Artist Brian Kane has created a series of digital billboards that display images that blend into or replace the natural setting of an area. It is a project that uses technology and existing advertising infrastructure to remind people of what is being removed or blocked by construction and development.
I’ve been reading the book “Cradle to Cradle”, by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, which addresses the issue of sustainable design. In general it draws into question the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto of many sustainability advocates, suggesting that this approach delays the depletion of the earth’s resources rather than really trying to design products and lifestyles that are completely waste-free. They also have some things to say about space exploration:
There is some talk in science and popular culture about colonizing other planets, such as Mars or the moon. Part of this is just human nature: we are curious, exploring creatures. The idea of taming a new frontier has a compelling, even romantic, pull, like that of the moon itself. But the idea also provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we’ll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this speculation, we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge. Or, for a moonlike effect, go to the nickel mines of Ontario.
Seriously, humans evolved on the Earth, and we are meant to be here. Its atmosphere, its nutrients, its natural cycles, and our own biological systems evolved together and support us here, now. Humans were simply not designed by evolution for lunar conditions. So while we recognize the great scientific value of space exploration and the exciting potential of new discovery there, and while we applaud technological innovations that enable humans to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” we caution: Let’s not make a big mess here and go somewhere less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let’s use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet.
There are lot of beliefs inherent in that passage. Their complaint, that finding resources external to our planet makes us less likely to preserve those found on it, is one that I’ve heard before. It has some merit, in that sustainability has a strong economic imperative only when resources are limited. And although there are stronger arguments for sustainability than economics, that argument is often the strongest one for those making the decisions. So the pursuit of extraterrestrial resources (on Mars, as they suggest, or perhaps via asteroids) requires some caution, but the push for planetary exploration is so strong that in order to preserve the environments on Earth we need to rely on other arguments.
I don’t think the authors put enough stock in the scientific value of planetary exploration, nor do they give enough credit to the incredible curiosity and adaptability of people. For millennia, here on earth, people have been pushing to places they had no good reason to be. Sometimes it has been for the pursuit of resources, and sometimes it has been just to see what’s there. Exploration is a fundamental characteristic of humanity. They contend that we “evolved on the Earth, and we are meant to be here,” but by that logic nobody would have ventured to new continents, establishing themselves in a new life there. Humanity evolved in Africa, but we didn’t stay confined there. Human evolution has virtually stopped, but we are now in a process of human/technology co-evolution. This has carried people from their homelands across oceans, to the barren plains of Antarctica, to the depths of the ocean, and it will carry us beyond this planet. It is true that we evolved on Earth, but we also involved in the Solar System, in the Milky Way, in the Universe.
Earth should and will hold a special place for humanity, but for future explorers it may be the same way that a modern American can trace his or her roots back to Africa, Asia, or Europe. Those places are a part of our history, part of our identity, but no longer our home. Humans on Mars will be Martians, and they may be concerned with preserving the wilderness of that planet. That doesn’t change the fact that those of us remaining on Earth still live here, and as long as we do its preservation should be a top concern, not because of the flimsy and variable problem of resource availability, but because it is our home.
Mapbox, a company specializing in producing and maintaining detailed online maps, has recently released two map versions of the surface of Mars. Mars Satellite contains satellite imagery of the martian surface, while Mars Terrain is a vectorized version. Both are pretty cool, and it’s interesting to think that the surface of another planet is becoming so well known. Check it out.
I’ve been hearing about a number of interesting science/tech education projects recently, all approaching the topic in innovative and very hands-on ways. Just recently I met someone working for a new startup called Ardusat, which provides students with the opportunity to program and operate Arduino microcontrollers aboard satellites. These microcontrollers are connected to a variety of sensors, allowing students to design experiments and collect a variety of data. Here we are, barely 50 years after the launch of Sputnik, and space has become a laboratory accessible from the classroom.
On April 17th Rachel and Elizabeth, two young scientists and cyclists, left San Francisco on bicycles and set out for the east coast in what they call Cycle for Science. Along the way they talked with educators and classrooms about what science is and how everyone can participate. I’m a little sad that I only just heard about the trip, now that it is almost over, but it is nevertheless an interesting project, and I’m sure there will be good educational material that comes out of it.
“The physical universe was anthropocentric to primitive man. At a subsequent stage of intellectual progress it was centered in a restricted area on the surface of the earth. Still later, Ptolemy and his school, the universe was geocentric; but since the time of Copernicus the Sun, as the dominating body of the solar system, has been considered to be at or near the center of the stellar realm. With the origin of each of these successive conceptions, the system of stars has ever appeared larger that was thought before. Thus the significance of man and the earth in the sidereal scheme has dwindled with advancing knowledge of the physical world, and our conception of the dimensions of the discernible stellar universe has progressively changed.”
Wanderers, a short film from digital artist Erik Wernquist, is an amazing visual exploration of what the future may hold for the human race. Wernquist provides digital reconstructions of what various places in the solar system might look like as they are explored and settled by people, and it’s all overlaid with the voice of Carl Sagan. It’s quite beautiful.
I am reminded of a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the protagonist imagines what it would be like to have approached our own home planet as someplace new:
“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.”