The NYTimes has a beautiful, ennobling, life-affirming op-ed piece today, written by Oliver Morton on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8's trip around the moon. On that mission, Bill Anderson took his famous earthrise photographs, and things have never been (well, looked) the same way since.
It takes nothing from the beauty and power of the image, though, to point out that it was the photographer, far more than its subject, who was isolated, and that the fragility is an illusion. The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing, and this strength flows from its ancient and intimate connection to the cosmos beyond. To see the photo this way does not undermine its environmental relevance--but it does recast it.
That the Earth is small is undeniable. If the inner solar system were the size of the United States, the Earth would be the size of a football field; if the distance to the center of the galaxy were a mile, the Earth would be less than an atom. But if the "Earthrise" photo could have captured our planet in the dimension of time instead of space, things would look different. In its duration, as opposed to its diameter, the Earth demands to be measured on a cosmic scale. At more than four billion years old, it stretches a third of the way across the history of the universe, a third of the way back to the Big Bang itself. Many of the stars you can see on a clear winter's night are younger than the planet beneath your feet.
Mere persistence is not, in itself, that great a feat. The barren rocks of the Moon have persisted almost as long. But the Earth has not merely endured; it has lived. For almost 90 percent of its history the planet has been inhabited, and shaped by life. The biological mechanisms that first operated in the dawn of life animate the creatures of the Earth to this day, forming an unbroken chain at least 3.8 billion years long.
This unfailing, uninterrupted life demonstrates that the planet is far from fragile. The living Earth is tough on scales it is hard to credit. Life has watched continents crash together and tear themselves apart; skies glowing like bright coals; tropical seas frozen into stillness: it has endured. Slaked in radiation from nearby supernovae, pummeled by asteroids, it has barely faltered and never stopped. Our civilization may be--is--out of balance with its environment; current human ways of life are frighteningly precarious. But to read the fragility of our way of life onto life itself is foolish.
Read the whole piece here.
And another editorial here.