Reflections from/upon this Galactic Speck – Earth Day 2019

Reflection, noun:

1) the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it. “the reflection of light”

2) serious thought or consideration. “she doesn’t get much time for reflection”

Let’s do both. Prepositions will help us infer which of these two senses we mean.

Reflection from

Looking to the heavens on a cloudless night reveals a star-studded panorama of mystery and majesty. With all the tools at our disposal to scan the skies there remain serious questions about how it all works, whence it began, and where or it it all ends. Employing these tools and our imaginations we allow ourselves enormous space to dream about such majestic meanings.

Among the tools for scanning the skies are telescopes. Many telescopes rely on a giant mirror to reflect light back to a focal point for an observer. And for those objects which don’t emit light of their own for our observation, we must rely on reflected light from other sources. Such is how we observe our own moon (indeed, this is how we observe most of what we see – for very little of what we observe emits radiation our eyes can discern).

As we can see the earth beneath or feet we see its reflection. From the sky or from a great height we see a larger expanse of the reflected surface. From the moon we can see one side of this great blue marble reflecting the rays of the sun – a very pretty picture indeed.

Two earth images

Earth from the Moon on the left, from Saturn on the right.  See text for more.

 A view of Earth rising above the lunar horizon photographed from the Apollo 10 Lunar Module in May 1969, looking west in the direction of travel. The Lunar Module at the time the picture was taken was located above the lunar farside highlands at approximately 105 degrees east longitude.

This photo was taken eleven months before we celebrated the first Earth Day.

More recently the Cassini space probe has sent home a photo of our planet. From Saturn, the Earth is so distant that the splendor we witness from the moon is gone. Earth is but a dot in the background of the cosmos.

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame.

[Earth is the little blue dot to the right of center, just below a line that would bisect the image from left to right].

Reflection from and upon     

Beyond the reflection of images we can look at with our eyes are the images we can harbor in our minds.

There is in Washington DC a long and placid pool running between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. This is the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Lincoln memorial and ML King march on Washington

Two perspectives of the Reflecting Pool

Reflection necessarily requires a point of view. And reflections differ from various points of view. If you stand at the Washington Monument and gaze across the pool you see the Lincoln Memorial in the view presented here on the left. If, however, you stand in Dr. King’s shoes in the photo on the right you observe the Washington Monument and its reflection. And naturally if you stretch out over the pool and look down into it – you see yourself reflected back. To look at the Earth today, from a point downstream of 50 Earth Day’s we obviously have a different perspective. And there are likewise personal perspectives.

In his first inaugural address Abraham Lincoln attempted to head off the coming of the Civil War. Though States Rights and the issue of chattel slavery do not directly assault the Planet, he nevertheless conjures imagery we can bend to our purposes. He discusses at length the rights of a majority and the wisdom of the Constitution to allow a people to govern themselves. Two rhetorical questions push the point:

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?

To this point then, if the ultimate justice of the people is to be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then caring for our home such as to keep it hospitable seems appropriate; seems worthy of such hope. Further, if one replaces each occurrence of “the Union” with “the Planet” in this address, we find ourselves faced with a classic argument for the Galactic Rock we call home.

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King notes the accomplishment of the Emancipation Proclamation made during Lincoln’s tenure. He uses planetary imagery to forcefully make a point:

One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

And in another passage, he draws upon the image of majesty:

Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.  

It is not lost on me that both men were eventually shot for their efforts.

Reflect upon

The first Earth Day I recall is the second one in 1971. I was a high school freshman that spring and many of us participated in a large-scale community wide trash pickup. Nothing globally transformative, yet it framed an issue as worth our time and effort, something to acknowledge, and something to care about. The issue is no less significant today. We have cleaned the air of smog but replaced that with too much carbon dioxide. We have reduced litter on the streets but replaced that with plastics in the ocean. Where oil and toxic chemicals were once spilled into rivers and streams headed for the Great Lakes, now excess fertilizers take their place. The promise of our forebears is that it can be cleaned up. The obligation we now inherit is to follow their example and repair the damages now being inflicted on the Planet.

Let me also make one allusion to the thinking, to the reflections, of Jonathan Swift who created the muse for this blog. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift creates four different worlds to host his satirical rants upon the politics of his day. Gulliver makes his voyages long before the Industrial Revolution is even a dream to mankind. But already in the 17th century there were ideas of how a human world might become a better place. More on the Industrial Revolution in a moment.

What can we hope for?  I think we can hope for much.  After all, we took the pictures of the planet from over the shoulder of the Moon, and from the rings of Saturn.  And as a people we have produced fellow citizens such as Lincoln, King, and Swift.  It may not be an easy road, but rarely is anything so worth having an easy get.  We can begin by being reflective.

___________________________________________________________________________________

As a footnote I’ll append a reflection of another sort – to make a nod about the significance of a single day, an Earth Day:

What is a day, a single solitary spin on the old axis, what is an individual day to a grizzled old galactic rock? Many estimates place her at 4.5 billion years. If we play with that age, and we assume that all these years are 364.25 days long (not likely, but let’s not get TOO into the weeds) … then 364.25 X 4.5 billion is 1.64 trillion days. She should be very well practiced by now in doing the ‘day thing’. An individual day is not likely to stand out much against such length of experience. But this Earth Day is the 50th time we’ve done this (49th anniversary, plus the original day) – so that accounts for what? … 50/1.64 trillion, or 0.000000003% of her days thus far. “But wait just a minute”, I hear from the peanut gallery, “we haven’t been here for all those 4.5 billion years; that’s not a fair measure”. An excellent point. If we shoulder some blame for messes here and yonder, why not at the very least shoulder only blame for messes we might have made.

Many estimates place Homo sapiens on this speck in the universe for a mere 200,000 years. That helps. And to be fair to our long, long distant ancestors, their messes have long since been absorbed and dealt with by this pockmarked stone. We can spend a whole lot of time (more than mere days) arguing over how long our race has been making the more significant messes we witness today. Rather than stake out a single moment, let me offer the advent of the industrial age. How about April 22, 1819? This falls within a commonly held range of dates, and for our purposes makes the math much easier. Given that date we can see we’ve been on a planetary consumption/destruction tear for a cool 200 years, or 73,050 days… which changes our math to 50/73,050, or 0.068% of those days. Further, we’ve only allocated one day in a year, or 0.27% of a year, to recognize her and reflect on our mistreatments. However shall we get to some meaningful level of commitment? At our current rate of appreciating, it will take us to the middle of this century to come to a pitiful one tenth of one per cent of the days since April of 1819. OR, we could set aside more than one mere day per year to have an Earth Day (shucks, we have a Sunday once a week; hold on… given what we do for the Sun, it having a day every week, perhaps once a year is better in the end).

Image sources/credits:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/2334/apollo-10-view-of-the-earth/

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/images/wallpaper/PIA17171-800×600.jpg

https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-25106282-lincoln-memorial-reflecting-pool

https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/mlk-ad-libbed-dream-speech-041535061.html

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