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Humans and nature: It’s complicated.

Posted on Friday, October 25th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Depending on your point of reference, humanity can seem distinct from and damaging to nature or like an emergent part of a single thriving force. Two interviews with the authors of new books illustrate this elasticity and the multifaceted conceptions of ourselves and nature we shift through depending on the questions we ask and the spaciotemporal scales we consider.

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J.B. MacKinnon and Sharon J. Riley, writing for Harpers, discuss The Once and Future World in which MacKinnon explores the impact humans have had on the Earth’s ecosystems and how misunderstanding that impact can lead us to misunderstand nature itself. He relates the story of a whale that was spotted just off the coast of downtown Vancouver:

Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago… If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

It’s been said that “technology is anything invented after you were born.” In a similar way, our reference point for nature often comes from what we grew up with, even though most of us were born into environments hugely affected by human development. Ecology and Natural History can show us a deeper picture of the major changes wrought by humans the world over and illustrate major inflection points (like the Industrial Revolution, or the Columbian Exchange) against former baselines. MacKinnon reminds us that these baselines are relative, but that they also tend to be fairly stable in comparison to human rates of change.

Human society, in MacKinnon’s account, has degraded nature by harming biodiversity. It’s this diversity, he says that we ought to seek, rather than the restoration of any particular baseline of the past. In looking forward, he offers a model for valuing biodiversity that, surprisingly, comes from one of nature’s symbolic antipodes – the city:

I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity.

If MacKinnon asks how humanity has affected nature on Earth, Ross Anderson and Lee Billings discuss what life on earth has to learn about itself as our search for other worlds really gets going. This galactic expansion of scope compresses, in some ways, the conversation’s working definitions of nature and humanity.

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Ross Anderson, for The Atlantic, spoke with Lee Billings about his book Five Billion Years of Solitude which explores the science and cosmological ramifications of the search for extrasolar planets and their potential inhabitants. The book is largely about the scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field, but Billings and Anderson also discuss the emergence of life on Earth and the inevitable end of Earth’s habitability.

A point Billings repeatedly stresses is the fragility of our newfound ability to look and venture beyond our own small world. Ecological, political, cultural and technological obstacles threaten to limit our achievement and, as alluded by the book’s title, doom our planet to a life of solitude. The work of the scientists in Billing’s writing is important and grandiose in effect, but often mundane in practice and the same can be said about the governance of a society.

Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.

These concerns, in Billings’ mind however, aren’t limited to humanity. What we’ve achieved, we owe to the natural world from which we’ve been born and to which we’re still a part. We aren’t beginning to consider that Earthlings might someday reach other planets and stars because of humanity’s exceptionalism, though that’s been important; we’re considering it because of the riches we lucked into on this precious world.

We really owe our progress and our current state not only to our biology, but also to our planetary resources—to the fossil fuels we burn, the ores we mine, the rich diversity of other species we exploit, and so on. We’re presently using most of those resources in very unsustainable ways. We’ve already plucked all the low-hanging fruit, and much of what we are burning and mining and exploiting now is only available to use through our already sophisticated technology.

So if we somehow drive ourselves extinct, if all our great edifices collapse, I think it would be very difficult if not impossible for anything else to rise up and rebuild to where we are now, even given a half-billion or a billion years. People can and will disagree with me about that, but my position errs on the side of caution, on the side that says humanity’s present moment in the Sun is too valuable to treat as something disposable.

Any species can overreach its niche and in that we may not be exceptional. Environmentalists often threaten apocalypse and the fall of human society if we don’t learn to value the Earth’s resources properly, but Billings expands the scope and the stakes. Our work seeking other worlds isn’t just a human endeavor, it’s a planetary one. Like MacKinnon suggesting that we imagine ourselves to be a citizen of diverse city, Billings suggests that we’re ambassadors for that city and we may not have a successor.

In taxonomy, classifiers who focus on their subject matter’s similarities are known as “lumpers,” while those most interested in difference are “splitters.” Ultimately, of course, humans are just another part of the natural world, governed by evolution and physics like anything else. But in our day to day lives, and even across generations, our place on this planet is clearly unique in key ways. As these two conversations show, parsing our role on this planet involves both lumping and splitting.

Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has spent a career studying humanity’s close biological family and often focuses on lumping us in with other primates, but he offers a single, essential split he’s observed about humans: that we can simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. And maybe that quirk itself is what allows us to zoom from a galaxy, down to a planet, and in to a city and to simultaneously lump and split this thing we call nature and ourselves.

Harmonic Spheres and the Music of the Cosmos

Posted on Wednesday, August 21st, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras developed the science of harmonics. Legend has it that he was inspired by the sounds emanating from a blacksmith’s shop; producing experimental music with hammers and anvils, Pythagoras realized that the relationship between different musical notes can be expressed in the form of simple mathematical ratios.

Pythagoras saw in this a fundamental theory of the universe, and redefined the world – from the motion of celestial bodies to the emotional fluctuations in a human body – as iterations of a kind of cosmic music. More than a millennium later, Johannes Kepler interpreted this musica universalis as proof of Divine splendor, and devoted his career to a description of the geometric and harmonic order of our solar system.

Efforts to chart this celestial harmony can produce strikingly aesthetic images. Kepler’s sketches proved as much in his publications – as does this work by software developer Howard Arrington. Arrington used his own Ensign software to visualize the relationship between pairs of planets, producing a series of intriguing geometric mosaics. Better yet, he shares the program with which he created his images, so that you, too, can capture the music of the cosmos.

Leap Seconds and the Nature of Civil Time

Posted on Wednesday, July 31st, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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About two months ago, a group of scholars gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to discuss the future of civil time – the universal clock that keeps the entire globe and its nearly 7 billion human inhabitants in sync. Their conversation had begun with a meeting in 02011 (at which Long Now co-founder and Board member Danny Hillis submitted a paper on timekeeping in the 10,000-Year Clock); this year, the debate focused on the merit of the leap second: the corrective increment of time that is added to (or subtracted from) the end of a winter’s or summer’s day roughly once every eighteen months in order to synchronize the world’s clocks with the small but erratic changes in the speed of Earth’s rotation.

At stake in this debate is a question about how we wish to define civil time – or Coordinate Universal Time (UTC), as it is officially known. Now based on atomic timekeeping systems, eliminating the leap second would effectively mean decoupling UTC entirely from the movement of Earth, Moon, and Sun. In a recent article published in Aeon magazine, conference attendee and science writer Dava Sobel took the opportunity to explore some of the deeper questions this possibility raises about the very nature of timekeeping, and of time itself.

Until quite recently in human history, time was governed by the astronomical cycles of Earth’s orbit and rotation. We scheduled our daily activities around the moving shadows on a sundial, and planned our year in accordance with the seasonal lengthening and shortening of days. Time was indelibly bound to our precise physical location, yet simultaneously defined by rhythms much larger than ourselves.

But with the emergence of global commerce and communication came the need for standardization: we had to take control of time, and submit its rhythms to our need for disciplined coordination. First came the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time as the basis for timekeeping across the globe; then came the realization that the behavior of tiny particles – atoms – could offer a much more precise measurement for time than the movement of large celestial bodies. Sobel writes:

A second of time has its roots in the sexagesimal numerology of the ancient Sumerians, but it was too fleeting an interval to be registered on a mechanical clock until the 16th century. By 1960, a single second could be subdivided into slivereens by an atomic clock. The regularity of atomic-frequency timepieces promised a far more reliable standard than the spinning or revolving of the wobbly old Earth, and forced authorities to rethink their concept of a second’s duration. In 1967, the official definition of a second changed accordingly. What had once been a tiny fraction (1/86,400) of a 24-hour day became the time taken by an atom of caesium-133 to flip through certain characteristic quantum-mechanical changes 9,192,631,770 times.

When the caesium clock replaced the Greenwich Meridian as the world’s authoritative measure of time, it was decided that this new UTC should nevertheless maintain agreement with GMT and the rotation of Earth; these two had, after all, served so long as a global reference point. But as Sobel suggests,

… the Earth hiccups and falters. Its rotation, as monitored by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), speeds up and slows down in response to the motions of the tectonic plates that pave its surface, the flow of molten iron in its core, the recession of glaciers, the circulation of the atmosphere, and, most important, the pull of the Moon.

Earth’s imprecise wobbling causes a seeming drift in our precise atomic clocks, upsetting the coordination of new time with the old. In 01972, therefore, the IERS introduced the leap second: whenever the agency records a discrepancy of more than 9/10ths of a second between GMT and UTC, it legislates the insertion (or deletion) of a second at the end of a predetermined day in summer or winter. In the forty-one years since, 25 such added leap seconds have silently stretched the length of our atomic days.

Over the course of these four decades, UTC has replaced GMT as the world’s main reference for time. Time is no longer local, yet grand: it is now abstractly universal, yet wholly disciplined to the needs of a global civilization. And now, even leap seconds – this last connection between our clocks and the erratic cycles of the natural world around us – are up for debate.

Doing away with the leap second means decoupling civil time from the Earth’s rotation – something that has never been attempted by any known civilisation. The demise of UTC as we know it would alter the meaning of ‘day’ that underpins legal, cultural and religious practices the world over. UTC would no longer be ‘coordinated’ in the same fashion. Although it would take a few thousand years for Saturday to fall on Sunday, that event would loom on the horizon.

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Image ©Robert Mann (www.robtmann.net)

We seem to have arrived at a stand-off between man-made and “natural” cycles of time – between the precision of the atomic clocks we’ve designed, and the unpredictability of our planet’s motion. Sobel suggests it’s easy to mistake that precision for truth:

Given that all atoms of caesium-133 behave the same way, it’s tempting to regard the unwieldy number 9,192,631,770 as some sort of fundamental rhythm – a microcosmic time cue, or zeitgeber.

But seeing through this elision, as Sobel urges us to do, invites us to recognize that no timekeeping system is any more or less “natural” than any other. In fact, isn’t the notion of “time” itself (and in particular, the idea that it is linear) ultimately always a man-made abstraction? Something we’ve invented, much like money, to quantify and keep track of the natural cyclical processes that govern the world we live in?

In a thousand – or perhaps even just a hundred – years, we might discover a clock that is yet more precise than a caesium atom, and transform our notion of time yet again. For these, as for our present-day clocks, the irregular movement of Earth, Moon, and Sun will offer a perpetual challenge. Nevertheless, these natural cycles are likely to outlast any human definition of time. No matter how successful we are (or become) in disciplining and standardizing time, the imperfect cycles of day and night, summer and winter, low tide and high tide will most likely always serve as an important reference point for our understanding of the world we live in. In the year 12,034, Earth might spin around its axis in as little as 22 hours – or perhaps as much as 25. But here at Long Now, we predict that it’s this cycle, rather than the fluctuations of a caesium atom, that will continue to define our notion and experience of a ‘day’.

The next 50 years of land use planning

Posted on Friday, May 17th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Since the beginnings of civilization, humans have had reason to think carefully about where to grow food, where to sleep, where to put waste. We call it land use planning and for most of history it’s happened pretty haphazardly. Like other activities, though, we’ve gradually systematized the process, especially as we’ve come up against scarcity and competition. Until we can move significant portions of the population to a new planet, land will only get more scarce, of course, and how we make use of it in the future is an important conversation to have.

Patrick J. Kriger, writing for Urban Land, describes two visions for the next 50 years of American land use planning. One scenario extrapolates forward the trend-line of ever-increasing urbanization:

By 2063, the suburban tract house and the shopping mall will have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and a generation of workers in the knowledge-based economy will flock to high-density, walkable urban mixed-use neighborhoods. Some may live in “smart” apartment buildings with motorized walls designed to transform bedrooms and offices into dining rooms and home gyms, depending on the time of day, and travel in miniaturized robotic cars that are controlled by a wireless network to minimize congestion.

Another scenario imagines that innovation will allow certain benefits of city-life to be enjoyed in the countryside and that this compromise will shift the trend towards less concentration:

50 years from now, people increasingly will forsake the cities for the rural countryside. They will live in updated, technologically advanced, and economically self-sufficient versions of the 19th-century village. These lower-density “micro urban” communities will enable their inhabitants to own spacious houses and their own automobiles, but also will allow them to enjoy the same economic opportunities and cultural amenities of urban areas while savoring the pleasures of living close to nature.

He lists the core factors that will influence these trends as population growth and demographic shifts, advances in technology and design, climate change, scarcity and abundance (water in particular), and the decentralization of production.

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Human population is both growing faster than ever and expected to level off in the next century (though exactly where remains open to debate). Alluding to these facts, Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, points out in his essay in The Atlantic that,

It is unlikely that city building on the scale to be seen through 2050 will happen ever again.

In other words, the population and urbanization explosion we are currently living through is an event, not a permanent reality.

As Kriger points out, the average lifespan of a residential building is 53 years; for commercial it’s 65. Decisions being made and designs being drafted now will have profound impacts on the quality of life, economic prospects, and environmental impact of the next 2 to 3 billion citizens of Earth. The approaches described in these two essays will determine how well we manage this event and they will establish how we utilize one of our most precious resources – the Earth’s surface – for generations to come.

Spaceship Earth

Posted on Monday, May 13th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

In 01963, Buckminster Fuller wrote:

Our little Spaceship Earth is only eight thousand miles in diameter, which is almost a negligible dimension in the great vastness of space. Our nearest star – our energy-supplying mother-ship, the Sun – is ninety-two million miles away … Our little Spaceship Earth is right now travelling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the sun and is also spinning axially, which, at the latitude of Washington, D.C., adds approximately one thousand miles per hour to our motion. Each minute we both spin at one hundred miles and zip in orbit at one thousand miles. That is a whole lot of spin and zip. … Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship. And our spaceship is so superbly designed as to be able to keep life regenerating on board despite the phenomenon, entropy, by which all local physical systems lose energy.

Taking Fuller’s words to heart, Stewart Brand once argued that “we will never get civilization right” until we recognize ourselves as travelers aboard a spaceship, and famously claimed that a photograph of the whole vessel might do the trick.

Indeed, a new short film by Planetary Collective documents and celebrates the transformative power of what it calls the Overview Effect. Ever since the crew aboard Apollo 8 first turned its camera back toward our planet, space travelers and ordinary earth-bound citizens alike have been struck by the emotions elicited by images of the whole Earth, floating in the darkness of space. Bringing astronauts together with philosophers, the video attempts to put these reactions into words – and echoes Stewart Brand by suggesting that whole-earth consciousness can be the seed of long-term responsibility.

To have that experience of awe is to, at least for the moment, let go of yourself. To transcend the sense of separation. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them, but that they were, at some very deep level, integrating, realizing, their interconnectedness with that beautiful, blue-green ball.

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(Image credit: NASA)

Earth Engine: decades of Landsat photographs, animated

Posted on Friday, May 10th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Humans have been telling stories about space for generations, but now space is starting to tell stories about us. By putting satellites into orbit pointed not out at the stars, but in at our selves, and simply letting the cameras roll, we can see ourselves in aggregate, growing and changing. NASA’s Landsat program has recorded millions of photographs of the Earth’s surface since 01972 and Google has recently marshaled its significant computational power to organize that massive dataset into watchable video of our planet’s surface.

These Timelapse pictures tell the pretty and not-so-pretty story of a finite planet and how its residents are treating it — razing even as we build, destroying even as we preserve. It takes a certain amount of courage to look at the videos, but once you start, it’s impossible to look away.

- Time Magazine

Whole Earth Psychology

Posted on Monday, April 8th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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Anyone who has traveled abroad or simply eaten at the ethnic restaurant around the corner will appreciate the richness of cross-cultural diversity our world has to offer. Each part of the world has its own cuisine, its own social organization, its own religious practices, and its own fashions. Cognitive research has always assumed that underneath this incredible diversity, humans nevertheless all have the same basic wiring: even if we believe in different things, we ultimately possess the same cognitive skills and respond to external stimuli in similar ways.

Anthropological research, however, suggests that culture reaches much further down into our brains. In a recent feature for the Pacific Standard, Ethan Watters suggests that

The most interesting things about cultures may not be in the observable things they do – the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like – but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

In the early twentieth century, anthropologists realized that culture affects not just the way we behave, but also the way our mind engages with the world. Inspired by developments in psychoanalysis, these scholars began to explore how personality and psychological functioning are shaped by the cultural environment. Margaret Mead, for example, famously argued that the experience of adolescence on Samoa bears little resemblance to what we know of American teenagers, debunking the assumption that the wrought experience of puberty is the result of purely biological factors. A few decades later, Robert Levy and Jean Briggs showed that culture affects the way we experience and express emotion; and the work of scholars like Mel Spiro and Rick Shweder has stimulated research on how the human sense of self is shaped by the cultural environment.

Watters features the more recent work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, who took this line of scholarship a step further by combining ethnographic work with cognitive research methods. In 02010, he co-authored an article in which he showed that responses to classic cognitive tests (such as the Müller-Lyer Illusion) in fact vary across cultures. In other words: even the human modes of reasoning and perception that we believed to be universal are in fact uniquely shaped by our cultural environment.

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Cognitive skills, Henrich and his colleagues argue, are not hardwired into our brains at all: there is considerable cross-cultural variation in the way we respond to and make sense of environmental stimuli. We develop these divergent cognitive styles because the worlds we grow up in vary so widely from one another. Think of the vast differences between the world of lower Manhattan, say, and a remote village in the Himalayan mountains; or between a capitalist society and a socialist state. A New Yorker’s perception of lines, colors, and distances will differ considerably from that of a Nepali, just as a Frenchman and a North Korean may not agree about the definition of “fairness.” Though we are all born with the same brain, that soft tissue is shaped by our environment as we develop our cognitive capacities and socialize into our community. And that environment is inevitably, indelibly shaped by the culture of which we are a part. Like language, we might think of culture as an “encapsulated universe.”

Henrich’s research unsettles decades of cognitive research, and not just because it debunks the idea of a universal pattern of human functioning. As it turns out, the particular population commonly studied by psychologists and economists lies at the very edges of the “human bell curve.”

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96% of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners – with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Henrich and his colleagues refer to this population of college students as WEIRD – not only because they happen to be Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, but also because this population turns out to be such an outlier. Henrich’s research proves that American modes of perception are not the rule, but a radical exception to it. Watters writes:

It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others – and even the way we perceive reality – makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners – outliers among outliers.” Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.

Watters suggests that it may be one of those uniquely Western psychological features that led us to believe that our cognitive functioning is free of culture. Looking upon ourselves as free and autonomous individuals, we’ve come to assume that while we may live inside a culture, our essence somehow exists beyond – and independently of – its bounds.

Not only does Henrich’s research argue that we are not as free of culture as we had believed; his research shows that a true understanding of human psychology – and even of brain functioning – must always take a larger view, and reach beyond the familiarity of our own immediate environment.

Jeff Bezos Recovers Apollo 11′s F-1 Engines

Posted on Wednesday, April 3rd, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and supporter of the 10,000 Year Clock, is recovering and restoring a few pieces of scientific history.

After a three-week mission in the Atlantic Ocean, Bezos and his team of deep-sea divers have uncovered several of the F-1 engines that helped rocket Apollo 11 – and Neil Armstrong – to the moon, back in 01969. Bezos writes:

“We found so much. We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program. We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.”

Bezos plans to restore the engines and display them to the public in hopes that they will serve as inspiration for new bold endeavors.

The LA Times reports that NASA lauds Bezos’ efforts as yet another step towards greater public access to space: “We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said.

You can see more photos and a video of Bezos’ findings on his blog, bezosexpeditions.

Launch of the LDCM: Continuing 40 years of Landsat Data

Posted on Monday, January 28th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 1972, NASA launched its first Landsat satellite into orbit. This February, it will launch its eighth.

The new satellite is part of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, a collaboration between NASA and USGS that will continue adding to 40 years worth of data about the Earth’s surface.

In what is now the longest-running project of collecting satellite imagery of Earth, Landsat data offer an important resource for a variety of endeavors: from cartography to natural disaster management; urban planning to the monitoring of natural resource usage. Moreover, the unprecedented continuity of data offers invaluable insight into the way that Earth has been changing over the past 40 years.

Landsat 8 will be the most advanced of them yet, promising not just the continuation of data collection, but more precise data that will enrich ongoing geological, ecological, and geographical research.

Edge Question 02013

Posted on Wednesday, January 16th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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This year’s Edge question is up, and it has the usual breadth of analysis we have come to expect over the years. For the uninitiated, Edge.org is one of the best not-so-secret secrets of the internet. Founded in 01996 by John Brockman, Edge asks a “big picture” question every year to scholars who think about systemic issues in creative ways. The answers have always been enlightening, and it has always been worth a few hours of time to read through them each year. This year, as in past years, the Long Now Board is well represented, as well as the scholars who’ve spoken in our lecture series.

The question this year is “What *should* we be worried about?”. Below you will find the responses of Long Now affiliates, although we also recommend reading through the rest of the responses.

Long Now Board:

SALT speakers: