Imagine there’s no Earth

It’s easy if you try. I’ve never much cared for John Lennon’s song: despite the wistful melody and admirable sentiment, the scientific precisionist in me could never quite get past the poor grammar. “And no religion too, Mr Lennon? And no religion either!”

But the song does at least draw attention to a very important human attribute: imagination. And, if I might swivel alarmingly to another, distant point on the pop cultural spectrum, the value of imagination has also been heartily endorsed by Spongebob Squarepants. In Idiot Box, one of the show’s best ever episodes, Spongebob and his starfish pal Patrick are awaiting delivery of a new television. When it arrives their sour-faced neighbour Squidward is aghast to see them toss away the TV so that they can play with the huge cardboard box that it came in, using just their imaginations! Squidward purloins the TV but is driven to distraction because he simply cannot fathom how Spongebob and Patrick can have so much fun with their box-imagination combo.

Most parents will recognise in this the small child’s delight with the fantastic play value of a large cardboard box. But many of us, caught up—like Squidward—in our preoccupation with the daily grind, may have lost something of that capacity for imaginative leaps.

I was struck by this thought a few days ago when watching a film about another imaginative leap, Neil Armstrong’s famous “giant leap for mankind”. This was recalled in a brilliant and thoughtful documentary about the Apollo moon landings, In the Shadow of the Moon, which was broadcast in the UK by Film4 (yes, I was watching TV!). The film’s makers scored a double coup in their production for not only did they dig out some very rarely seen footage of the Apollo program, but they also conducted lengthy and thoroughly researched interviews with ten of the surviving astronauts. Although Armstrong himself—apparently a bit of a recluse—did not participate, the other astronauts reflect candidly, often with wit and intelligence, on their remarkable experiences. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

The film appealed enormously to the star-struck child in me; I saw it as soon as it came out in the cinema late last year. Many years previously, as a twelve year old responding to a competition run by the Belfast Telegraph I’d won the chance to visit the Armagh Planetarium to put a question to Jim Irwin, an astronaut who had landed on the moon as part of Apollo 15 in 1971. Concerned for the poor soul who was left behind in the command module and never made it to the moon’s surface, I asked him how they decided which member of the crew should miss out. The answer—that this was simply decided early in the training program—was rather banal but the event nonetheless shines in my memory, touched by lunar magic. When I saw In the Shadow of the Moon again recently I recalled some of that magic. But I was also even more impressed than on my first viewing by the drama of the story and the humanity of the astronauts. The short trailer on the film’s website gives a good idea of the content.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Apollo program, as pointed out recently in The Guardian, is that in setting out to explore the moon the astronauts also made entirely unexpected discoveries about the Earth. The moon missions were the first to thrust men so far into space that they could see the planet in its entirety. One of the most resonant photographs taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8, the first to reach lunar orbit (on Christmas Eve 1968), was of the Earth rising slowly above the lunar horizon. I guess everyone has now seen the famous ‘Earthrise’ image of the blue-white globe ascending over the dusty, lifeless surface of the moon.

Earthrise - with and without the Earth
Earthrise – spot the difference

Of course it had been known for centuries that the spherical earth floated in the blackness of space, orbiting the sun and orbited by the moon. The idea of an Earthrise viewed from the moon could easily have been imagined in all that time, couldn’t it? But it was not (except perhaps by Fred Hoyle). When the excited astronauts first caught a glimpse of the Earth, as their craft returned from the dark side of the moon, they scrambled to grab their cameras and shouted to each other for some colour film. In the mêlée, as they snapped through the tiny windows, the mission schedule was abandoned—the photo-shoot had not been anticipated.

That happened because, I believe, our capacity for imagination is more limited that we care to admit. But it’s something that we would do well to cultivate—however that can best be done. It’s a commonplace here on Nature Network that imagination is a powerful tool in the creative conduct of science. No hypothesis can be formulated without the consultation of our mind’s eye. But of course, imagination has an importance far beyond mere science. Without it there is no empathy. And perhaps no future.

But at least we once had the imagination to conceive of travelling to the moon. When the initial frenzy of photography had subsided the crew of Apollo 8 resumed their duties but, on the long journey home, they—and the astronauts who followed in later missions—still had plenty of time to gaze at their home planet. Those that spoke of it in the film all mentioned being affected by the evident fragility of that tiny heavenly body. Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 8 (and later of the ill-fated Apollo 13) recalled that, viewed from the moon, he could blot out the earth with just his thumb and imagine a universe without the Earth.

The fragility and preciousness of the Earth and its inhabitants struck the astronauts in other ways too. Michael Collins (command module pilot on Apollo 11) reflected on the unifying power of their historic first landing that had captured the imagination of the world. It had given us a new perspective on humanity, on what we could achieve but also on where we stood in history. Alan Bean (Apollo 12), appalled by the utter loneliness and emptiness of the moon, spent time on his return just sitting in shopping malls watching the world go by—re-immersing himself in the flow of human life, savouring it.

But now, forty years later, we are realising that we have imperilled our fragile planet, or at least our own continued existence on it. The technological superfluity that slung men all the way to the moon has also given rise to a high-powered way of life that we cannot sustain. Our over-heated economies (cooling off briefly now) are over-heating the world we live in. Or so some of us believe. Others cannot imagine that humanity could possibly have had such an impact on the earth. Indeed it seems hard to do: viewed from an airplane, the world seems immeasurably vast; even humankind’s greatest constructions shrink to ant-size. But viewed from space, as our astronaut friends have told us, the good Earth itself shrinks to a delicate globe, one that might all too easily be extinguished.

There is much to be despondent about. But as the Earth swings round to the start of another orbit around the sun I find myself wanting to grasp at the imaginative optimism that created and sustained the Apollo program (stimulated, I have to say, by the new arrival in the White House). I can’t do much by myself but, since this is a time for looking ahead and making new resolutions, I will resolve to do more. First, to inform myself, for I am sadly ignorant of the main strands of evidence for global warming, and then to reduce my contribution to it. I fear it will make little real difference but perhaps I should have more of Spongebob’s confidence in the transformative power of imagination!

Happy New Year everyone!

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17 Responses to Imagine there’s no Earth

  1. steffi suhr says:

    Steve, I’m stating the obvious: reducing your own contribution to global warming is almost all you can do, besides convincing others to do the same. It may be a small contribution on the overall scale, but it’s the only thing that will add up.
    Thanks for the great post, and a fantastic, optimistic, positive year 2009 to you too!

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    You’re right Steffi, of course. What’s troubling is that it appears to be so easy to ignore or dismiss the problem. I know my own efforts, though reasonably aware of the global warming, haven’t yet amounted to much more than starting a compost heap in the garden! I am heartened that the groundswell of opinion does at least appear to be moving in the right direction. And it was really quite inspiring to see Obama’s appointments on science and climate policy…

  3. Eva Amsen says:

    It’s a little ironic for a TV show to say that you don’t need TV =)
    But I love SpongeBob – and the show originated form the mind of a scientist , so it’s totally valid watching!

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Wow, I didn’t know the show’s creator was a scientist! But I share your enthusiasm for the little yellow square guy and urge people to watch the 10 minute episode linked to in the post. It’s very funny!

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Update: Alas, the link to the Spongebob video no longer seems to be working (and now attempts to get you to start gambling!) so I have replaced it. For those with the imagination, you can read the script!

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Stephen, Lighter Footstep has some good everyday energy-savings ideas and ‘green’ suggestions. I managed to watch the Spongebob episode in time – I do feel bad for Squidsworth sometimes.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link Steffi – looks like it’s got plenty of ideas.
    Glad you got to see the Spongebob episode. I’m not sure why the link to the video went bad. A quick perusal of the script at least taught me that ‘Squidsworth’ is actually spelled ‘Squidward’. I prefer my mis-heard version but will edit the post in the interests of precision…

  8. steffi suhr says:

    ..and I faithfully went with your (very cute) misheard version.. 🙂

  9. Sara Fletcher says:

    I saw In the Shadow od the Moon when it came out, and it’s a worth successor to For All Mankind, which I think was equally striking in conveying the emotional impact (on the astronauts and wider society) of Apollo. I’ve met three of the moon walkers and they remain an inspiration.
    I wonder if the planned Mars missions (should they ever go ahead!) will have a similar impact on humanity…

  10. Matt Brown says:

    Yes, In the Shadow of the Moon is a beautiful film. I had the honour of watching it with Anne Druyan (co-author of Contact, with her late husband Carl Sagan) at SciFoo, and she was deeply moved by it. I also had a chat with the producer. If I recall correctly, Armstrong was willing to appear in the film, but pulled out at the last minute.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for that Sara – I hadn’t even heard of ‘For All Mankind’ but will definitely try to get a copy of it. So which moon-walkers have you met?

  12. Stephen Curry says:

    This post was inspired by the publicity in some of the popular press given to the 40th anniversary of the original Earthrise photo but there are also some very thoughtful pieces too in the New Year edition of Nature, which I have just got around to reading browsing. (Heather has already flagged up its focus on the International Year of Astronomy)
    In particular, Charles Cockell has written an insightful review of a book on the Earthrise photo (_Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth_ by Robert Poole) and there is a very interesting essay on the history of astronomy by Owen Gingerich. I’m afraid a subscription may be required to gain access, though.

  13. Heather Etchevers says:

    I am missing all sorts of great stuff – a beautiful post, Stephen (and thanks for the shout-out, which I didn’t anticipate)!
    Perhaps a problem arises when it is deemed necessary to imagine – brainstorm – all possible scenarios for a point in the future, and then consider that burst of imagination at a given time to have covered all possibilities at a later point in time. The more time separating the two, the more likely it is that other things can be dreamed up, especially as additional givens arise.
    It is gratifying and a luxury when one can be hired to be imaginative, and you are trusted to be able to “think on your feet” – in my interpretation, that is, to imagine ahead a whole bunch of alternative what-if scenarios, and find out ways to see if a chosen one could be true or not. Even better if it is without having to kill the moment with paperwork trying to capture that possibly fleeting moment of imagination… but you have to shore up opportunities for such moments by writing these grants, reports or even suggestions for calls for proposals 🙂

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    Perhaps a problem arises when it is deemed necessary to imagine – brainstorm – all possible scenarios for a point in the future
    That’s surely a difficulty but I was thinking in more limited terms – I was intrigued that we couldn’t ‘picture’ the earth as a tiny, globe spinning in space, even though we knew it’s position relative to the sun and moon. But perhaps I am being too hard on us poor beknighted humans? Images of what the earth really looked like from afar would only have been available from the 1960’s.
    With regard to the more local process of being able to exercise scientific imagination, I am with you that this is a privilege (spoiled only, as you say, by more immediate distractions). I need to develop more of a discipline of taking time out to step back from my current projects to really imagine where they might most usefully be directed. We were talking about this in group meeting yesterday and this may crop up as the topic of a post in the not too distant future.

  15. Heather Etchevers says:

    Alas, for lack of time. I’m surprised that no science-fiction writers would have imagined that precise scenario before 1960, though… but have no time to try to find out.

  16. Global Changes says:

    A nice read, its true that many of us don’t appreciate our own imaginations. We are, to our current knowledge, the most advanced form of life in the universe, gifted with the greatest minds, and yet we still can’t manage to bring ourselves to realize that we are living on borrowed time by not doing more to stop climate change. Maybe its just our optimism clouding the reality that we have to change the way we live before its too late.

  17. Jon Brock says:

    A wonderful post.

    By coincidence I’m currently reading The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn (he of “paradigm shift” fame). I was struck by the following quote, which I think sums up the same point – and helps to explain the difficulties that many people have in believing what science is telling us (eg in relation to climate change).

    “Men who believed that their terrestrial home was only a planet circulating blindly about one of an infinity of stars evaluated their place in the cosmic scheme quite differently than had their predecessors who saw the earth as the unique and focal center of God’s creation.”

    Science gives us a whole new perspective. That’s almost the point of it. It tells us things that we can’t immediately apprehend with our senses. Often that requires a giant leap of the imagination to process, and sometimes it tells us things we’d rather not believe.

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