Space Really Isn’t that Far Away
A quick note today on two thoughts resulting from the same image (above).
Taken with my phone while pressed against the starboard-side window during a recent cross-country flight, (I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately), the first thing you’ll probably notice about this picture is that I’ve inverted it.
Why? Simply, it was for those who may not be quite as impassioned about space exploration as I am.
I did it to illustrate what I felt, as an aspiring astronaut, every time I look up and away from the plane at altitude. Look at how close space feels here! It’s almost as though you could touch it, or hanging from the Earth by your hands, stick your toes in it.
(At the time and altitude this picture was taken, the plane was nearly 10% of the way there!)
Now, under ordinary circumstances, the trick is that I don’t think people notice the sky darkening above them as they rise out of the lowest parts of our planet’s atmosphere. Flip the image over to turn conventional experience on its head, however, and now it’s easier to see that the reality of space is much more in-your-face.
Instead of a simple window view from an airplane, the picture now shows (at least to me):
The Earth’s cumulus clouds, floating in a thin, cobalt band of blue atmosphere, puff outward over the infinite black abyss of outer space, shackled to the Earth only by the iron grip of our planet’s gravity.
Look again! Note how suddenly, in the precise same image from a different perspective, space seems wildly close and our atmosphere amazingly thin!
Feel free to tell me if you think turning this image on its head provides the dizzying sort of effect I was going for – illustrating that space really isn’t so far away. And next time you fly, maybe when no one is looking, try turning your head upside-down for a moment and peek outside. You might be surprised at how it feels.
(As an aside, in the same way inverting the view from an airplane window can bring space closer to home, perhaps just by upsetting the way we look at other ordinarily-abstract, obscure, or esoteric pursuits, they might also be made to feel more real? Two cents.)
Patterns in the Past
Secondly, immediately after taking the above photo, I was compelled to consider just how much of the conventional, hum-drum experience of modern life is anything but conventional when viewed through the lens of human existence. The view was amazing! But is there any way to quantify just how amazing or extraordinary many of our day-to-day activities truly are?
As it turns out, with a simple geometric expansion of time moving backwards, and after making some very, very generalized assumptions about human perception, it’s pretty easy to pick out a rough pattern in just how unconventional the experience of our modern world really is.
Allow me to show you what I mean.
Looking at the above image once again, (even right-side-up), I would argue that actually achieving that view with human eyes would have been considered:
- Completely commonplace last year;
- Just as commonplace ten years ago;
- Truly wondrous a century ago;
- Utterly fantastic (as in the stuff of fantasy) one millennia or so ago;
- Completely unimaginable by our ancestors ten millennia or so ago.
That’s an easy order of magnitude with each step, (i.e., 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years, respectively).
Think on it – What we grumble at having to suffer through (TSA screening, layovers, jet-lag) would have been the very realization of the fanciful dreams of, say, the ancient Greek inventors, philosophers and mathematicians – to master the elements and achieve the power of flight!
(Contrast that with the reality that when flying today, many of us slide a shade down because the view above the clouds is too bright, and we read a book or nap instead!)
Patterns in the Future
However, in addition to attempting to highlight some of the wonder that may slip under our collective radars in the commotion of our modern lives, I also quickly realized that the above exercise has another, more functional and perhaps more surprising and seductive utility.
In a way, by walking through and establishing the (if only rough) time-perception pattern above, we actually can claim to have created a tool we can use not only in looking at ourselves and at the past, but also in looking forward. It becomes a tool that gives us an intriguing and strangely mathematical window into what our future might look like.
So, if the logarithmic pattern I mentioned above can be said to generally hold true, then it certainly has something to say about our future.
It begins sensibly, but then it quickly carries us into (in my opinion) extremely interesting territory. So, based on our ancestors’ perceptions and using flight as a guide, playing the aforementioned temporal pattern model forward from now gives us the following:
- That which will be commonplace one year from now will have also been considered commonplace today.
- That which will be commonplace ten years from now will have generally been considered commonplace today.
- In a hundred years, that which inspires wonder in us today will have become commonplace. (Spaceflight?)
- In a thousand years, our most fantastic modern technological imaginings can and likely will have been made real. (Interplanetary travel? Colonies? Medical immortality? Mind-transferability to machines? Teleporters? Time Machines?)
- In ten-thousand years, we will have accomplished feats that are unimaginable to us today. (????)
What fun it is to try and imagine what the achievements of that last point might be!
Perhaps in recognizing a pattern, we can have a leg up on the game. (How about it? Could we use the McGee Scale to truly relate the passage of time to the rate of technological advancements within a civilization? Does this work at all scales?)
The take-home here is that, with history as a guide, maybe nothing really is impossible to a self-aware and curious species given enough time, persistence, and trial-and-error…
I think I’ll play around with this and see if it holds up with technological advances other than flight… Thoughts welcome!