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Seeing the Blue Marble for the First Time

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ve never really appreciated how lucky I am to have grown up with the blue marble. A poster of the earth floating in an endless black sea decorated the walls of my science classrooms since I was in elementary school. Even if it wasn’t spoken regularly, that image ensured that I knew the duality of Earth’s uniqueness. On the one hand, it is unremarkable–just one planet out of trillions out in space. But, on the other, it’s a fragile and lonely garden floating out in the blackness, remarkable because we live here.

The famous blue marble, taken in December 1972. Photo: NASA/Apollo 17 crew

Now the image has become commonplace and–dare I say it–almost trite. The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center regales us at least monthly with new, updated photos of our planet through its Flickr account. When photos of Earth make the news, it’s because they’re taken from a new, interesting angle, like the stunning Black Marble series of the Earth lit up by human lights at night.

But this is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s only in the last 40 years that people have grown up really knowing that we live on a pale blue dot somewhere out in space, having seen the first image of Earth taken from space in 1972. Only in the last four decades that the sense of the planet’s wholeness was understood by so many.

Of course, people have had maps and globes for millennia and have used them to think about Earth holistically. But there is something powerful about an image. As Gregory Petsko of Brandeis University wrote in a Genome Biology essay:

The blue marble was an iconic image because it perfectly represented the human condition of living on an island in the universe, with all the frailty an island ecosystem is prey to. People are particularly moved by images, in part because we have evolved to have our visual system as our primary sensory input, but also because an image can be retained easily in the mind’s eye, and so forms the stuff of memory. The right image, offered at the right time, can have effects far greater than those imagined by the one creating it.

If the photograph has such power to mold the way people think about our planet and world, imagine what it would be like to see it from space for the first time. The documentary Overview (embedded below) conveys just that. The filmmakers  from the Planetary Collective interviewed a number of astronauts about what it was like to see the blue marble from space for the first time, and what effect it had on the way they think about the world. The general feeling is coined as the “Overview Effect”–the awe-induced shift to seeing the “big picture” of Earth when seeing it floating out there in space for the first time.

When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon: we weren’t thinking about looking back at the earth,” said David Beaver, the cofounder of the Overview Institute, paraphrasing an astronaut in the documentary. “But now that we’ve done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.”

The documentary is about 20 minutes long and totally worth your time. So full-screen this baby and pretend you’re seeing Earth from space for the first time.

Thanks to Masha for sending me the video!

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 8:06 pm 02/27/2013

    I wonder – why does the Earth photo caption state: “The infamous blue marble…” My dictionary says that ‘infamous’ is being well known for being bad (paraphrased). The only bad thing about this photo that I can think of is that we don’t have a new one every week! A little lander with a camera would do the trick! [I hope I'm not infamous for incorrect adjective use... corrected! -HW]

    All us old folks had a similar epiphany upon seeing an image of the entire globe for the first time. Back in the old days, no one really thought that the Earth would have so many clouds – globes didn’t have any!

    I wonder if children today have a somewhat similar experience on their first viewing – it’d be interesting to do a video study of very young children being shown the Earth photo for the very first time…

    It would be a very interesting study. But I think the image is so ubiquitous that it would be hard to pinpoint a “first time.” Thanks for commenting! -HW

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