I don’t see a total societal collapse coming.

    If you want to see a society that continues to stumble along, even grow, while 2/3 of its people live in poverty, and probably half of those what would be considered hopeless, grinding poverty, I give you India.

    Society won’t suddenly die off. It will keep painfully inching along, with humans struggling to survive everyday, and those who can and have the conscience to, trying to improve humanity’s lot.

    And there will still those who don’t seem to have the altruism instinct: they will continue to believe life is about selfishness, and not feel anything for the less fortunate.

    The factors that determine whether life will persist on Earth are more cosmic than human: things like stability of orbit and rotation, stability of the sun for a few more billion years, the continuation of the inner processes of the planet that generate heat energy and its magnetic field.

    It is true that asteroids and chemical changes in the atmosphere and oceans can cause mass extinctions (some argue that we are in one now). But Earth has recovered from several extinction events in the past, including a 90% extinction.

    We’re in for a rough ride until we figure out how to live sustainably with a large population on the planet. But barring some breakdown of the cosmic forces that keep the planet positioned and primed for life, I think we will still be here.

    So in a sense, prepare for the worst possible scenario: we won’t be liberated by extinction, that would be too easy. No, we have to stay and face the problems. Nature seems primed to confront us with the biggest challenge we can handle, and not let us opt out in easy ways from it.

    Our level of intelligence presents us with the challenge that we have to responsibly learn to evolve ourselves, and to help maintain the systems of a living planet, as opposed to just letting nature do it for us.

    That we have so far failed to respond to that call is not surprising, seeing that we have only been confronted with it for a single generation. To many of us, especially the older generation of world leaders, the shift is to great to make. Even if they see it, they don’t know how to respond.

    We may be making too many youngsters, but the fact is, they are the ones who will grow up from childhood with a whole level of responsibility toward a planetary civilization and a planet itself that was incomprehensible to our generation.

    I believe they are the ones who will actually start to respond to the challenge of planetary stewardship and self-evolution.

    I hope I am around to see it happen.

  6. #6 Ian
    December 28, 2008

    And in this day and age, we have global warming, and global warming denialists.

    We have diseases spreading and becoming resistant to our best antibiotics.

    We have an energy crisis running full tilt and we have crisis denialists.

    We have starvation and people thinking it’s more important to spend billions waging war than it is to feed children.

    We have pollution and people thinking it’s more important to fuel the businesses causing the pollution than it is to fight the pollution.

    We have species dying off at an alarming rate and people who don’t care.

    It is indeed a blue planet.

  7. #7 aşk şiirleri
    June 20, 2009

    read a news that, 5hour f-16 flight spends about $250K, very high!

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