02 September 2007

The Sky, the Stars, and Everyday Life in the Age of Information

I just realized the other night that I and many others like me are, on a day to day basis, living out the wild acid-trip fantasies of futurists everywhere years ago. What prompted this was a week spending most of my free time (what little of it I've had) browsing Google Earth.

Seriously think about this for a second. I have an application on my computer (and, in a limited fashion, on my phone too) that allows me to look at aerial and satellite imagery from anywhere on the globe. I can overlay it with any set of metadata that I want, can see points on the Earth that other users have found interesting or that have historical significance, too. In my case, I was browsing the globe for the sites of atmospheric nuclear tests, because you can see their craters in satellite imagery (disappointingly enough the site of the 57 megaton Tsar Bomba blast is poorly imaged because, I imagine, no one can fly a plane there safely). In a certain bizarre way, detached both in time and in space, I was gazing at the sites of some of the world's worst mishaps. Chernobyl looks great from the air. Mayak, just northwest of Chelyabinsk, looks desolate and forgotten, a major nuclear catastrophe swept under the rug of the world (you've never heard of it, have you). Three Mile Island looks amazing. The giant crater in Bikini Atoll at the site of the Castle Bravo event is clearly visible, and you can view it without getting the lethal dose of radiation you'd receive at the surface after a couple of hours.

Information is not only free now, but it's everywhere, instantly accessible at every moment in our lives. We're surrounded by outlets for all manner of information all the time. And here fifty years ago people thought that Television was revolutionary! Think of it for a minute, though. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone, and in the back of your mind there's a topic that's related but you can't remember any details about it? Now you can just look it up, anywhere, any time. Amazing.

I can now browse the skies as if they were an open book I was reading. I can zoom into places I find interesting, look up whatever Messier objects I find nearby, find imagery in whichever spectrum I require. That feeling I used to get as a kid looking at the Universe's unbelievably infinite majesty isn't really dampened now, looking at imagery instead of the real world around me. I'm still painfully aware that we orbit Sol, one tiny little yellow star in the backwaters of a spiral arm in a giant galaxy. Our galaxy is one of an uncountable multitude, on an unstoppable collision course with the Andromeda galaxy. It's so impossible to think of how huge they are, too. Don't ever try; you'll hurt yourself. Just sit back in wonder, zoom in, and realize that that smudge you were looking at is actually billions of stars, and that thing you thought was a star is really a galaxy, containing even more stars.

It's hard to think of it this way, but we are furry little creatures on a tiny blue rock in a Universe that is so enormous we cannot even begin to conceive of it, even though it is finite. As I write this it expands, though, and space stretches even further. Our lives are so short; all of Human existence is less than the blinking of an eye to the Universe, but to us we feel so significant. The Universe's existence and our own are so deeply entangled that it's only too tempting to think that the Universe is the way it is so that we can observe it, and we can exist within it only because it is exactly as it is. The tiniest deviation at any time in the past 13 or 14 billion years would have produced an entirely different experience, or no experience at all. To me it's no wonder at all that people believe in God. It takes an even greater leap—not in faith, but in perception—to see that we're here because everything was exactly right for us to be here, and if it weren't then we wouldn't be around to ask those kinds of questions. That thought alone is enough to bring tears to my eyes some nights when I can't sleep for thinking about these things.

I remember as a kid reading 2001: A Space Odyssey and wishing so badly that I could be a Star Child, a being of pure energy so immortal that I could scoff at space and time themselves and explore the Universe at my whim. Maybe that'll be possible some day. For now, I'll just have to content myself with having imagery from the world's most powerful telescopes in space and on the surface being instantly available to me all the time. *sigh*

Later, space cadets.

1 comment:

robind said...

Let me preface this by saying I'm on mushrooms right now.

This article is the most amazing, mind-blowing thing I've read in a long time. I was starting to have a bad trip and this totally turned it around for me.

You're so right, it's not only incredible how much data there is, and how easily accessible it is, but also the ways we can perceive it. Like you said, any kind of meta-data you want turns the whole of our knowledge into this relational dataset of sorts, with facts and thoughts and people coming together in ways never thought possible or imagined, even just a year ago.

Thanks for a great article,
Robin