Thursday, October 13, 2005

New world pictures

NASA has released new, higher resolution versions of the famous cloudless Earth. Shown here, the images from July and January.

I loved that image since I first saw it. I had a poster of the original. I was fascinated by the swirls of dust flowing out from the great river mouths. Things that seem so ephemeral in principle were in fact quite distinct, impossible to avoid.

In contrast, it's barely possible to make out the biggest cities in the world. The irrigation circles that are so clear from an airplane just melt together.

At once, these images show us who we are, and show us a world where we're barely visible.

At the same time, we know that arctic ice is gradually but permanently shrinking. Again, changes on a scale that human actions cannot touch directly. The rainforests ringing the equator are shrinking, again, slowly and irreversibly.

Iraq is a tiny dot in the middle of the image, and the 2,000 lives lost there are invisible. Jerusalem is indistinguishable from the desert surrounding it, and we cannot see the difference between Israel and Palestine. The conflicts that fill our newspapers, TV screens and blogs are insignificant on this scale.

I don't know whether it makes me more hopeful or more worried but I love looking at these pictures.

"This World Can't Stand Long" by Benton Flippen from the album Old Time, New Times (1994, 2:33).

Update: A reader notes that many more than 2,000 lives have been lost in Iraq. It's nearly 2,000 American soldiers, plus tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Even while pondering the whole Earth, I couldn't get past my own parochialism.