Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Outside Looking In

How far away do we need to go before we disappear?   How grounded are we in the context of our own viewpoints?  Being stuck in a small space it is easy to forget our special place.  With larger and larger contexts we gain the viewpoints that allow us to understand ourselves better.

Our Dwellings
My house from a couple of hundred meters up

Our eyes are mostly focused on what is only a few meters in front of us.  Very rarely do we look farther away. Most of our lives are spent looking on the plane of the earth's surface.  

Even going up a few hundred meters changes our perspective on where we are.  

It's oddness and rarity challenge our contextual view.

From this viewpoint, it is fairly easy to discern much about what goes on.  Cars on roads, the shape and size of houses, trees positioned for effect, and little tubes sticking up from roofs for heating all give clues to the lives visible here.

Humans have seen views from mountains and hills that gave them this perspective for millennia.  Our cultures developed allowing us to see this view of ourselves.

Our minds can easily make this context shift as it remains within our daily understanding of our existence.

Our Communities

Moving upward to a thousand meters gives us a broader perspective on human existence.  The context of our lives becomes more apparent.  We can see the places where we work and play.  

My town from a couple kilometers up
The infrastructure that supports our lives, the highways we travel upon, the shopping centers we accumulate from, and the parks we play in are easily understood.

Our individuality begins to disappear at this level.  The community that was here before us and will be after us begins to become dominate.  

While we can see the structure our lives exist in, our self identity is merged into thousands of others.  Persons become peoples.

It is easy to pick out the markers around us that give us our identity at this elevation.  The groups of people we classify ourselves with can be determined.  My neighborhood, their neighborhood, that 'other' neighborhood can be divided in our brains.  

This perspective of human lives became possible with development of balloons.  We have had this view of ourselves for only a few generations, a couple of lifespans at most.

Our Areas

Going farther upward we begin to lose sight of lives as individuals at all.  Our communities are still apparent, but hard to tell apart.  

My  area from a dozen of kilometers up
Our eyes are attracted to the changes in color and straight lines. Roads allow us to differentiate between things, even our governmental structures are still apparent looking down from here.

Where our food is grown, where our water comes from, and the transportation network we use to move our goods about show us how our society is organized.

Those things we identify with closely are hard to delimit.  Which high school sports team we root for, our daily commutes, even the places we were born or go after death are merged until we can not perceive them at all.

Viewing our areas of habitation from this altitude began with airplanes.  My grandparents knew a time when such a perspective was a new idea.

My region from around 20 kilometers up
Our Regions

Going higher yet, our communities disappear, merging into a blur of geographic features. 

With some attention to detail we can still tell that organized beings exist in these places.  Large plantings by farmers, dams on rivers, even bigger towns can be noted.

It would be easy to deduce that life and even intelligent life existed on the surface far below.  The effects of their actions can be determined;  the level of technological progress even estimated.

Looking down upon a region became possible with the Space Race.  When I was a child, mankind first became able to envision an entire region in a single glance.

Europe from 50 kilometers up
Our Nations

Moving farther up again national borders vanish.  Our training from maps may allow us to pick out where one nation begins and another ends, but to an alien visitor, these divisions of land would not exist.

It is still possible to make out that intelligent beings thrive on the surface of this planet, farming, pollution, and other large scale environmental effects of humans can be made out.

Europe at night
A technological civilization is clear in the light spectrum during night time still.

Concentrations of energy use show how the beings on the planet gather in centers and along coast lines.  

A visitor could figure out that  these beings use water and land both.  

Some kind of organizational structure must exist for the creatures inhabiting this place in order for such massive use of energy.  

Before we even reach a hundred kilometers in the sky, our nation states disappear from view.

Our planet by day and night

Our Planet

When we move up far enough to take in the whole planet, it is still possible to see that our human species exists.  The lights of civilization burn bright in some spectra at night.

Individuals, communities, cities, and nations all fuse together.  Any sense of identity beyond 'humanity' has no real meaning from this distance.

The weather patterns of the globe are much more dominate visually.  Vast expanses of mountain, desert and ocean divide the planet's surface.

The first images of the entire planet came to us in startling rush.  As the Apollo astronauts rocketed towards the moon, a large chunk of the humanity watched these initial views of our shared globe on their televisions together.

Earth and moon in a single image
Our Earth/Moon

As space craft move away from earth and moon to distant planets in the solar system, we saw images giving us a context of our largest familiar identity.

Land masses, oceans and feint weather patterns are all that can be seen.  

The lights of our cities fade from view at this distance.  It is no longer possible to tell if intelligent life exists on the little balls floating in space.

Individuals and nations seem to have no meaning from this height.  The most important things in our daily lives do not register even faintly.

Earth seen from Saturn
Our Solar System

As the Cassini spacecraft orbits Saturn, we see the earth and moon as a single, remote dot.

The very existence of the planet comes to our awareness only if we observe keenly.

If we were to listen to the radio waves, only faint traces of human activity can be heard.  

At this height, all that we ever were and all that we are barely registers in the universe.

Voyager Beyond

Our most remote spacecraft is Voyager 1, launched in the late 1970's. It sent this image of earth from the very edge of the solar system.  

From six billion kilometers away, the earth is not even visible anymore.  Two magnifications are embedded into the photograph.  One is of the region of Venus.  The other is of the region of earth.  Neither planet is visible even when zoomed into to the highest amount possible.

Our light giving and life sustaining star, the sun, appears tiny, its features indistinguishable.

Unique, Special and Valuable

As far as we know, there is no other intelligent life in the universe.  Even if there are beings who are like us, such beings are very, very rare.

"Up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perception awaits us. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic, religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars." --Carl Sagan
The struggles in our lives seem so puny and insignificant in the context of just our own solar system.  Our focus on toys, teams, treats, tests, and those other things we occupy our minds with are truly trivial.

I often close my eyes and try to imagine this greater context.  Stepping up and away from that which is immediately visible allows a sense of humility to fill me.  The awesome uniqueness of my existence makes it more precious than I am able to imagine.  My frustrations and even my joys dissipate at the wonder of it all.

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