Shimmering assurance of our destiny as imaginative makers and tenacious tinkerers.
“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves,” Henry Beston wrote in his breathtaking 1928 love letter to darkness, “and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.” And yet it is as much our relationship with darkness as our relationship with light that helps us view ourselves through the cosmic eye, orbiting an unremarkable star on an unremarkable rock besparkled with our remarkably luminous humanity.
That’s what Diane Ackerman — one of the most bewitching science writers of our time — explores in a particularly enchanting portion of The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), one of the best science books of 2014.
While much of the book takes a lucid look at our civilization’s very real and very alarming impact on this Pale Blue Dot we call home, Ackerman — who reasons like a scientist, reflects like a philosopher, and rhapsodizes like a poet (so much so that Carl Sagan sent her scientifically accurate poems for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison) — succumbs neither to our era’s blind techno-utopian optimism nor to dismal techno-dystopian dogmas. Instead, her prose emanates Rilke’s poetic incantation: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” Nowhere does the beauty shine more brilliantly than in the passages about our shimmering world seen from space at night.
We don’t intend our cities to be so beautiful from space. They’re humanity’s electric fingerprints on the planet, the chrome-yellow energy that flows through city veins. Dwarfed by the infinite dome of space with its majestic coliseum of stars, we’ve created our own constellations on the ground and named them after our triumphs, enterprises, myths, and leaders… We play out our lives amid a festival of lights. The story the lights tell would be unmistakable to any space traveler: some bold life form has crisscrossed the planet with an exuberance of cities, favoring settlements along the coast and beside flowing water, and connecting them all with a labyrinth of brilliantly lit roads, so that even without a map the outlines of the continents loom and you can spot the meandering rivers.
The silent message of this spectacle is timely, strange, and wonderful. We’ve tattooed the planet with our doings.
And yet for all the perils of excessive illumination and light pollution, these glowing tattoos bespeak something profound and heartening about who we are — as a species, as a civilization, as brothers and sisters united by what Isaac Asimov so memorably called “the soft bonds of love” amid this vast unfeeling universe.
With an eye to NASA’s iconic “Black Marble” photograph from December of 2012 — the nocturnal counterpart to the even more iconic “Blue Marble” taken by Apollo 17 astronauts at the peak of the golden age of space exploration forty years earlier — Ackerman considers how this cosmic selfie of our civilization precipitates a sudden visceral awareness of our connected humanity, much as the “Blue Marble” did nearly half a century ago:
This was the one picture from the Apollo missions that dramatically expanded our way of thinking. It showed us how small the planet is in the vast sprawl of space, how entwined and spontaneous its habitats are. Despite all the wars and hostilities, when viewed from space Earth had no national borders, no military zones, no visible fences… Released during a time of growing environmental concern, it became an emblem of global consciousness, the most widely distributed photo in human history.
She returns to the singular story our shimmering planet tells about our species:
Ours is the only planet in our solar system that glitters at night. Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and for eons the nighttime planet was dark. In a little over two hundred years we’ve wired up the world and turned on the lights, as if we signed the planet in luminous ink.
Our shimmering cities tell all (including us) that Earth’s inhabitants are thinkers, builders and rearrangers who like to bunch together in hivelike settlements, and for some reason — bad night vision, primal fear, sheer vanity, to scare predators, or as a form of group adornment — we bedeck them all with garlands of light.
Complement The Human Age with Ackerman on how our miraculous sense of smell works, the natural history of love, and what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit, then consider an equally beautiful counterpoint in the 1933 Japanese gem In Praise of Shadows.