OneThing14: metaphors we have lived by

How we see things gets in the way of how things really are

Geocentric: Ptolemy had it right, of course, at least for a while

Ptolemy‘s view that the stars are fixed points in the sky and our earth lay at the center of the known universe seemed to verify Aristotle’s notion of the universe.

We sure thought a lot of ourselves, but it stood to reason at the time.  We couldn’t really see too far out from our home.  But the view was so appealing that even the gathering anomalies would not dissuade believers for nearly 1500 years.  On one level, it’s comical to consider that humans thought of things in this way, but it is clearly scientifically stout compared to the Genesis account of the firmament.

All those perfect orbits.  The earth at the center.  Let the other planet fall into retrogrades and epicycles.  Everything was in its place with us at the center.

Heliocentric: Copernicus - duh - was totally correct, for a while

Nicolaus Copernicus looks up at the sky for a while and begins to codify things differently . . . too many celestial perturbations for the geocentric view to hold up. While everyone knew the planets moved, that such movements would be, first, attributable to the sun and, second, descriptive of God’s earthly creation was simply too much for people to take in.  And so the revolution was probably at least a 100 years in the making – it took time for the Copernican Revolution to hold sway among astronomers. We’re no longer at the center of things, but our sun sure was. A really good telescope was still about 70 years away . . . so Copernicus’s view of things was done the old-fashioned way – his own eyes and pretty convincing mathematics.

Crew of Apollo 8 looks back from the moon and sees this - the photo that changed us all

Frank Borman, Will Anders, and Jim Lovell – the crew of Apollo 8, the first humans to break free of earth’s orbit – snapped this photo on Christmas Eve, 1968, and we’ve not been the same.  The orientation we see here is based on the top-bottom of the camera film, there being no up or down in space; but it’s what the astronauts saw: the moon on the right, the “good earth” suspended in a deep black emptiness.  On earth, however, orientation is a VERY big deal.  We know this photo as the “earthrise from moon” and so we tipped the photo.  We can’t help it, can we?  We can’t leave well enough alone . . . just see it and take it in.  Like Ptolemy and followers such as Tycho Brahe who mangled measurements, we feel compelled to re-adjust the image to fit within a frame we understood.

Still, seeing the earth in such a context, and dazzled by its ineffable beauty,  we humans did start to think a bit differently. “Spaceship Earth” entered the vernacular. And Earth Day really had a coming out party. While the cybernetic side of systems theory had a clear following before this seminal event, this view of home, as it were, changed human consciousness.  Paradigms were crumbling.

Carl Sagan called us a "mote of dust amid a sunbeam." Are we like the Who's in Whoville, their universe but an atom in a snowflake?

At Carl Sagan’s behest, NASA turned the Voyager I craft around in 1990 and snapped this family photo through four billion miles of solar system:  the famed “pale blue dot,” as Sagan called us.  We’re there, on the right, amid the slashing pink vertical streak – a very small dot of light.  We look almost like a photographic error, a fleck of dust on the lens. But it’s where Greece and Rome reigned, where Buddha and Christ lived, where iPhones and Facebook exist, where my grandparents lived and died, where my grandchildren will live and die.

It’s really hard for me to take on such remoteness.

But maybe it is as Darwin wrote 150 years ago: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

See?  I can’t help it . . . I want to imbue this information with purpose.

What is the next metaphor? How will that new idea shape our culture?


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