The above image comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory website. The images they send me via my email subscription never disappoint. For a full caption, and to learn which landscape is featured, visit Earth Observatory.
Literature may come as pamphlets and books. Literature nowadays may arrive as blog posts and status updates. But can literature be expressed as measured footsteps, trudging over space and time in a quest to celebrate cosmic scale? If a physical activity can be defined as literature, then I say planet walks are literature.
After visiting family in western Michigan this weekend, I stopped by Aquinas College. There, for the third time, I did the Foster Planet Walk. By walking a carefully measured route marked with boulders, this walk allows you to experience the scale of our solar system. Following a map available on the college’s website, you walk from planet to planet in about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace. You begin at Mercury on the south side of campus and wind up all the way out at dwarf planet Pluto in the distant Kuiper Belt (aka the north side of campus).
For my third visit, I measured time. Standing around 6’1″ tall and walking at an average speed, here is how long it took me to stroll from planet to planet. Notice how the elapsed time dramatically increases beginning with the walk to Jupiter:
Recently I created a new banner image to head the Lit for Space blog. I selected two images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope gallery. After playing in Photoshop, adding a gradient homage to the astronomical phenomena of red shift and blue shift, I posted the above banner. Here are Hubble’s contributions.
Hubble image of galaxy NGC 6814
Hubble image of dwarf galaxy Leo A
For both images, here is the credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt
There was a time for me when the right words came from the Pledge of Allegiance. When a younger pious me served a Mormon mission, the right words came from scripture. The best examples would be The Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, followed immediately by The Standard of Truth, itself an excerpt from Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter. I remember for a couple of years in my teens, the right words came from the Boy Scout Oath. I memorized each of these and, for a time at least, regarded them as gospel.
In adulthood, I’ve known an actor who took a special joy in rereading the first paragraph of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is a marvelous passage evoking the protagonist’s urge to go to sea. It is worth repeating and celebrating. I took pleasure in hearing my actor friend read it aloud because I could hear in his voice how deeply the passage inspired him.
Be it a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, an entire speech or chapter, there are passages of literature that achieve a level of adoration in their readers best understood as sacred. People memorize them, recite them, and the collective words generate a religious fervor among true believers.
For many devotees of science, especially astronomy, the best example would be Carl Sagan’s remarks accompanied to the famed Pale Blue Dot image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. If you are not familiar, no problem. Go to YouTube and search the following terms together: carl sagan pale blue dot. You will find multiple versions, at least a couple with hundreds of thousands of views.
The Pale Blue Dot is a famous NASA image–a picture of Earth, looking back from near the edge of our solar system. Inspired by the image’s humbling qualities, Sagan crafted words now treasured by many of us.
Last week I attended An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson, held at Hill Auditorium on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. For me, it was the culmination of years of enthusiasm for this celebrity educator–time spent reading several of his books and being a loyal listener to StarTalk Radio. Not at all surprisingly, after his multimedia presentation Dr. Tyson put up a Pale Blue Dot image. This one, more recent than the 1990 image taken by Voyager, comes from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. My distant balcony view can be seen above.
Tyson said he was going to read us a passage from “The Book of Carl.” The lights dimmed and Tyson read Sagan’s celebrated remarks about the Pale Blue Dot. We found ourselves all together, made tiny and precious by the perspective of space travel and the reflective literature of a master educator.
Is the universe deliberately keeping things from us? If so, what is it not telling us? Why does the universe keep the truth locked away?
The more I ask questions that ascribe motives to the universe, the less scientific I sound. Yet, as the above NASA quote shows, the rhetoric of scientific publicity often summons metaphorical language. The engineering required to build, deploy, and operate the above space telescope may be the application of pure science. The language used to promote and justify its funding to politicians, journalists, and tax payers, is not purely scientific.
Elsewhere in the press release that includes the above quote, NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld uses the phrase “unravel the mysteries” to describe the telescope’s capabilities. Late in the release, project scientist Neil Gehrels uses the term “treasure trove” to describe the anticipated scientific return from the telescope’s data.
Such language is alluring, plays to our innate sense of curiosity, and includes a catchy alliteration to boot. Speaking as a biased space enthusiast, I think these stimulating phrases are quite appropriate to the cause of justifying the considerable undertaking of deploying a space telescope.
However, it is a good reminder that if we are to be wise and effective citizens of a technological society, we need not only develop scientific and engineering conversance. We also need to be well-practiced in written and spoken rhetoric which science pulls from our literary traditions.