The biggest picture


I want to plug something I am very much looking forward to, and encourage you strongly to attend. It’s called The Overview Effect, and it’s the premiere of a film by that title. Here are the details:

Friday, December 7, 2012 – 5:30pm – 7:00pm
Askwith Lecture Hall
Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

The world-premiere of the short documentary film Overview, directed by Guy Reid, edited by Steve Kennedy and photographed by Christoph Ferstad. The film details the cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts during spaceflight, when viewing the Earth from space.

Following the film screening, there will be a panel discussion with two NASA astronauts, Ronald J. Garan Jr. and Jeffrey A. Hoffman, discussing their experience with the filmmakers and with Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects producer on films such as 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The event will be moderated by Harvard Extension School instructor Frank White, author of the book The Overview Effect, which first looked at this phenomenon experienced by astronauts.

This event will take place on the 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble, one of the most famous pictures of Earth, which was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972.

Seating is limited and will be assigned on a first-come first-serve basis. The event will also be streamed live at

The Overview Effect is something I experience every time I fly, and why I take so many photos to share the experience (and license them permissively so they can be re-shared).

The effect is one of perspective that transcends humanity’s ground-based boundaries. When I look at the picture above, of the south end of Manhattan, flanked by the Hudson and East Rivers, with Brooklyn below and New Jersey above, I see more than buildings and streets and bridges. I see the varying competence of the geology below, of piers and ports active and abandoned. I see the palisades: a 200-million year old slab of rock that formed when North America and Africa were pulling apart, as Utah and California are doing now, stretching Nevada between them. I see what humans do to landscapes covering them with roads and buildings, and celebrating them with parks and greenways. I see the the glories of civilization, the race between construction and mortality, the certain risks of structures to tides and quakes. I see the Anthropocene — the geological age defined by human influence on the world — in full bloom, and the certainty that other ages will follow, as hundreds have in the past. I see in the work of a species that has been from its start the most creative in the 4.65 billion year history of the planet, and a pestilence determined to raid the planet’s cupboards of all the irreplaceable goods that took millions or billions of years to produce. And when I consider how for dozens of years this scene was at the crosshairs of Soviet and terrorist weapons (with the effects of one attack still evident at the southern tip of Manhattan), I begin to see what the great poet Robinson Jeffers describes in The Eye, which he saw from his home in Carmel during WWII.

But it is astronauts who see it best, and this film is theirs. Hope it can help make their view all of ours.

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6 Responses to The biggest picture

  1. “I see the the glories of civilization, the race between construction and mortality, the certain risks of structures to tides and quakes. I see the Anthropocene … ”

    You are seeing not only new things, but seeing old things in new ways, new ways of combination too.

    Enjoyed reading this.

  2. Ardyth says:

    I came across a very old post of yours. Pompton Plains 1968 music, ice cream and beaches. Carnival Spot is still there. You should check it out. Wish I could, I’m on the other side of the country.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Good to hear from you. At Carnival Spot, I want a #5 sub (basic Italian) or a #7 (roast beef with oregano, oil and vinegar). Or so they were in 1968.

      I’m almost afraid to check it out. These days I’m not far away, at least in my new New York apartment, in Washington Heights. But I’m also still home-based in Santa Barbara and (less officially) in Cambridge, MA. Complicated.

  3. There’s actually a brilliant website filled with quotes from the astronauts as they looked back at Earth, seeing it ‘as one’ Earth for the first time.

    Probably the most famous if from Apollo 14’s Mitchell:

    –You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

    I remember back during my Capitol Hill days we had a long drawn out battle on aid to the Nicaragua Contras. I spent weeks–literally weeks doing nothing but answering calls and going to meetings and dealing with all this stuff. Finally it was over and I flew into Chicago Midway, across the massive grid-like pattern of of the city. As I looked down at row-upon-row of houses, it sort of hit me–“the average guy in anyone of those houses doesn’t give a flying fig about Contra aid”. Took a bit of perspective from up high for me to realize what mattered (and didn’t) to those down on the ground.

    • Doc Searls says:

      The next day, at Doug Trumbull’s place in the Berkshires, he showed us a fly-through our neighborhood of the Milky Way, with stars generated (correct colors and all) from a database, at 120 frames per second, in 3-D. The effect was stunning. He compared this to the usual 24fps as “looking out a window” rather than “looking at a screen.” But what struck me with that was similar to what the astronauts described… You see a planet, with lands and water and a thin film of blue atmosphere. Behind it is a field of stars, and off not far away is the planet’s only moon. Lighting both is a nearby star called the Sun. Turn away from the Earth and Sun and you see not a field of stars but the near and far regions of the Milky Way, which is clearly a galaxy. A few degrees away from the galaxy’s plane, not far from the arrangement of bright stars we call Cassiopeia, is another spiral galaxy similar to our own: Andromeda. In space you get this perspective. On Earth you don’t. And the undeniable revelations of the view are profound. Seeing for real what the rest of us only imagine.

  4. helen says:

    Wow, It’s look so beautiful. I never seen like this before. But i seen some pictures. I recently seen clown become a gun n shooting to the another clowd to be face like angry man. It was looked awesome…. I have so much pictures like it. i have some collection of it……..

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