Articles tagged with: universal insight

Astronomy: The Overview Effect for The Rest of Us

Written by Mike Simmons on Friday, 06 July 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Astronomers Without Borders, an organization I founded in 2007, is based on a simple truth – when we look up at the sky, no matter where we are, we know others are doing the same thing from other countries around the world.  At similar latitudes the sky is identical regardless of where you are.  And we all share the same wonder of the starry night sky, the planets and the entire Universe beyond.  That wonder is part of the traditions of every culture, passed down through time.  It will certainly be a part of our future as well.

But there’s more to it than the beauty of the Milky Way’s thousands of stars seen from a dark location.  When we look up we’re looking outward, into our cosmic neighborhood.  With a telescope we see even further into the cosmic hinterlands.  For adventurers who long to see what lies on the other side of every hill, the Universe offers unlimited mysteries.

The Universe – all that you see when you look up at the stars – is where we live.  The Earth is one small part of it.  If you’ve ever wanted to travel in space, just drive to a dark location, look up and take a look around.  You’re there, orbiting around our galaxy along with the rest of the inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.

The World at Night is a great demonstration of how we all share that magnificent view of the night sky.  The team of expert landscape astrophotographers assembled by project founder Babak Tafreshi has imaged the night sky from locations worldwide, showing a blanket of stars above historic, cultural and natural landmarks with stunning results.  Whether it’s a church, mosque, or synagogue in the earthly foreground, the sky above is the same.  We can change details of the orb we live on but the rest of the Universe hovers beyond our reach, untouched, practically unchanging.

This is the idea behind Astronomers Without Borders and the source of our slogan, One People, One Sky.  The earthly view of the heavens is also strikingly similar to what some astronauts experience from their perch in orbit.  Frank White coined the term, “The Overview Effect,” in his book of the same name to describe the sensation astronauts often experience seeing the Earth hanging in space among the stars and other planets, without any apparent borders between us.  I’ve told Frank I consider our view of the night sky to be the overview effect for the rest of us – those of us who will never travel out of Earth’s atmosphere – and he agrees.  When we connect with someone in a distant land, far beyond our horizon, and they’re seeing the same sky we do (offset by time as the Earth rotates), the sensation of One People, One Sky is reinforced.  The overview effect may not be as easy to visualize as from space – or as fun as being weightless – but it’s there just the same.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, who has spent more than 100 days in space as a NASA astronaut, has a similar view from a space travelers perspective.  In a recent blog post on Fragile Oasis titled “The Overview Effect: I Think It Works Both Ways”, Nicole said, “As I have watched over these past months, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, as my friends passed above me on this shiny point of light crossing the night sky, it occurred to me that this idea of an Overview Effect might just work both ways – not only for those looking in amazement, appreciation and awe at our planet; but also for those looking up to the sky at the wonders orbiting us there. It seems that both perspectives remind us of the fragile nature of where we live – Earth with its thin blue atmosphere and ISS with its thin silver hull – both protecting their humans from the harsh vacuum of space; both reminding us that wherever humanity chooses to ‘reside’, we are obligated to take care of that place – our home.”  Her solitary view engendered thoughts of our common heritage on Earth and the need to protect it together – “I” became “we.”

I started Astronomers Without Borders after visiting countries like Iran and Iraq, and meeting people who are far more like us than they are different.  They have the same needs, wishes and problems as anyone else.  I’ve given many presentations on astronomy in those countries to astronomy clubs in the US, and the focus inevitably turns to the difficulties others have in pursuing our common activities.  Equipment we take for granted is difficult or impossible to acquire in many countries.  Dark skies are out of reach without transportation.  The result is sympathy for the situation of our colleagues and a desire to help.  There’s nothing political about it – it’s nature, our common heritage.  And it’s there for everyone, an unlimited resource.  Why shouldn’t we all share in it equally?  The political and other issues that seem so important most of the time just become irrelevant, at least for that moment.  This is purely people to people interaction of the most basic sort.

Astronomers Without Borders now has participants in most of the world’s countries, with global programs that bring people together as never before.  All based on our living on one planet, looking up at the same sky.  An American amateur astronomer with the latest computerized gear and a student in a poor country may have different activities during the night but in the end they’re there for the same reason.  And they say remarkably similar things about the wonders of the night sky.  After all, we’re all looking out from the same place – Earth – and traveling together through the stars.

 

Reflexive Ecologies: Visualizing Priorities

Written by David McConville on Sunday, 24 June 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Who are we? Within this simple question is contained the essence of what it means to be human: our capacity to reflect on our own consciousness. This reflexive impulse is so central to our character that we call our subspecies homo sapien sapiens, identifying sapience - the wisdom to act with appropriate judgment - as the primary trait that distinguishes us from other animals.

The power of imagery to profoundly affect our sense of place has been exquisitely demonstrated by a few key examples in the history of science. Nicolaus Copernicus’s sixteenth-century illustration of a sun-centered solar system has been widely credited as the primary factor in the precipitation of the scientific revolution. In one fell swoop, he redrew the cosmic order and by extension much of the Western world’s understanding of humanity’s relationship to the heavens. Almost five hundred years later, the Apollo 8 Earthrise image recontextualized perceptions of humanity’s place in the cosmos for much of the world with its first photographic view of Earth from outer space. This image is often attributed with instigating an environmental-paradigm shift, inducing numerous commentaries concerning the fragility of our home planet and the interconnectedness of the global community.

Charles and Ray Eames further pushed the reorienting potential of imagery to new heights (and depths) with their seminal 1972 short film Powers of Ten. It took viewers on an impossible journey across many orders of magnitude from quarks to quasars, pioneering the dynamic “long zoom” camera technique that illustrates how strongly our concepts of reality are shaped by sensory experiences.Our collective quest to know ourselves begins with imagining the world and our place in it. The success of our species is largely attributable to our ability to imagine and map abstract concepts, which help us to study, communicate, and synchronize with our local environments. We create and imbue imagery with symbolism derived from interactions with our surroundings, often accompanied by stories, artifacts, and practices that give clues to their meaning. These culturally constructed modes of communication enable us to share our experiences and cultivate knowledge across generations, providing important contextual understanding that help us to situate ourselves in the world and the cosmos.

Today, our self-reflective search has expanded into new dimensions. While these earlier examples shifted spatial awareness, we are increasingly able to measure and represent temporal, spectral, and relational characteristics of our environs. A latticework of satellites, telescopes, and other measuring instruments are perpetually scanning and providing voluminous amounts of data about our surroundings. Time-lapse and hyperspectral photographs shed new light on atmospheric, biospheric, and cosmic processes. GPS and RFID devices track interactions between people, products, and processes around the globe. And with the ever-expanding integration of Internet-connected gadgets into our daily lives, data about our activities, interests, and movements are generated across physical, social, and virtual domains.

As many of us attempt to make sense of the gestalt of information being generated by and about us, it is little surprise that interest in computer visualization is exploding. Mass digitization yields endless territories to map, while increased accessibility of graphics software enables widespread experimentation with novel representation techniques. Geospatial visualizations provide instant access to worldwide atlases of information, now ubiquitously available through GPS, web maps, and digital globes. Scientific visualizations are widely used to visually simulate phenomena at various scales, appearing regularly in news reports, exhibitions, websites, and mobile applications. Information visualizations are used to reveal hidden patterns within interdisciplinary networks of large-scale data collections. A new generation of information cartographers has taken up the challenge of exploring the aesthetic possibilities of these databases, and these ongoing investigations are yielding intriguing—and occasionally useful—renderings to disclose previously imperceptible relationships.

Burgeoning interest in these visualizations suggests that they may also prove useful for illuminating the most complex and important network of all: Earth’s biosphere. Composed of all of the ecosystems on the planet, the biosphere regulates the countless vital interactions that are essential for supporting life as we know it. These not only include the biological networks that sustain us, but also the generation of the "natural resources” that feed consumer society’s global production and distribution networks. While most of these ecological processes have been made invisible as externalities with modern economic systems, it is apparent that their healthy functioning can no longer be taken for granted.

The sensory networks that monitor our home planet have brought to light some alarming trends in recent decades. Industrial societies have been consuming resources much faster than the planet can regenerate them, resulting in the destabilization of environmental conditions upon which human civilizations have been dependent for millennia. Specific planetary boundaries have now been identified as the defining the “safe operating space for humanity,” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. Since 1968 (ironically, the same year the Earthrise photograph helped to birth the environmental movement), we have been slipping further into “ecological debt” as we rapidly expand our global footprint and exceed the ”safe operating space” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. As a result, we are facing a convergence of interconnected environmental crises, including ocean acidification, mass species extinction, overfishing, peak oil, peak water, land degradation, deforestation, and plastics pollution—not to mention climate change.

Developing appropriate responses to these urgent issues requires more effective tools for reflexively examining humanity’s relationship with global ecological systems. Derived from the Greek roots oikos and logos, ecology appropriately means the “study of relations” and is used to describe many studies of interactions between organisms and their environments. Practitioners in the field of complex network visualization are well positioned to apply their artistic and technical experiences to focus much-needed attention to these essential interconnections.

A number of nascent efforts are already exploring how aesthetic approaches to visualization and mapping can provide new perspectives on critical ecological interactions. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio incorporates satellite data with 3D animations to demonstrate a wide range of scientifically measured phenomena. Designers Tyler Lang and Elsa Chaves have illustrated interconnected global systems and events can influence each other with Connecting Distant Dots. Media artist Tiffany Holmes creates and curates artworks devised to reveal the processes of consumption under the rubric of eco-visualization, which she defines as the “creative practice of converting real-time ecological data into image and sound for the purpose of promoting environmental awareness and resource conservation.” Photographer Chris Jordan has created a series of sobering images chronicling the unimaginable scale of mass consumption with Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. The Sourcemap project from MIT uses geospatial data and information visualization to reveal the global impact of product supply chains. 

But these efforts are only be the beginning. The accelerating environmental challenges faced by modern civilization are necessitating that we reimagine our relationships to the natural world. Meeting the needs of global society does not require infinite economic growth but an understanding of and respect for the regenerative limits of the biosphere. As accelerating global changes force us to find innovative ways of enhancing the integrity of local and global ecosystems, visualizations will play an essential role in making our connections to these ecological processes explicit. We will likely find that our species’ unique ability to creatively imagine and map our place in the world will once again be key to adapting to changing environments.

 
Originally published in Lima, M. (2011). Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information. Princeton Architectural Press.

Apollo, the Dragon, and the Overview Effect

Written by Frank White on Monday, 28 May 2012. Posted in Overview Effect, Space Tourism

Not long ago, I got up at 3:30 am to watch the Falcon rocket blast off. In doing so, I recalled the all-nighter I pulled in Oxford, England, in July 1969 to watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. To me, these two missions were similar because nothing would be the same afterward. And both missions, I believe, are related to the Overview Effect and its impact on our awareness of who we are and where we are in the universe.

How can this be, you may ask. After all, the Apollo missions represented the first time we saw the whole Earth, gave us our first glimpse of "Earthrise," and helped give the environmental movement a kickstart as a major factor in shaping attitudes and behaviors on our planet. Didn’t Apollo represent the Overview Effect par excellence? And wasn’t this SpaceX launch just an unmanned cargo craft resupplying the International Space Station (ISS)? How could the two have anything in common?

Let me try to answer that question as best I can. I suppose on launch day, I simply knew that both were "historic" turning points, but I wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t until the following Monday, when the Dragon linked up with the ISS that the connection with the Overview Effect became more clear.

The most obvious link was simply in what NASA TV showed us as the Dragon maneuvered into position at an increasingly smaller distance from the space station. There, in the background, I saw amazingly beautiful video of the Earth rolling past, sometimes showing puffs of clouds, sometimes land masses, and at other times, the oceans. Of course, the NASA commentator wasn’t doing a program about the Overview Effect, so he didn’t comment on the view. He focused on the spacecraft below, the conversations among the flight controllers, and the issues that were arising as the moment of docking approached.

However, it occurred to me that many more people were watching this broadcast than would usually be the case, and this was a good thing. NASA TV often shows striking video from orbit, but they do not have a very large audience to see these images. With a larger group watching, people might have an experience of the Overview Effect for the very first time that morning, even if they didn’t know what it was!

Then, what came to mind was Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind this magnificent moment. He, too, was receiving more attention than usual on this day, and deservedly so. In response to questions about "What next?", he might have said that he just wanted to fulfill his contract with NASA to keep flying more supplies to the ISS. He said that, of course, but he has also talked about humanity becoming a multi-planet species, and his goal of sending large numbers of people to Mars.

In a flash, I realized that a long-held dream of mine might come true in my lifetime: thousands of people experiencing the Overview Effect, instead of the 500 plus that have had the experience so far.

This is the true promise of the NewSpace industry, which includes visionaries like Musk, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Diamandis, and many others. It is not the suborbital hops and space hotels, the moon missions and Mars colonies alone that really matter. It is, rather, that we will soon reach the point where as many people will see the Earth from a distance within a week’s time as have experienced it in the past 50 years.

At some point in the life of a human system, a quantitative change leads to a qualitative change. For decades, we have observed a few hundred astronauts and cosmonauts undergoing the shift in worldview represented by the Overview Effect, and we have been saying, "this is extraordinary." Now, soon, this will happen to many, many ordinary people and, through them, to society as a whole.

At that point, we will become not only a multi-planet species but also a species that is aware of its true destiny, i.e., to become Citizens of the Universe.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong. Thank you, Elon Musk. Thank you Apollo and Dragon.

An explanation of the promise of space

Written by Loretta Whitesides on Wednesday, 24 June 2009. Posted in Overview Institute, Cognitive Science

When I first came upon Frank's book in the school library in the early 1990's I felt like someone had finally put to words the part of space that I was most excited about. I read it cover to cover and took it up as an explanation of the huge promise of space, its ability to transform our current level of thinking from the level of nation states to the level of planets. I am still inspired about it to this day.

Immersive technologies for Overview Effect delivery

Written by Douglas Trumbull on Wednesday, 24 June 2009. Posted in Overview Effect

Ever since working on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I have been on a quest to develop increasingly immersive film technology in order to give audiences the feeling of "Being There". This led to the development of the SHOWSCAN film process, which is still regarded by professionals as superior to IMAX.

Now, via emerging digital technologies I believe we are at the threshold of a wholly new kind of media immersion, both by giant screens and high frame rates, as well as by delivering high resolution imagery directly to the human retina. My goal over the next five years is to develop this new Virtual Retinal Display technology to the point where extremely wide field of view, high brightness, stereoscopic imagery will be indistinguishable from reality.

This could facilitate the Overview Effect without having to go into space, as well as expand human consciousness of an unlimited variety of experiences that go far beyond our earthly physical limitations.