The fine line between fake and cool

A post on George Takei’s Facebook feed displayed this photo of Earth and two other planets seen from the surface of Mars, purportedly taken from one of the rovers up there.

The one on Takei’s feed had an arrow pointing to the lower dot which said, “You are here.”

It’s a pretty picture, but my BS bells went off because there’s just something “off” about the photo, specifically those clouds and the fact that the three dots are the only things visible in the sky.

By the time I saw this, the post had gathered over 2,000 comments, and a brief perusal led me to this post over at Discover, which explains that the image is a computer-generated “planetarium” scene, as witnessed by the little “NE” in the lower left hand corner of the screen.

Sweetly enough, the article also posted this picture…

… which is a real picture, “the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission. (March 8, 2004).” Found at NASA’s Flickr Feed, where you can read more information about the shot.

The tiny speck put me immediately in mind of the now-iconic photo of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it was leaving the earth.

Astronomer Carl Sagan had requested NASA to point Voyager’s cameras back toward home, and this was the resulting image.

In his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, astronomer Carl Sagan related his thoughts on a deeper meaning of the photograph:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

This quote, and much additional information about the photo and how it was taken, was found at Wikipedia. I had seen the picture and read the quote before, but it never ceases to move me.

Confession: I can’t do higher math.[1] I always wanted to be a doctor, but calculus put a rapid end to that dream, because you need calculus for the pre-med Chemistry degree and screw whole bunches of that, with apologies and honor and homage to my freshman chem teacher, Dr. Alex T. Rowland of Gettysburg College, a good man and a fine professor. But I’ve always loved science, and have stood in awe of the glory and majesty and miracle of the universe from its largest expanses to its smallest bits and pieces. I think I owe that love of science to the hours and hours my mother spent allowing me to roam the halls of the Hayden[2] Planetarium and the Museum of Natural History.

Publicity shots for “Pepper Young’s Wife”, TV-Radio Mirror, March 1957

I loved that rocket – it was in a darkened room, and each section was illuminated by a different color. The fuel chamber had a deep, red glow and I could stare at it for hours. This was one of my favorite books. Alas, my inability to comprehend the fine points of differentiation meant that I had to spend my life as a linguist and not as a scientist, but the love of understanding our world, from the quantum to the cosmic scale, never left me. All I can do is peep through the keyhole to where the big boys and girls are playing, and hope to understand as much as I can from there.

Years ago I happened across a copy of Powers of Ten,  a companion volume to two films of the same name which were based on the book Cosmic View (1957) by Dutch educator Kees Boeke.

Later, this map of the known universe from National Geographic served to pretty much bork my mind out completely.

Trouble is, it doesn’t stop there.

I posted the above map earlier, along with a photo of Hubbles ultra-deep field image, and just recently came across this mind-bending video done by the folks at NASA/ESA:

The animations were based on the red-shift values of the various galaxies captured in the image. The thing is, that is by no means all of it – it’s only the part we were able to capture with our rather primitive (albeit wonderful) instruments.

So what is our place in the universe? Scientists will be grappling with that question for as long as man continues to be relevant. The president of my church, Thomas S. Monson, said in 2001, ” I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it.” Taken in the context of the rest of his quotation, this has been interpreted by some to mean that we should reject science in favor of faith. I do not see it that way. The miracle of creation, in all its massive and miniscule glory, is before me, and I must accept the fact of it. But another fact remains: for all we know, we know virtually nothing. As tiny as the pale blue dot is in the immeasurably vast universe, so is all our scientific knowledge in the face of all there is to be known. I believe firmly that we do have a purpose and a place in all the vastness, and that purpose is to raise the human condition, to make life better in all possible ways for ourselves and for all whom we encounter. This is sufficient for me. In the words of Hillel, “the rest is commentary.”

And all this because of a single “fake” picture posted on George Takei’s Facebook feed. Thanks, George.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

1Just because I can’t do math doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.

A mathematical friend of mine assures me that this equation evaluates to ⅓. I couldn’t say for the two crore question, but I’ll never forget how to write it. See, it’s a limerick, and limericks I can remember. All of them. Darnit.

“Integral zee squared dee zee
From one to the cube root of three
Times the cosine
Of three π over nine
Equals log of the cube root of e.”

[2]With thanks for the correction to Haydn Rawlinson, who apparently knows not only how his own name is spelled but also the Planetarium’s.

5 responses to “The fine line between fake and cool

  1. Pingback: Eat fast, you’re not as good as the guy up there. | Playing in the World Game

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