To describe the evolutions in the dance of these gods, their juxtapositions and their advances, to tell which came into line and which in opposition, to describe all this without visual models would be labor spent in vain. —Plato, Timaeus
In the past four decades, some of our most profoundly self-reflexive experiences were embodied in the first photographs of Earth from space. These images offered us a glimpse of our planetary home, its relationship to humans and to our greater universe. These landmark visualizations helped the perception of humanity shift. In the decade that followed, the impact of this new view of Earth gave birth to a much different understanding of space and time
Many of us can easily remember when we first saw the "Earthrise" photographs showing the lunar orbit of Earth from the moon. These photos were taken during the first Apollo 8 and 11 missions in 1968 and 1969. The image of Earth as a blue marble graced the cover of the now legendary first issue of the "Whole Earth Catalog," and instantly became one of the most important images of all time. This publication was the first periodical of its generation to introduce the concept of environmental stewardship.
In 1972, with the release of the first LandSat 1 satellite images of Earth's majestic contours, we witnessed the natural patterns of deserts and mountain ranges, the poetry of the seas and the clouds from a "God's eye view."
This powerful vision of our natural world was to become even more pronounced when Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 film Powers of Ten was released.
Classic Eames' Film, Powers of Ten
This landmark film took viewers through a seamless visual journey from the tiniest scale of quarks to the scale of a human to the farthest reaches of outer space. Each of the 42 screen images showed a change of scale that measured 10 times larger or smaller than the last, creating the first revolution of scale perception – the ability to change scale with a speed that challenged the senses and inspired at least a few generations. The Powers of Ten vision was updated for a new generation in 1996 in the IMAX film, Cosmic Voyage and is now regularly shown in museums around the world.
1996 IMAX Film Cosmic Voyage
Are we ready to experience a new Powers of Ten? Young people today are far more sophisticated. Through the dynamic of Moore’s law, technology has been accelerating our capacity to see the invisible through numerous parallel advancements. Just one such initiative is Project Blue Brain where an international, interdisciplinary team is creating a digital map of the mammalian brain by simulating the activity of the neocortex in high resolution 3D.
Blue Brain Project - Flying Through the Column
Projects like Blue Brain help our brains stretch with the collective imagination in the confluence of the simulated and the real. As we rapidly traverse the limits of time and space, the nano and astro worlds, our key to understanding is the visual. A new visual landscape is being unleashed through virtual worlds, visualization technologies and computer games. And this landscape has already altered the way our next generation thinks.
In our own households, teenagers regularly and effortlessly toggle their views from the micro to macro, the past and future with games like Spore and Assasin’s Creed. Google Earth's dynamic flythoughs swiftly bring us Earth imagery from Landsat 7 and MODIS to the newest Hubble images from space as soon as they are released. In a few short years it has become ubiquitous on our browsers and IPhones. Yet there is something still powerful in the way these older landmark images and film still speak to us. What is it?
Perhaps with Earthrise and Powers of Ten we were offered the first understanding of Earth as a single organism, where borders become meaningless when we saw the true contours of our naked Earth and in the multiscale vistas we encounter as we traverse the span between quarks and the Universe.
I believe a new Powers of Ten will allow us to move to a new granularity in seeing the dynamic processes of Earth as a single organism. It will allow us to visualize yet another dimension of spacetime where we can begin to grasp the profound symphony of the Global Brain.