Astronomy: The Overview Effect for The Rest of Us

Written by Mike Simmons on Friday, 06 July 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Astronomers Without Borders, an organization I founded in 2007, is based on a simple truth – when we look up at the sky, no matter where we are, we know others are doing the same thing from other countries around the world.  At similar latitudes the sky is identical regardless of where you are.  And we all share the same wonder of the starry night sky, the planets and the entire Universe beyond.  That wonder is part of the traditions of every culture, passed down through time.  It will certainly be a part of our future as well.

But there’s more to it than the beauty of the Milky Way’s thousands of stars seen from a dark location.  When we look up we’re looking outward, into our cosmic neighborhood.  With a telescope we see even further into the cosmic hinterlands.  For adventurers who long to see what lies on the other side of every hill, the Universe offers unlimited mysteries.

The Universe – all that you see when you look up at the stars – is where we live.  The Earth is one small part of it.  If you’ve ever wanted to travel in space, just drive to a dark location, look up and take a look around.  You’re there, orbiting around our galaxy along with the rest of the inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.

The World at Night is a great demonstration of how we all share that magnificent view of the night sky.  The team of expert landscape astrophotographers assembled by project founder Babak Tafreshi has imaged the night sky from locations worldwide, showing a blanket of stars above historic, cultural and natural landmarks with stunning results.  Whether it’s a church, mosque, or synagogue in the earthly foreground, the sky above is the same.  We can change details of the orb we live on but the rest of the Universe hovers beyond our reach, untouched, practically unchanging.

This is the idea behind Astronomers Without Borders and the source of our slogan, One People, One Sky.  The earthly view of the heavens is also strikingly similar to what some astronauts experience from their perch in orbit.  Frank White coined the term, “The Overview Effect,” in his book of the same name to describe the sensation astronauts often experience seeing the Earth hanging in space among the stars and other planets, without any apparent borders between us.  I’ve told Frank I consider our view of the night sky to be the overview effect for the rest of us – those of us who will never travel out of Earth’s atmosphere – and he agrees.  When we connect with someone in a distant land, far beyond our horizon, and they’re seeing the same sky we do (offset by time as the Earth rotates), the sensation of One People, One Sky is reinforced.  The overview effect may not be as easy to visualize as from space – or as fun as being weightless – but it’s there just the same.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, who has spent more than 100 days in space as a NASA astronaut, has a similar view from a space travelers perspective.  In a recent blog post on Fragile Oasis titled “The Overview Effect: I Think It Works Both Ways”, Nicole said, “As I have watched over these past months, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, as my friends passed above me on this shiny point of light crossing the night sky, it occurred to me that this idea of an Overview Effect might just work both ways – not only for those looking in amazement, appreciation and awe at our planet; but also for those looking up to the sky at the wonders orbiting us there. It seems that both perspectives remind us of the fragile nature of where we live – Earth with its thin blue atmosphere and ISS with its thin silver hull – both protecting their humans from the harsh vacuum of space; both reminding us that wherever humanity chooses to ‘reside’, we are obligated to take care of that place – our home.”  Her solitary view engendered thoughts of our common heritage on Earth and the need to protect it together – “I” became “we.”

I started Astronomers Without Borders after visiting countries like Iran and Iraq, and meeting people who are far more like us than they are different.  They have the same needs, wishes and problems as anyone else.  I’ve given many presentations on astronomy in those countries to astronomy clubs in the US, and the focus inevitably turns to the difficulties others have in pursuing our common activities.  Equipment we take for granted is difficult or impossible to acquire in many countries.  Dark skies are out of reach without transportation.  The result is sympathy for the situation of our colleagues and a desire to help.  There’s nothing political about it – it’s nature, our common heritage.  And it’s there for everyone, an unlimited resource.  Why shouldn’t we all share in it equally?  The political and other issues that seem so important most of the time just become irrelevant, at least for that moment.  This is purely people to people interaction of the most basic sort.

Astronomers Without Borders now has participants in most of the world’s countries, with global programs that bring people together as never before.  All based on our living on one planet, looking up at the same sky.  An American amateur astronomer with the latest computerized gear and a student in a poor country may have different activities during the night but in the end they’re there for the same reason.  And they say remarkably similar things about the wonders of the night sky.  After all, we’re all looking out from the same place – Earth – and traveling together through the stars.


In Space Companies, “No One Can Hear You Yawn”

Written by David Beaver on Tuesday, 26 June 2012. Posted in Overview Effect, Space Tourism

Amazing NewSpace Events Get Brief Media and a “Yawn”

The recent milestone accomplishment of a delivery of cargo to the International Space Station by Elon Musk’s SpaceX was, in the eyes of the space community, a Game Changer.  Because it was the first U.S. launched delivery to the ISS since the end of the Shuttle program and the first by a private space company, it was widely covered by the national media. 

Within a week however, this landmark event, which a number of space leaders suggested may be seen by history as the beginning of a Second Space Age, was submerged in the usual mix of media.  Even its place as the leading space story was quickly overtaken by the Transit of Venus.

In my last post, commenting on the Planetary Resources press conference that announced their plan to Mine the Asteroids (remember that?), I focused on the curious disconnect between the scale and scope of their Mission (heavy team credentials, deep pockets, space expertise and huge upside) and the tepid and the even shorter-lived response from the mainstream media.

A few days later, Will Oremus at had this to say:

“How did the tech world respond? It yawned, rolled over, and returned to its collective dream aboutthe next hot social-media startup. My message to the tech world: Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!”

A Lack of “Space Awareness”

From the lack of enthusiasm for the incredible vision of the Planetary Resources announcement (perhaps because it seemed in-credible) to the apparent failure to grasp the implications of the historic accomplishment of SpaceX, we are witnessing the hugely diminished space-awareness of our present culture, an awareness that began to fade immediately following the abrupt end of the Apollo Program. 

While the SpaceX story gained more and longer coverage, there was clearly no cultural grasp of the unique significance of these accomplishments and plans, let alone the vision behind it, which is rapidly moving us toward a new and far more robust Space Age than even the remarkable accomplishments of Apollo

The public, distracted by numerous current issues and interests will be hard to move out of its prevalent perception that space “belongs” to Science and national government programs. 

It’s entirely likely that cautious and technically sophisticated NewSpace companies, headed by experienced entrepreneurs will undoubtedly make sustained, profitable progress.  But lacking Apollo Era space awareness by the public, Congress, and Wall Street, the explosive growth of a new Space Age that space leaders and enthusiasts envision may not happen nearly as rapidly as they imagine.  Because, apparently, in space companies, “no one can hear you yawn.”

The Historic Roots of our Current Lack of Space Awareness

Apollo originally included three more moon landings and the follow-on development of a compact space plane to carry astronauts to orbit (the “X-Plane” Program) allowing the massive Saturn 5 or subsequent heavy lifter to carry cargo.  Combining the two in the Shuttle was thus a bad political/economic compromise between the smaller, an inherently safer space plane and an unmanned cargo lifter, a fact that the previous NASA Director admitted some years ago

(It is ironic but not coincidental that all NewSpace orbital and suborbital crew vehicles are either reversions to the earlier capsule design or a jump to the astronaut-only space plane design, not seen in fully operational form since the legendary X-15 Program was canceled in 1968. Eight X-15 pilots actually received astronaut wings.)

With the Challenger disaster just five years into the Shuttle Program, the nearly three year wait till resumption of flights and the Moon Race over, the public’s waning sense that NASA was birthing the Space Agewas quickly replaced as the world’s premier technology icon by the rapidly advancing personal computer that birthed the Information Age.

Space Science Fiction in Decline

Not coincidentally, the mid-80’s saw the shift in science fiction from space to the rise of the “Cyberpunk”Science Fiction genera with its computer/internet themes.  The increasingly realistic and sophisticated space science fiction of the 1950’s has long been cited by both cultural and NASA historians as a precursor to public acceptance of the reality of space travel. 

By century’s end, the new computer and Internet driven themes were ubiquitous in movies and TV, while only the iconic Star Trek franchise remained until 2005, when Star Trek Enterprise ended.  Perhaps it’s only serious analogue had been Babylon 5, which lasted five years and ended in 2000.  From the 80’s on Space SF was eclipsed by Cyberpunk and today both are outsold 3 to 1 by fantasy (i.e. Lord of the Rings, Twilight, etc.).

Between the historic loss of focus on the Space Program and the paucity of coverage of the NewSpace industry, reinforced by the lack of current space science fiction (especially any based on the near future plans of the NewSpace industry); there is now a profound lack of current public space awareness.

Instead, there is a default assumption of the primacy of computer-based technology and business.  Indeed, unless you put a qualifier up front (i.e. drug, aerospace, solar, etc.) the frequent assumption when using the word “technology” today is that you are referring to Computer (or Internet) Technology.

Despite growing NewSpace achievements, while they will undoubtedly be cheered by the community of space enthusiasts, without the kind of cultural and media “groundwork” that seeded space awareness for the early U.S. Space Program, it is entirely likely that the tech community, and the computer/Internet culture it has created, will continue to “yawn”. 

The Agenda of the Overview Institute

The Overview Institute was created to research and focus attention on the World View shifting impact of space awareness.  While, as I have previously written, this does highlight a “Third Case” for human space travel (in addition to Science/Exploration and Commercial Development) it is not specifically a polemic for space travel itself, but for the World View that it tends to engender.

The fact that such a World View already exists, and that pre-Space Age observers such as astronomer Fred Hoyleand even Socrates have predicted that such a perspective would tend to engender such a World View shift, supports the conclusion that space travel itself is not absolutely necessary to grasp the Overview Effect.

In fact, there are many such predictions of the positive value of adopting an “Overview” perspective of the Earth sprinkled through history from ancient to modern times.  For a good summary of these historic observations see British Historian Robert Poole’s enlightening book on the historic and modern impact of Earth images and visualizations, Earthrise.

However, this long history of such statements by prominent figures also support the conclusion that such a shift is difficult to create simply through words.  On the other hand, the sudden and rapid World View shifts attributable to the astronaut’s firsthand accounts and visual records indicates that space travel and its socially transmitted Overview Effect is an especially powerful driver for shifting World Views.

A Second Way of Communicating the Overview Effect

Parallel to the accelerating rise of space travel technology is the equally rapid increase in advanced simulation media technology, from increasingly high rez, high frame/rate projection systems to 3D, Virtual Reality and a host of related immersive media tools. 

These new media technologies (enabled by the intervening Computer Revolution) allow art, entertainment and education creators to immerse audiences in experiences of unprecedented reality and presence, a sense of immersion and presence unavailable during the first Space Age.

This will allow the space perspective to be extended to hundreds of millions of citizens who will never see space themselves, extending and amplifying the World View shifting effect to the entire population.  However, this also requires an appreciation for the need for such content.

The Role of the Overview Institute

There is one additional caveat.  If these high-tech creations are based only on existing space images, which themselves have been limited by prior technologies and perspective, they are more likely to reinforce current marginalizing or misunderstanding of the Overview Effect, already widespread, even in the space community.

The Overview Institute therefore, is dedicated to bringing as clear and detailed account of the experiences of the astronauts and the coming wave of “Citizen Astronauts.” 

By building on first-hand accounts and supported by the best modern science of perception and the impact of media on the mind, these new space media experiences will produce previously unavailable levels of immersion in the World View-shifting experience of space travel. 

Such new space media experiences, rooted in and validated by the firsthand accounts of space travelers, will communicate a powerful “taste” of the World View shifting nature of the Overview Effect, and produce far, far more than a “Yawn”.  Indeed, as both astronauts and eminent cultural observers have predicted, the Overview Effect of space will soon become one of the dominant forces in shaping our world in the coming decade and beyond.  

Reflexive Ecologies: Visualizing Priorities

Written by David McConville on Sunday, 24 June 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Who are we? Within this simple question is contained the essence of what it means to be human: our capacity to reflect on our own consciousness. This reflexive impulse is so central to our character that we call our subspecies homo sapien sapiens, identifying sapience - the wisdom to act with appropriate judgment - as the primary trait that distinguishes us from other animals.

The power of imagery to profoundly affect our sense of place has been exquisitely demonstrated by a few key examples in the history of science. Nicolaus Copernicus’s sixteenth-century illustration of a sun-centered solar system has been widely credited as the primary factor in the precipitation of the scientific revolution. In one fell swoop, he redrew the cosmic order and by extension much of the Western world’s understanding of humanity’s relationship to the heavens. Almost five hundred years later, the Apollo 8 Earthrise image recontextualized perceptions of humanity’s place in the cosmos for much of the world with its first photographic view of Earth from outer space. This image is often attributed with instigating an environmental-paradigm shift, inducing numerous commentaries concerning the fragility of our home planet and the interconnectedness of the global community.

Charles and Ray Eames further pushed the reorienting potential of imagery to new heights (and depths) with their seminal 1972 short film Powers of Ten. It took viewers on an impossible journey across many orders of magnitude from quarks to quasars, pioneering the dynamic “long zoom” camera technique that illustrates how strongly our concepts of reality are shaped by sensory experiences.Our collective quest to know ourselves begins with imagining the world and our place in it. The success of our species is largely attributable to our ability to imagine and map abstract concepts, which help us to study, communicate, and synchronize with our local environments. We create and imbue imagery with symbolism derived from interactions with our surroundings, often accompanied by stories, artifacts, and practices that give clues to their meaning. These culturally constructed modes of communication enable us to share our experiences and cultivate knowledge across generations, providing important contextual understanding that help us to situate ourselves in the world and the cosmos.

Today, our self-reflective search has expanded into new dimensions. While these earlier examples shifted spatial awareness, we are increasingly able to measure and represent temporal, spectral, and relational characteristics of our environs. A latticework of satellites, telescopes, and other measuring instruments are perpetually scanning and providing voluminous amounts of data about our surroundings. Time-lapse and hyperspectral photographs shed new light on atmospheric, biospheric, and cosmic processes. GPS and RFID devices track interactions between people, products, and processes around the globe. And with the ever-expanding integration of Internet-connected gadgets into our daily lives, data about our activities, interests, and movements are generated across physical, social, and virtual domains.

As many of us attempt to make sense of the gestalt of information being generated by and about us, it is little surprise that interest in computer visualization is exploding. Mass digitization yields endless territories to map, while increased accessibility of graphics software enables widespread experimentation with novel representation techniques. Geospatial visualizations provide instant access to worldwide atlases of information, now ubiquitously available through GPS, web maps, and digital globes. Scientific visualizations are widely used to visually simulate phenomena at various scales, appearing regularly in news reports, exhibitions, websites, and mobile applications. Information visualizations are used to reveal hidden patterns within interdisciplinary networks of large-scale data collections. A new generation of information cartographers has taken up the challenge of exploring the aesthetic possibilities of these databases, and these ongoing investigations are yielding intriguing—and occasionally useful—renderings to disclose previously imperceptible relationships.

Burgeoning interest in these visualizations suggests that they may also prove useful for illuminating the most complex and important network of all: Earth’s biosphere. Composed of all of the ecosystems on the planet, the biosphere regulates the countless vital interactions that are essential for supporting life as we know it. These not only include the biological networks that sustain us, but also the generation of the "natural resources” that feed consumer society’s global production and distribution networks. While most of these ecological processes have been made invisible as externalities with modern economic systems, it is apparent that their healthy functioning can no longer be taken for granted.

The sensory networks that monitor our home planet have brought to light some alarming trends in recent decades. Industrial societies have been consuming resources much faster than the planet can regenerate them, resulting in the destabilization of environmental conditions upon which human civilizations have been dependent for millennia. Specific planetary boundaries have now been identified as the defining the “safe operating space for humanity,” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. Since 1968 (ironically, the same year the Earthrise photograph helped to birth the environmental movement), we have been slipping further into “ecological debt” as we rapidly expand our global footprint and exceed the ”safe operating space” within which we must stay to avoid disastrous consequences. As a result, we are facing a convergence of interconnected environmental crises, including ocean acidification, mass species extinction, overfishing, peak oil, peak water, land degradation, deforestation, and plastics pollution—not to mention climate change.

Developing appropriate responses to these urgent issues requires more effective tools for reflexively examining humanity’s relationship with global ecological systems. Derived from the Greek roots oikos and logos, ecology appropriately means the “study of relations” and is used to describe many studies of interactions between organisms and their environments. Practitioners in the field of complex network visualization are well positioned to apply their artistic and technical experiences to focus much-needed attention to these essential interconnections.

A number of nascent efforts are already exploring how aesthetic approaches to visualization and mapping can provide new perspectives on critical ecological interactions. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio incorporates satellite data with 3D animations to demonstrate a wide range of scientifically measured phenomena. Designers Tyler Lang and Elsa Chaves have illustrated interconnected global systems and events can influence each other with Connecting Distant Dots. Media artist Tiffany Holmes creates and curates artworks devised to reveal the processes of consumption under the rubric of eco-visualization, which she defines as the “creative practice of converting real-time ecological data into image and sound for the purpose of promoting environmental awareness and resource conservation.” Photographer Chris Jordan has created a series of sobering images chronicling the unimaginable scale of mass consumption with Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. The Sourcemap project from MIT uses geospatial data and information visualization to reveal the global impact of product supply chains. 

But these efforts are only be the beginning. The accelerating environmental challenges faced by modern civilization are necessitating that we reimagine our relationships to the natural world. Meeting the needs of global society does not require infinite economic growth but an understanding of and respect for the regenerative limits of the biosphere. As accelerating global changes force us to find innovative ways of enhancing the integrity of local and global ecosystems, visualizations will play an essential role in making our connections to these ecological processes explicit. We will likely find that our species’ unique ability to creatively imagine and map our place in the world will once again be key to adapting to changing environments.

Originally published in Lima, M. (2011). Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information. Princeton Architectural Press.

Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part 1

Written by Alex Howerton on Monday, 11 June 2012. Posted in Overview Effect

Some events seem to change the world instantaneously, like the very first small, beeping satellite soaring overhead, or a wall that has divided a country for decades being torn down overnight. Yet in most cases, these events are the fruition of ideas that have incubated in our collective consciousness for years, even decades. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are dramatic events, but are ultimately the end product of slow, even imperceptible movement in the underlying plate tectonics. In the end, it is the gradual, inevitable build-up of tensions that finally releases vast, unstoppable power and transformation of the environment.

One such idea is the Overview Effect. It has been 25 years now since Frank White wrote this brilliant, insightful work, looking into our immediate future as well as scanning far more distant horizons. While this idea ultimately has the power to permanently and positively change our collective worldview, it is currently little known amongst the general populace, even a quarter-century later.

I am envious of Frank’s patience and even temperament. If I had written this book, I would yell to anybody who would listen, "Can’t you see how brilliant I am? Why don’t you pay attention?"  But not Frank. I have been working closely with him and others to launch the Overview Institute, and I am continually amazed at Frank’s calm demeanor and laid-back approach. It is as if he is confident in the inevitability of the coming paradigm shift, and he is under no pressure to hurry it along faster than its natural rate. He seems to view it as being like a glacier, which will eventually, dramatically, sweep before it everything in its path.

I believe Frank can adopt this attitude because he knows he’s right. Not right, as in "Ha ha, I’m right, you’re wrong," but right as in, "This is the natural course of things. This is as it should be." Because he knows the advancement of humanity into the cosmos is a multi-generational affair, and he is playing his significant yet tiny part in pushing the paradigm forward. He knows that all he has envisioned, in broad outline, will come to pass.

Which brings up a complementary idea to the Overview Effect in space. That is the Overview Effect in time. We are on a journey that began countless eons ago, and we do not stand at the pinnacle of human development, but are wayfarers, stewards, along the way. Human culture exhibited its first unmistakable flowering in the Aurignacian period, 40,000 years ago. If we imagine ourselves standing at the midpoint of a human journey that will extend at least 40,000 years into the future, it is staggering to try to conceive what can be achieved in that timeframe.

In that sense, we are one of the most fortunate generations, standing at the fulcrum of time, just before we ascend into the heavens in earnest. And I don’t mean that only in general, but very specifically -- now is the fulcrum. Recently SpaceX successfully launched the first private resupply mission to the International Space Station. That is the beginning of the true, unstoppable journey outward.

So now is the perfect time to re-read The Overview Effect. In following posts, I will share my reflections on specific themes and ideas found in the book, as they relate to our current conditions, 25 years after its initial publication, and as they also relate to the Overview Effect as it unfolds in time. The journey is just now, continually, and always, beginning.

Apollo, the Dragon, and the Overview Effect

Written by Frank White on Monday, 28 May 2012. Posted in Overview Effect, Space Tourism

Not long ago, I got up at 3:30 am to watch the Falcon rocket blast off. In doing so, I recalled the all-nighter I pulled in Oxford, England, in July 1969 to watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. To me, these two missions were similar because nothing would be the same afterward. And both missions, I believe, are related to the Overview Effect and its impact on our awareness of who we are and where we are in the universe.

How can this be, you may ask. After all, the Apollo missions represented the first time we saw the whole Earth, gave us our first glimpse of "Earthrise," and helped give the environmental movement a kickstart as a major factor in shaping attitudes and behaviors on our planet. Didn’t Apollo represent the Overview Effect par excellence? And wasn’t this SpaceX launch just an unmanned cargo craft resupplying the International Space Station (ISS)? How could the two have anything in common?

Let me try to answer that question as best I can. I suppose on launch day, I simply knew that both were "historic" turning points, but I wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t until the following Monday, when the Dragon linked up with the ISS that the connection with the Overview Effect became more clear.

The most obvious link was simply in what NASA TV showed us as the Dragon maneuvered into position at an increasingly smaller distance from the space station. There, in the background, I saw amazingly beautiful video of the Earth rolling past, sometimes showing puffs of clouds, sometimes land masses, and at other times, the oceans. Of course, the NASA commentator wasn’t doing a program about the Overview Effect, so he didn’t comment on the view. He focused on the spacecraft below, the conversations among the flight controllers, and the issues that were arising as the moment of docking approached.

However, it occurred to me that many more people were watching this broadcast than would usually be the case, and this was a good thing. NASA TV often shows striking video from orbit, but they do not have a very large audience to see these images. With a larger group watching, people might have an experience of the Overview Effect for the very first time that morning, even if they didn’t know what it was!

Then, what came to mind was Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind this magnificent moment. He, too, was receiving more attention than usual on this day, and deservedly so. In response to questions about "What next?", he might have said that he just wanted to fulfill his contract with NASA to keep flying more supplies to the ISS. He said that, of course, but he has also talked about humanity becoming a multi-planet species, and his goal of sending large numbers of people to Mars.

In a flash, I realized that a long-held dream of mine might come true in my lifetime: thousands of people experiencing the Overview Effect, instead of the 500 plus that have had the experience so far.

This is the true promise of the NewSpace industry, which includes visionaries like Musk, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Diamandis, and many others. It is not the suborbital hops and space hotels, the moon missions and Mars colonies alone that really matter. It is, rather, that we will soon reach the point where as many people will see the Earth from a distance within a week’s time as have experienced it in the past 50 years.

At some point in the life of a human system, a quantitative change leads to a qualitative change. For decades, we have observed a few hundred astronauts and cosmonauts undergoing the shift in worldview represented by the Overview Effect, and we have been saying, "this is extraordinary." Now, soon, this will happen to many, many ordinary people and, through them, to society as a whole.

At that point, we will become not only a multi-planet species but also a species that is aware of its true destiny, i.e., to become Citizens of the Universe.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong. Thank you, Elon Musk. Thank you Apollo and Dragon.