Monday 5 August 2019

PP #48: Philosophic Reflections on a Lunar View of Earth

This view taken  July 20, 1969,  from the Apollo 11 spacecraft shows the Earth rising
above the moon's horizon. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

Posted by Keith Tidman

Half a century after the Apollo 11 astronauts stepped onto the heavily pockmarked moon, a quarter of a million miles away, much of the world has recently been savoring again the grandeur of the achievement. Reaffirmation of the ‘giant leap for mankind’ legendarily beamed back to Earth, and the ambitious revisualisation of our space-based destiny and vistas.

The feat symbolised humankind’s intrepid instincts. To venture into space, as Earth-bound explorers once riskily did across threatening oceans and landmasses. To satisfy a gnawing curiosity, placing footprints, as these resilient astronauts did, onto unknown and little-known shores. And in the doing, be in awe of the oneness and most-fundamental architecture of humanity — the very nature of our being.

From this comparatively short distance, Earth still looks startlingly small and lonely — even humble, given its cloaking by the atmosphere. Yet, humankind might discover it isn’t alone; the cosmos brims with habitable planets. In that endeavour, how might the image of our planet change, then, as cameras peel back even farther: from elsewhere in the Milky Way and well beyond? As distances in space turn into light-years.

As Earth shrinks with distance, does the meaningfulness of our planet and its inhabitants shrink in parallel, in the vast cosmic backdrop, contesting humankind’s immodestly self-styled honorific of ‘exceptional’? Does our reality change? Or do, say, the ‘volume and mass’ of what fundamentally matters about us — our purpose — rebelliously remain unaffected, defining our place in the larger scheme, no matter Earth’s size in the surrounding cold expanse? 

A rebelliousness that, one might submit, emerges from a web of human ‘consciousness’ that stretches around the planet — the neurons and synapses (connectomes) of seven-and-a-half billion people ceaselessly firing: the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations. Integral, perhaps, to a larger cosmic consciousness: and again, the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations.

The seeming peacefulness in the image at top is just that: ‘seeming’. The pacific panorama masks the true nature of Earth: roiling with both natural and human activity. The phantom tranquility conceals one of our instinctual human behaviours: successive wars filling millennia of history. One wonders what idiosyncratically in the human genome leads mankind to war to remedy differences and trifling grievances, as well as quench hegemonic cravings. All the while paradoxically juxtaposed with the astounding complexities of humankind’s diverse civilisations and cultures.

As we gaze, from moon’s vantage point, upon the orb of Earth, with its thin coating of air and water, we are reminded of how vulnerably brittle the Earth’s environment is. Especially at the environment’s intersections with not-uncommonly remorseless technology. Existential risks abound. We’re reminded of the responsibility humanity has as active (proactive) guardians, to nurture the planet as the planet symbiotically nurtures us. Critical, we might agree, to the survival and continued evolution of our species.

What happens if we misguidedly, even disinterestedly, poison or exhaust the planet, as it hangs precariously in space? Or might nature, perhaps indifferent to humanity and coolly subjecting us to its whim, itself render the planet uninhabitable — leading to another major extinction event? Are we only renters, not owners? Did the lunar visit introduce a new imperative: to leave Earth behind and inhabit somewhere else?

Is there a solemnity about the rearward-looking scene of a distanced Earth — an awe that prompts reflection? A scene made all the more evocative by our believing that Earth is immersed in a sort of cosmic sea — of dark matter, dark energy, quantum fluctuations, and more. Is there the perception of ‘aloneness’, too, our seemingly distanced from everyone and everything else in that cosmic sea? The silence of the gaping, inky space contrasts with the cacophony of Earth, the latter a hive of devices that magnify our voices and echo our presence. Will that cacophony continue, or ultimately go silent?

In that presence, we marvel that humankind, dwelling on the comparatively tiny planet seen from the lunar perspective, nevertheless has the cognitive wherewithal to ponder and increasingly understand the cosmology of the whole universe: its beginning, its evolution, its current circumstances, its future. A study in the making, propelled by an irresistible impulse to know.

Anyone whose culture might have included the pre-digital-age children’s game of marbles may nostalgically recognise, from this lunar distance, the surface appearance of Earth, with its gauzy, chaotically swirling patterns. We admire its familiarly abstract beauty. All the while suspecting that there’s order interweaving the deception of chaos. Surrounding this marble-like Earth is a bewildering stillness and blackness — a blackness majestically interrupted, however, by galaxies and stunning phenomena like the Pillars of Creation.

Future generations will grasp, better than us, how this one step on another cosmic body, however craggy and nearby the moon is, served to spur far more ambitious tours through space, whether by human beings or sophisticated thinking apparatuses — to face down the harsh environment of space as we inexorably scratch our exploratory itch.


Tessa den Uyl said...

Apart from astronauts, most of us will never experience this view, except from a picture. Though human being has always been aware about being part of the cosmos, there was no need of proof to bring that into consciousness. And now, with more knowledge and technology to enhance our intelligence, people tend to forget they are rather insignificant within a large whole, hence some think they are their possessions!

We do not shrink in distance I think ( ref. to 4th paragraph), like every atom finds its place in a universe, so do we. (Visible or not). Though thinking that our thinking is important for that universe, I think is a big mistake.

Keith said...

“Though human beings have always been aware about being part of the cosmos, there was no need of proof to bring that into consciousness. And now, with more knowledge and technology to enhance our intelligence, people tend to forget they are rather insignificant within a large whole….”

I agree with you, Tessa, that conceptually people may always have sensed an awareness of their being, as you say, part of some grander cosmos. I feel that what has helped, though, to shift that concept from an abstraction to concreteness has been modern space technology, most notably the Hubble space telescope (launched into near-Earth orbit in 1990). I mention, in the narrative, the iconic “Pillars of Creation,” which may be the most illustrious among such images. (I suggest checking it out again, as a reminder, at NASA’s website.) It’s hard to gaze upon the Pillars of Creation without awe at its magnificence and size as a very busy nursery of stars — a stunning reminder of the light-years-measured dimensions and absolutely roiling energy of the cosmos we live in. But at the same time the image is also, I find, extraordinarily humbling as to where and how humankind might fit in — making it hard to duck at the very least querying our “significance within a large whole” that you refer to. Over an unexpectedly long lifetime, Hubble has produced a precious trove of other such images, most of which hammer home the point you make about “people being part of [this magnificent] cosmos.” I say, with a mischievous grin, that all that’s left to figure out is what that “part” in the cosmic theater we might be playing.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Keith, the concreteness as you call it, of seeing images taken in space, I do find rather abstract though. Not ignoring the fascinating aspect, everything you mention is taken from research, but is it not that carrying the cosmos within ( one doesn’t have to look far, a female body is highly influenced by the moon), then what you call concreteness to me is more concrete from where I stand.

Keith said...

Your comment, Tessa, referring to our “carrying the cosmos within,” for me is a pointed reminder of how human beings are of course atoms-based, biological organisms — our very existence made possible by elements spewed by billions-of-years-worth of supernovas. Through that cosmic seeding — the “cosmos within,” to borrow your expression — we evolved to join the ranks of other “fauna” competing to roam Earth. And inquisitively to cast machines farther and farther afield into space.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

'As Earth shrinks with distance, does the meaningfulness of our planet and its inhabitants shrink in parallel ... ?'

There is always the question I think: what is big enough for our attentions? What is big enough to lend us meaning? What is big enough for me? Is this all?

Keith said...

I think, Thomas, the question ‘What is big enough?’, in the types of contexts you bring up, hinges on what’s being measured. Measurements of cognition and consciousness are two particularly crucial domains, of course, in which ‘size’ and ‘complexity’ in some fundamental fashion may matter. We suppose a hierarchy in levels of cognition and consciousness — even if we concede a lack of obviously universally valid ‘units of measurement’. That said, despite humankind’s tendency toward bumptiousness in such considerations, in the glare of reality we may, as I suggested, be dwarfed. All the more so as Earth seems to bob oddly around in the cosmos, where an estimated hundred billion galaxies roam in the observable universe, and many more beyond. Deciding where and when cognition and consciousness reenter the picture in this calculus about Earth’s (and humanity’s) relative size in this grand scheme is arguably order number one. Then, at least on an individual basis, we can cycle back to what you asked, Thomas: ‘What is big enough for our attention?’ ‘What is big enough to lend us meaning?’ ‘What is big enough for me?’ ‘Is this all?’

docmartincohen said...

Isn't there a sad reality to the image too, that we have become so used to images of the Earth from space that it has become BANL? The power of the image has dwindled over the years.

It has been claimed that the 'Earth Rising' image as used on Stuart Brand's counter-cultural bible "The Whole Earth Catalog' launched a new era of 'environmental awareness'. . The slogan that went with the image at the time? "We are as gods and might as well get good at it"!

Keith said...

Along those lines, Martin, I think that feats, as well as images, commonly slide into the ‘banality’ you refer to. Isn’t the chestnut that ‘novelty wears off’? Or, couched perhaps more positively, novelty slides into familiarity and acceptance. The latter being a natural, expected part of our preparing for the next feat. Then the next. And then the next. The downside to the immediacy of novelty is that it may lead to breathless declarations like ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it’ — well, until the next inevitable reminder of just how un-god-like human beings actually are. Borrowing from the theme of the ‘picture post’ here, even the snapshots of our larger universe, taken as Hubble flexed its aging muscles over more than two decades, have increasingly taken on an air of expectation — as you rightly say, their ‘power … dwindling over the years’. Leading to the very human question, ‘Okay, so what’s next?’

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