Appearance on “The Space Show”

Written by Frank White on Sunday, 11 November 2012. Posted in Overview Institute, Overview Effect

Over Veteran’s Day weekend, I was honored to appear on The Space Show, hosted by Dr. David Livingston. If you have never listened to the program, you should give it a try. It is online at David brings in a variety of great guests from the space community, and he is a thoughtful and informed interviewer. I had not appeared since the founding of the Overview Institute, when I appeared with my colleagues, David Beaver and Alex Howerton.

This was a wonderful opportunity to bring people up to date on the progress of the Institute, as well as the upcoming world premiere of the film “Overview,” the revision of The Overview Effect for a third edition, and my work with Space Synapse, a company that is devoted to communicating the Overview Effect message through a variety of media.

Listeners sent in a number of emails and made some perceptive phone calls. Bob Krone, provost of the Kepler Space Institute (KSI), emailed to remind us that I have developed a course on the Overview Effect for KSI, and that they have recently started a space philosophy journal.

I want to thank David Livingston for inviting me on his program, and my all veterans (including my father and grandfather) for their service. My hope is that, as more people hear the message of the Overview Effect, we will have fewer wars, but we should continue to honor those who gave of themselves for us.

To listen to our discussion, click here to download the audio file.

A Fish Out of Water: Reflections on Rereading the Overview Effect, Part II

Written by Alex Howerton on Wednesday, 10 October 2012.

In the first chapters of The Overview Effect, Frank White challenges us earthbound fish to jump out of our habitual perspective. That is the analogy he uses, along the lines of classic explanation of 4 dimensions to us by imagining a 2-dimensional creature encountering a 3-dimensional world. A fish flopping onto land, if he could survive it, would have a hard time comprehending what he was experiencing, and even harder time communicating that experience to other fishes once he reentered the water.

White does not push the analogy further, but I will. At the very least, the other fish might call the transformative fish crazy. No one likes their worldview challenged. At worst, they might crucify him or martyr him in some other way. Throughout history, humans have proven that they are more likely to solve their cognitive dissonance by denying or repudiating new factual evidence than doing the hard, often painful work of modifying their worldview to accommodate a new reality. Exhibits: Socrates. Jesus. Hypatia of Alexandria. Giordano Bruno. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change scientists. I think you get my point.

But over time, that which was once highly controversial becomes accepted. No one seriously disputes anymore, for example, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that the solar system is located in an obscure arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Nothing of the physical layout of the universe has changed. But a very fundamental change has happened in the universe – our perception of it. Even more important than that is our ability to communicate that change with each other, to share the experience of change. As White says, “A shared context is critical for real communication to take place, because without it, what is meaningful to one person may be nonsense to another.”

We fish are currently struggling to maintain our worldviews in the face of an onslaught of new information and stimuli. The normal human reaction is to dig in and double down. “I’m right, and so by definition everybody else who disagrees is wrong.” We have seen the results of what that type of thinking leads to (Americans are no less culpable in this regard).

What is needed to break the logjam is the new physical perspective that the Overview Effect offers. Such a jarring “fish out of water” experience may be too much for some to handle, and we have to be prepared for that. But for most of us, I suspect, it would be a positively transformative experience, one that would take many years, if not a lifetime, to assimilate and express in new cultural forms.

Even the way we experience transformation may be transformed. It is common to hear statements like, “When I contemplate the immensity of the stars, the galaxies, the universe, I realize how insignificant I am.” If that is true, why then do you not feel correspondingly omnipotent when contemplating cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks? Often such contemplation leads to a similar feeling of insignificance. Why? Because those scales are out of our control, outside of our carefully constructed worldview. But consider this – who is doing the contemplating? How is it that a mass of biomatter can come to perceive scales from quasars to quarks, and have some measure of control over it, at least locally? That is amazing all by itself. We are a legitimate part of the universe, and belong in it, and we have to understand things on a human scale.

One of the beauties of the Overview Effect is that it can broaden that “human scale” to encompass so much more, so we are not shocked into insignificance or incapacity when faced with realities far beyond our current comprehension. We fishes can help each other to comprehend this majestic, magnificent universe we find ourselves in, and strive to become more than fishes, without ever losing our essential “fishness.”

White says, “Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.” We will always be human. We will always be constrained by the physical limitations that that implies. But that does not mean that what we think are our limitations now are the actual limitations. We will never discover those limits unless we push the boundaries, then communicate with each other, rationally, artistically or otherwise, the new parameters of what it means to be human. That is the gift that the Overview Effect can give all of us.

Why Go to Space At All? Part I — The Vision

Written by Alex Howerton on Monday, 17 September 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Adapted from the book Free Space — Real Alternatives for Reaching Outer Space, Loompanics, 1995

Space exploration and development is exciting! It is easy to become absorbed in the details, the discoveries, the adventure, and forget why we began sucha quest in the first place. If we are ever to reach space as a civilization, it is imperative to understand the minutiae, the nuts and bolts of how it is done.  It is, however, no less important to examine why we want to go, what we intend to accomplish, what our hopes and dreams are upon achieving our goals.

I embarked on my quest toward a a spacefaring civilization to fulfill a personal vision.  I have, from my earliest memories, loved the idea of space. I have always marveled at science fiction, and in eighth-grade science class, where I was racking up a solid C average, I achieved A pluses for the two weeks we concentrated on space.

As I grew into adulthood, other interests absorbed me, and space studies slid to the back burner. Then, in 1983, I participated in a seminar entitled “2013: the World 30 Years from Now.” The task on the first day of the seminar was to envision the state of the world in that future time. On the second day, we had to figure out how to bring it about.

With a fellow attendee I was assigned to go into a darkened room, close my eyes, and relate my vision of the future. Upon shutting my eyes, a fully-articulated vision leapt into my imagination. I saw a re-greened Earth, dedicated to agriculture and environmental parks. There were perhaps six large cities on the whole planet, mainly distribution and collection centers for the solar system’s economy. The cities were built downward, into the Earth, with no eye-jarring artificial structures to assail the senses.  Ground transportation was achieved by means of magnetic strips between destinations. Vehicles were encoded with their destinations, much like bar-coding, then glided along the steps at tremendous speeds. Since every vehicle was locked onto the strips and traveling at uniform speed, there were no accidents. Power was provided by clean-burning hydrogen fusion and solar power satellites.

My mind then flew to the Moon.  It was one massive industrial park.  Every conceivable industry was represented and allowed to prosper in a free and open market. The goods and services produced there were shipped all over the solar system. The Moon’s far side was reserved for pure science and astronomy.

I saw great ships plying the pathways of the solar system, visiting the colonies of Mars and beyond, bringing back valuable resources from the nether regions, enriching everyone. Beautiful pleasure yachts powered by solar sail gracefully wandered about the spatial sea.  Huge free-floating space resorts supplied every kind of diversion, from flying under one’s own power, to all kinds of space sports, to discreetly-appointed zero-g love nests.

The outer worlds of Europa, Titan, and others were being explored for organic matter and even life, while tiny robots of nano-technological origin set about terraforming the worlds where no life previously existed, yet which would be useful to humanity.

A great power generator was in full operation around stately Jupiter, producing energy from Io’s interaction with the great planet’s magnetosphere. Automated probes with the most advanced hydrogen-scoop and antimatter engines were forging their way to the nearest stellar neighbors to initiate a first reconnaissance. The whole neighborhood of the Sun was bustling and thriving with human activity.

I had not heard of the Overview Effect when I experienced that vision — indeed, Frank had not yet written the book. But in retrospect, I did have a proto “Overview Effect” moment at that seminar. That is why, once I finally read the book, the idea resonated so deeply within me.

The Overview Effect is the unifying principle which gives a sense of unity and purpose to our current seemingly chaotic cultural state.  Just as in Chaos Theory, order seems to break down at an increasing rate, until a strange attractor enters the picture, and a new dynamic equilibrium is achieved. The idea of the Overview Effect is just such a strange attractor.

The current news about SpaceX’s successful resupply mission to the International Space Station and the announcement by Planetary Resources of the intention to mine an asteroid may seem to most people to have come out of the blue, but these ideas have been percolating for many years, even decades, and are now emerging, just when they apparently seem to be needed the most.

We are witnessing and participating in the birth of cosmic consciousness, not just as an abstract idea, but as a practical program of action, an alternative to the standard methods of global problem-solving. This is the true power of the Overview Effect, and I am proud that my vision of three decades ago has now found a home with the Overview Institute.

The Next "Giant Leap"

Written by Jeff Krukin on Sunday, 08 July 2012. Posted in Cognitive Science, Overview Effect, Space Tourism

When Neil Armstrong stepped from the ladder of the Eagle lunar lander to become the first human being to walk on our Moon, he said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."  When he later described his experience, what we now know as the Overview Effect (OE), he explained that, "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth.  I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth."

Fortunately, it is not necessary to go to the Moon, or even the International Space Station, to have an OE experience.  Thanks to the efforts of dedicated NewSpace entrepreneurs, we are on the cusp of an era where hundreds and then thousands of people will have their own OE experience during suborbital flights.

Whether buying a $200,000 ticket and flying to a 100km altitude aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, or buying a $95,000 ticket and flying to a 50km altitude aboard XCOR Aerospace's Lynx, passengers will have a few minutes to experience our Earth as a place without borders.  As a home where we all breathe the same air within the precious bubble of a thin atmosphere, regardless of the political and idealogical beliefs that all too often divide us.

And these space tourism flights are just one way that more and more people will have an OE experience.  Science, too, will benefit from these flights, and new discoveries will increase our understanding of the Earth-Space relationship and help us appreciate that human activity in space is a vital part of our stewardship of our home planet.

The Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), a coordination and advisory committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, was recently established to facilitate suborbital science.  While the current emphasis is on the hard sciences, as the pace of suborbital flights increases and more and more passengers and scientists publicly discuss their experiences, I expect to see the "soft" sciences (sociology, psychology, philosophy, etc.) and faith/religion studies represented in the near future.

While Neil Armstrong's giant leap was a recognition of the distance traveled, the next giant leap will reflect the increasing numbers of those who travel.

The Overview Effect and the "Facebook Revolutions"

Written by Frank White on Saturday, 07 July 2012.

As we have watched the uprisings that began in the Middle East and have now spread around the world, much has been made of the role that Facebook, Twitter, and other online technologies have played in assisting the revolutionaries in coordinating their actions.

What hasn't been mentioned is that these capabilities depend largely on a space-based technology, i.e., satellites, for their impact. When I interviewed astronaut Jeff Hoffman for The Overview Effect, he pointed out that the "technological overview" might have greater near-term influence on society than the philosophical shifts resulting from viewing of the Earth from space. Speaking of the impact of global communications, he noted that very little could happen anywhere in the world without other people knowing about it.  He said, "That is probably the biggest thing the space program has done in terms of changing human consciousness, although very few people recognize it as the space program."

The same might be said of the environmental movement, which has had an enormous influence on our society. The link between the movement and the early views of the whole Earth from the moon was noted  at the time, but seems to have been ignored in recent years. Some environmentalists are even hostile to the idea of space exploration.

I detect, on the part of humanity, an unwillingness to absorb one of the key messages of the Overview Effect, which is that we are in space, we always have been in space, and we always will be in space. And as we move out into the universe, our life on Earth will forever be changed. I've begun to think that the problem might lie with the word "space." Even though the domain we call "space" is closer to the surface of the Earth than Boston is to New York, our minds tend to think of it as far away and alien in some way. I wonder if we need a new word, like Earthspace, to describe that region outside our biosphere that is still quite close to our planet's surface. Perhaps that would diminish our sense of being far away from home when we are in "space."

We could even embroider on this concept and say that as long as we are within the gravitational pull of the Earth, we are in Earthspace. If we created another Apollo vehicle like the Saturn V, and entered the moon's gravitational pull, we would be in "Moonspace." We could divide the entire solar system up this way, so that our minds would not feel so overwhelmed by the term "space," which would still be, of course, the "final frontier."