One Picture

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available—once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known—a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.
– Sir Fred Hoyle, British astronomer, 1948

In my earliest childhood, when we were taught that the earth is round, it meant the earth was limitless. There is no edge to fall from, as people in centuries past had imagined. You can travel around the world and never stop. The scenery will start repeating but your journey can go on and on. Where people in the past imagined a finite world, modern people like us knew a world that was boundless and ever renewing.

The pictures of earth we saw in our textbooks were necessarily artists' renderings. The planet looked like a flat disk with large areas of brown and green, like a map with borders and labels missing. A few wisps of white appeared here and there to suggest clouds. Space on every side of the disk teemed with comets and stars and other celestial objects.

Then the first photos came back from Apollo 8.

Copies sprouted everywhere. Every classroom had a portrait of the earth posted in the front. Eyes of young and old were drawn to what they saw.

Who could look away? Everything about that world was new and surprising: its brightness, its aquatic blues, its dynamic swirls . . . and all that black, all around.


Image courtesy of NASA


'A grand oasis in the vastness of space'

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8, the first time ever that human beings visited another world.

This photo of the earth rising over the lunar horizon, made on Christmas Eve 1968, changed forever the way we viewed our home planet.

A new visualisation shows the events that led to this iconic photo being made. The video includes audio transmissions from the mission and is narrated by Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon. Photographers especially will appreciate the astronauts’ experience.



Believing the Unbelievable

Glad to see this article by the always worthwhile Michael Shermer:
'Why We Believe the Unbelievable' in the Los Angeles Times. Shermer examines the role of cognitive dissonance, monological system of belief, and confirmation bias in the never-ending stream of far-fetched conjectures about the Kennedy assassination.

I'm glad to see Shermer's mention of a facet of these things I've also observed: cognitive dissonance. The emotions have their own irrational 'logic.' One feature of it is expecting big shocks to have big causes.

When JFK is killed millions of people were thrown into shock.

Realistically, it makes all the sense in the world that a lone assassin could make that happen. The fewer people in on the plot, the better his chances of success. Anonymity works to his advantage while fame works to the disadvantage of his target. The imbalance enables him to gather information about his prey's whereabouts while his prey remains unaware that he even poses a threat.

But emotions rebel at the imbalance. A single malicious, insignificant person has the power to throw the world into such chaos? No way. Great pain must have great cause.

It's much more acceptable—even consoling—to the emotions to believe it takes all the king's men—Mafia, Communists, CIA, political rivals, Evil Overlords from the Middle Ages—plotting for months to get a thousand unlikely things to come together and make such a thing happen. One may cling to the feeling that events, if not under the control of good people, are at least under the control of someone somewhere. With luck, maybe our shadowy overlords won't let things like this happen every day. After all, these things are so much work to plan.

So hope the emotions. The universe, though, is notoriously indifferent to our emotions and does not respond readily to supplications.

Reality: the world is run by a giant committee that never meets and has no mutually held goals. Each one of us is on that committee. So is each person we meet. So is each animal, rock, and cloud.

In 1963 JFK was on that committee, as was Oswald, as was everyone on the parade route. Each individual knew the big picture about as well as you or I. And each affected it.



Multimedia Works Gaining Ground

A new article by Anne Midgette for the Washington Post explores the growing frequency of multimedia works in orchestra performances.

As Midgette's mention of 'Appalachian Spring' suggests, multimedia art is hardly new. Ballet is multimedia; opera is multimedia. Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk was by definition multimedia. 

Song itself represents a kind of multimedia: the simultaneous experience of music and poetry. 

What is new are certain technologies. Artists are a creative lot, as we know. Whenever they acquire new resources, they explore them.

Ars longa, vita brevis.


Terrorism Doesn't Work

Here's an informative essay that is worth a look on this day. Michael Shermer recently outlined five popular misconceptions about terrorism for Scientific American magazine.

The misconceptions are these:
1. terrorists are motivated by pure evil
2. terrorists are part of a vast global network waging a centrally organised war on societies they hate
3. terrorists are disciplined, brilliant and cunning
4. terrorists are exceptionally deadly to others
5. terrorism works

Not so on all five counts, says Shermer--badly as terrorists themselves may believe some of these things and want the rest of the world to do the same.

Here's that link again. Those interested more generally in the ongoing, noble work of mythbusting will find much to explore at Michael Schermer's home page and in the magazine he founded, Skeptic.