Blog Archive for the ‘The Big Here’ Category

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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.

(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.


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, 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:

Civilization versus Forestation: Bristlecone Pines in the Anthropocene

Posted on Friday, January 11th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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“Trees and forests are repositories of time; to destroy them is to destroy an irreplaceable record of the Earth’s past.”

Whether we’ve grown up in the big city, a small town, or in the middle of the woods, most of us are familiar with the concept of tree rings. As children, we were taught that a tree is a kind of natural clock: count its rings, and find out how old it is. But what we may not all have learned, is that tree rings can tell a larger story.

Dendrochronology, or the science of tree-ring dating, has discovered that the rings on a tree not only record the number of years a tree has lived; they also preserve the memory of what those years were like. The thickness and coloration of tree rings speak of droughts and storms, unusual heat, excessive cold – even of sunspots. Trees are a living record of long-term climate change, geological evolution, and of life on earth in general.

Unfortunately, Ross Andersen recently wrote in Aeon magazine, human civilization has a long history of wiping out that record. In fact, the practice of deforestation may be as old as civilization itself. We felled trees for practical purposes: because we needed wood to build houses, fires, and weapons, or because we needed open space to cultivate our crops. But Andersen suggests we might be driven by a deeper motivation, as well:

“…a suspicion of forests as dark, shadowy places is written into the basic texts of Western culture. In Greek mythology, Dionysus, the ivy-wreathed god of the ‘wooded glens’, threatens civilization with a return to animalistic primitivism. In the Old Testament, Yahweh commands Hebrews to burn down sacred groves wherever they find them. Christian culture has traditionally identified the forests as a pagan stronghold, a gloomy haven for witches and outlaws. In Dante the forest is demon-haunted and evil, the underworld out of which the hero must ascend. For Descartes the forest is the precursor to enlightenment, the physical embodiment of confusion, the maze that the light beams of reason must penetrate.”

Early on in human history, Andersen writes, our small numbers and limited technology kept our resentment relatively contained. But as civilization expanded, we developed the capacity to destroy trees on an ever faster and larger scale. We’ve now managed to overpower the forests we so resented: our rate of destruction has become greater than their rate of growth.

Our powers of deforestation have grown to such heights, Andersen writes, that they now threaten to affect a particularly remote and hardy species: bristlecone pines.

Among the oldest living creatures on earth, bristlecone pines have a particularly significant story to tell about the history of time on Earth. Preferring cool and dry climates, bristlecones have thrived for millennia in remote areas beyond the reach of pests, parasites, and predators. Its particular biological properties allow it to continually regenerate itself; provided it is left alone in a comfortable, alpine environment, bristlecones could – hypothetically – live forever.

Unfortunately, however, the changes of the Anthropocene seem to be catching up with the bristlecones.

“In 2005, a researcher from Arizona’s tree-ring lab named Matthew Salzer noticed an unusual trend in the most recent stretch of bristlecone tree rings. Over the past half century, bristlecones near the tree line have grown faster than in any 50-year period of the past 3,700 years, a shift that portends ‘an environmental change unprecedented in millennia,’ according to Salzer. As temperatures along the peaks warm, the bristlecones are fattening up, adding thick rings in every spring season. … This might sound like good news for the trees, but it most assuredly is not. Indeed, the thick new rings might be a prophecy of sorts, a foretelling of the trees’ extinction.”

As climate change gradually warms the Earth, bristlecones have been climbing ever higher up their mountain ranges in search of the isolation they prefer. Eventually, however, there will be no place left for them to go. As their surroundings warm up, pests, parasites, and other effects of global warming will invade their habitat, threatening these trees with extinction. Salzer’s finding is, indeed, a warning sign.

“If global warming drives these trees to extinction it will signal an evolution in the technology of deforestation. In the past we have menaced trees with axes and torches, but now it will be the hot, aggregated exhaust of our civilizations. Deforestation once arose out of our animosity towards particular forests, those that stood in the way of our future homes and crops. But deforestation is becoming delocalized; it is becoming an unavoidable byproduct of our existence, a diffuse, Earth-spanning emanation no tree can escape – even those that take root at the far reaches of the bio-inhabitable world.”

Read: The Vanishing Groves by Ross Anderson in Aeon Magazine

Slow Journalism and A Long Walk: Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden

Posted on Wednesday, January 9th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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On January 10th, 02013, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Paul Salopek will begin a seven year journey on foot from Ethiopia to Patagonia, following the footsteps of the first migration of humans across the planet 60,000 years ago. The journey will not be an easy one. It consists of 21,000 miles of wildly varying terrain and environments, with only what Salopek can fit in his backpack. Salopek will be writing “narrative core samples” every hundred miles to get an embedded, on-the-ground look at the issues that are defining our age.

The concept behind this journey is “Slow Journalism”, which Salopek describes best:

The sheer volume of news being generated from professional journalists, citizen journalists, from tweets and blogs or what have you, is nearly self-defeating. It’s a tsunami of information. It’s almost unprocessable. We don’t need more information. We need more meaning. … It takes great slowing down to see how the great global stories of our day, whether they be climate change, conflict, poverty, or mass migration, are interconnected. The world isn’t flat. It’s deeply corrugated. And some of the best stories lie hidden in the corrugations.

Salopek will be posting updates here, as well as on Twitter @PaulSalopek.

Salopek also created a short interactive media introduction to the project with the help of Long Now volunteer Ahmed Kabil.

The Lunar 02013

Posted on Thursday, December 13th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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The universe may be governed by quantum probability and uncertainty, but we can nevertheless predict the movements of bodies in our solar system with relative accuracy. For a preview of how the Moon will behave in 02013, this video offers an animated choreography of its phases and libration as it ellipses around our planet.

And for detailed information about specific dates of your choosing, NASA offers this handy tool.

Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates

Posted on Thursday, September 27th, 02012 by Catherine Borgeson
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Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

Planetary scientist Alex Parker created an animation of 2,299 extrasolar planet candidates orbiting a single star.  NASA’s Kepler mission has detected these transiting planet candidates since 02009.

In reality, these planet candidates aren’t orbiting around a single star, but rather several thousand (some 1,770 sun-like stars). The video above illustrates the candidates by orbital periods, orbital distances and are drawn to scale with accurate radii—they range in size from one-third to 84 times the radius of Earth. Note that the three white rings show the average orbital distances of Mercury, Venus and Earth on the same scale.  Side-by-side, we can compare the different orbital distances from planets in our own solar system to those located elsewhere in the Milky Way, some of which are approximately 2,000 light years away from Earth.

Parker, a postdoctoral researcher in planetary science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, writes:

The Kepler observatory has detected a multitude of planet candidates orbiting distant stars. The current list contains 2,321 planet candidates, though some of these have already been flagged as likely false-positives or contamination from binary stars. This animation does not contain circumbinary planets or planet candidates where only a single transit has been observed, which is why “only” 2,299 are shown.

While 2,299 may seem to be a lot of potential planets, these candidates were found in what is actually a tiny fraction of the sky (Kepler’s field of view covers approximately 1/400 of the sky).  ”In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement back in February 02011. “These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA’s science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos.”

(via io9)