Articles tagged with: Overview Effect

Metaphor, Myth and Meaning: Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part III

Written by Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part 1 on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. Posted in Overview Effect

In Chapter 3, “An Overview of the Spaceflight Experience,” White discusses metaphor as a method used by the astronauts to attempt to explain their spaceflight experiences. Launching from the ideas of Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, White concludes that “one result of space exploration is that language will grow as spaceflight is described more frequently.”

White is spot on here. Metaphor is powerful. It is a way for the human mind to strive to express something that cannot be grasped directly, either by the speaker or the listener. In essence, it creates reality by indicating a relationship that was hitherto unrecognized, or even existent. Spaceflight, for example, is a raw experience, but what does it mean? Like all life experiences, it does not have one meaning for all time, but changes in context over time and with different astronauts. White makes the point that “memory of it [the spaceflight experience] acts as a time-release capsule, emitting feelings, insights, thoughts, and ideas over the years after it has occurred.”

White then goes on to describe the active legend-building that orbited the early astronauts. “Societies need heroes who are specially selected to undergo hardship and danger on the frontiers of civilization. Space is today’s frontier, and the astronauts and cosmonauts have become today’s heroes, people who have extraordinary experiences unknown to others in the society, doing something that requires uncommon bravery.”

Deeds are the germ of legend, and legend is the fount of myth. And metaphor is the language of myth. We moderns hear ancient myths, and instantly think “how preposterous,” or “how quaint.” We have even morphed the word “myth” to be synonymous, in some contexts, with “lie”. We constantly feel the need to debunk or bust myths, as if they are some insidious plague of which we must rid ourselves. But that is because we are losing our sense of metaphor, and what it is trying to do in helping shape our reality, and give it meaning.

While we are eschewing myth in one sphere, we are actively building it in another. The early astronauts were indeed our heroes, the strong-willed warriors with “The Right Stuff” who would battle the Cold War by proxy. Even the very name “astronaut” is an evocative metaphor – “sailor of the stars.”

But the context of myth changes over time, and the metaphor which once served so well has now fallen into disrepute. Those noble heroes of that bygone era, the “Space Age,” are now one more relic of the Military Industrial Complex. We don’t need fighter pilots in space anymore – the nature of conflict has changed, and the anticipated space war is probably not going to happen any time soon. We have even gone so far in our popular culture as to parody that “right stuff” mythos in movies like Armageddon and Space Cowboys. Many view the early space program as a dead end, and now say things like “Why go to space until we solve all our problems here on Earth first? The space program is just an elitist escapist fantasy that can do nothing to help the planet.”

But that is the result of our modern myth-busting proclivities. Just because the cultural terrain has shifted does not diminish the accomplishments or worth of those early space explorers, those heroes. The valuable and worthy activity now is to actively engage with our space explorers, to interact with them to reach for new, fresh metaphors that transform our understanding of space from something to conquer to viewing it more as an extension of our environment, which is precisely what it is. The role of the space explorers has transformed from conquering heroes to dedicated, focused achievers of missions, precisely the same shift in dynamics we have seen in many frontier contexts. This in no way diminishes the stature of the early space pioneers, but rather places them in the mythic context of blazing the trail and making it possible for more of us to go, when the opportunities present themselves.

White then goes on to ask whether spaceflight is a spiritual experience. “Spiritual” is now one of those loaded words in our culture, along with “religion” and God” that mean something different to just about everybody who uses them, and are subject to our myth-busting propensities. But space exploration definitely does have an effect on humans that take us beyond our normal context. The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the transformative power of metaphor to reach for deeper insights in his book The Flight of the Wild Gander. He tells us that the philosopher Immanuel Kant “offers a four-term analogy (“a” is to “b” as “c” is to “x”), which points not to an incomplete resemblance of two things but to a complete resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things…. Mythological, theological, metaphysical analogies, in other words, do not point indirectly to an only partially understood knowable term, but directly to a relationship between to terms, the one empirical, the other metaphysical; the latter being, absolutely and forever and from every conceivable human standpoint, unknowable.”

Space is that inconceivable unknowable metaphysical condition, that astronauts have experienced directly, albeit from their limited human perspectives, and are continually reaching to find the right metaphors, the right Kantian relationship, to express to the rest of us, to give us a sense, as White points out, of what is was like. That metaphysical reality can never be fully apprehended or understood by even those who experienced it. The astronauts need us as much as we need them, so we can mutually push our communal language to find new metaphors, new ways to understand and communicate that ultimately ineffable experience.

That experience definitely has a spiritual quality to it, in that it compels all of us, the astronauts and the ground observers, to reach beyond ordinarily-experienced reality to a metaphysical sense of participating in something greater than ourselves. As White points out, for some astronauts, that translated into achieving the goals of the mission to the best of their ability, with no attention paid to what is commonly considered “spiritual.” Yet the challenge of the experience called to the fore that response from those individuals which would otherwise not have come to fruition. Space calls out the best in us, and it is our constant challenge to grapple with the shortcomings of our language to strive to create new metaphors which can lead us to a greater sense of context, meaning and myth, as we struggle to understand our place in the universe.


It Really is a Fragile Oasis!

Written by Frank White on Saturday, 25 May 2013.


When I first heard astronaut Ron Garan use the term “fragile oasis,” I immediately thought of it in ecological terms. Many astronauts have echoed Ron’s thoughts, focusing in particular on the thin atmosphere that is the only barrier between us and the vacuum of space.


            However, I had another understanding of the term recently, when two extraordinary events took place on the same day. First, there was a meteor strike that hit Russia, shaking buildings, shattering glass, and injuring more than a thousand people. Then, there was the too-close-for-comfort flyby of an asteroid that passed within the orbits of many of our own communications satellites.


            The asteroid encounter was expected, the meteor strike was not. Both engendered excitement and fear, though, as scientists let us know how lucky we were that the meteor did not explode closer to the ground and the asteroid was not in a slightly different orbit. We heard a lot about the dinosaurs and why they are no longer with us.


            The asteroid, named 2012 D14, is actually the more serious problem. Meteorites crash into the atmosphere every day, most of them burning up harmlessly. The danger of asteroids is that there are so many out there, and we don’t know where all of them are. The media talked at some length about mitigation strategies, which sounds plausible, but you need to have advance warning before you can try to nudge these space rocks away from our home planet.


            After the excitement died down, what occurred to me is that the Earth really is a fragile oasis, in more ways than one. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s also the fact that a collision with something the size of a small car could be the end of life as we know it.


            As one who has long been interested in the Overview Effect, it also brought to mind something those of us at the Overview Institute have been trying to communicate for some time: we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space.


            We are traveling through the universe in a natural spaceship at a high rate of speed, and there are lots of other things rushing about as well: comets, asteroids, meteors, and even a rogue planet or two.


            It is not surprising to me that astronauts like Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu are interested in figuring out how to save the planet from an asteroid hit. They have been out there and they’ve seen the Earth not only from space but also in space. They know that you can hold up your thumb and blot out the past, present, and future of humanity and all life. They know, in short, how precious this fragile oasis really is.


            For some, the message is clear: if we are to survive, we must become a multi-planet species, and that is likely to happen, perhaps sooner than we think. For others, it is asteroid mitigation to protect the planet. For me, it is both. Our true environment, as the asteroid and meteor reminded us, is the solar system, and we need to learn as much about that new environment as we can if we are going to survive an

My Father's Contribution to this Work

Written by Frank White on Monday, 07 January 2013.

When I appeared on the Space Show with David Livington last Veteran's Day I failed to mention one important point.  It was my fault, not David’s, and I want to make up for it here. David opened the show talking about Veteran’s Day and honoring our military personnel. I should have taken the opportunity to speak about my father, Frank C. White, who served in the Pacific in World War II, and was called back to active duty during the Korean conflict.

In addition to his service to his country, Dad played an active role in bringing The Overview Effect to publication. He did quite a lot of research for me and helped me cut down the first draft from more than 800 pages to a manageable (and publishable!) length.

At some point during the writing of the book, I realized that my father and I shared another bond: he had always been passionate about aerial photography, and interpreting aerial photos had been part of his job in the Army. After the war, he continued his work in this area, and I guess I absorbed some of his passion for viewing the Earth from afar. In a way, I suppose he was exploring some of the earliest manifestations of “the Overview Effect.”

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.

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.