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Posts Tagged ‘photography’

14 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Pale Blue Dot: A Timeless Valentine to the Cosmos

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“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft — which carried The Golden Record, Carl Sagan’s love letter to Annie Druyan — turned its revolutionary camera around and took the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” photograph that later inspired the famous Sagan monologue of the same title. The image, composed of 640,000 individual pixels, depicts Earth, a mere 12% of a single pixel, at the center of a scattered ray of light resulting from taking an image this close to the Sun. It endures, even in an age when the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance, as a timeless Valentine to the cosmos.

The Pale Blue Dot: Captured from 3.7 billion miles away, Earth appears as a tiny dot halfway down the orange stripe on the right.

Image: NASA / JPL

The “Pale Blue Dot” was part of a Family Portrait series of images exploring the Solar System.

The Family Portrait: These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the Solar System taken by Voyager 1 at 3.7 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Image: NASA / JPL

But we owe the actual recognition of Earth in the legendary photograph to Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, one of the two University of Arizona scientists who developed the command sequence that controlled the timing for each photograph’s exposure. That day, she was sitting in front of a computer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab with her shades drawn when she noticed the tiny speck on an image sent back by the camera she had helped design, which was now 4 billion miles away. She told NPR a few years ago:

It was just a little dot, about two pixels big, three pixels big, so not very large. … You know, I still get chills down my back because here was our planet, bathed in this ray of light, and it just looked incredibly special.

The Pale Blue Dot: This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.

Image: NASA / JPL

And yet photograph almost never happened — the NASA imaging team feared that aiming the camera at the Sun would damage it. But Sagan himself lobbied long and hard for an attempt. Vice Adm. Richard Truly, former head of NASA, recalls:

I did get a visit from Carl Sagan. We talked about a lot of things. And somewhere in that conversation he mentioned this idea. I thought, heck, with Voyager so far away, if it could turn around and take a picture of the different planets including the Earth, that that would really be cool. And so I was a great advocate of it, although I can’t take any credit for it.

(Those were the golden days when NASA made historic decisions simply because something seemed “cool.”)

Fortunately, it did happen. And four years later, Carl Sagan wrote of the iconic image in the preface to his book titled after it, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (public library):

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

Image: NASA

But Sagan’s beautiful and timeless words might not be entirely his own — perhaps a manifestation of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insights on memory and (inadvertent) plagiarism. As historian Robert Poole notes in Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (public library), after the equally iconic Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, the poet Archibald MacLeish penned an essay ‘Riders on the Earth,’ in which he articulated a strikingly similar sentiment:

For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.

The essay appeared in The New York Times on Christmas Day that year.

Then again, the similarity in language might simply be an inevitable expression of the overview effect. Whatever the case, the “Pale Blue Dot” endures as a sublimely beautiful cosmic Valentine that reminds us, more than two decades later, of the ineffable relativity of our human scale.

Celebrate the “Pale Blue Dot” and its legacy with some stunning animated adaptations of Sagan’s words.

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04 JANUARY, 2013

A Typographic Tour of New York City at Night

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“No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City.”

“Just bring your own contents,” wrote Anaïs Nin of the poetics of New York in 1934, “and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” But this iconic city comes with a sparkle all its own, glowing with unparalleled magnetic power, especially at night.

In 2008, photographer duo James and Karla Murray took us on a breathtaking tour of New York’s disappearing face in their stunning visual archive of mom-and-pop storefront signage — a bittersweet project eight years in the making, documenting shops more than half of which are now gone. This season, they’re back with New York Nights (UK; public library) — a striking, lavish street-level tour of New York City’s typographic neon mesmerism, revealed through the illuminated storefronts of some of the city’s most revered bars, diners, speakeasies, theaters, and other epicenters of public life. The gorgeous, giant tome, weighing in at over six pounds and more than a foot wide, is divided into seven sections — Manhattan below 14th Street, 14th Street to 34th Street, 34th Street to 59th Street, above 59th Street, The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn — each highlighting the respective neighborhood’s most iconic establishments.

C. O. Bigelow Apothecaries, at 6th Avenue near West 9th Street, was established in 1838. It is the oldest apothecary in America and was frequented by Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

The Murrays observe in the foreword:

No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City. Whether it’s a glimpse out of a bus window pulling into the terminal at Port Authority, or the first step out onto the sidewalk under the Times Square lights after the end of a Broadway show that started before sunset — any visitor is immediately drawn to the city’s lights. Even simply viewing the illuminated city from the George Washington Bridge on the drive into Manhattan can be undeniably exciting.

Legendary cabaret and piano bar Duplex, at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South, has been in business since the 1950s.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

And who more perfect to pen the introduction than the inimitable Steven Heller, as brilliantly versed in the nooks and crannies of the graphic arts as he is in the art of being a New Yorker? Heller writes:

No other city in the world is more spectacular than New York at night! From down low or up high, its neon sparkles, its L.E.D. shimmers and its incandescence radiates in ways that duller metropolises cannot begin to replicate. Night light in New York is so spectacular that an entire genre of mammoth New York electronic advertising displays is called ‘spectaculars.’ Seen together, and glowing in full candlepower, ‘spectaculars’ exemplify the illuminated majesty of the Great White Way.

From gaslight to electric light, from wick to filament wire, luminosity has long defined the essence of this decidedly commercial city.

[…]

Rather than recede into the darkness, New York’s illuminated storefronts reveal more than is possible during the daytime hours.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at Doyers Street near Pell Street, was founded in 1920 as a bakery and tea parlor and soon became a Chinatown staple, offering fresh Chinese pastries, steamed buns, dim sum, and tea.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Alongside the photographs are fascinating interviews with store owners, revealing unexpected pieces of cultural history. The Financial District’s Delmonico’s, for instance, turns out to be the birthplace of such culinary classics as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg. A tiny piano bar in Greenwich Village called Duplex gave both Woody Allen and Joan Rivers their first stand-up spotlight. Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt filled their prescriptions at C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries at 6th Avenue and 9th Street. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in Hell’s Kitchen offered Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner a safe haven to share a drink together before their relationship was thrust into the public eye.

Joyce Theater, at Eight Avenue and 19th Street, is one of the world's greatest modern dance institutions. It has been in business since 1982.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Pershing Square, located at Park Avenue and East 42nd Street.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Ed Sullivan Theater, at Broadway near West 53rd Street, broadcast The Beatles' first U.S. performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964. A new era of music and media was ushered in as 73 million viewers watched the rock and roll phenomenon perform on television.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Roxy Delicatessen, at the heart of Times Square on Broadway near West 47th Street, has been in business since 1946. Known for its huge sandwiches and famous cheesecake, its walls are filled with Ben Burgaff's unique celebrity caricatures.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Metro Diner, at Broadway and West 100th Street, is a family-owned diner located on the ground floor of a historic three-story wooden clapboard building built in 1871. It has been in business since 1993.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Lenox Lounge, at Lenox Avenue near East 125th Street, was founded in 1939 by the Greco family. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis performed in the popular bar, and it was a gathering space for cultural and political luminaries such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X..

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Images courtesy Gingko Press/ James and Karla Murray

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13 DECEMBER, 2012

More Than Human: Tim Flach’s Striking Portraits of Animals

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Sentient beings like you’ve never seen them before.

“Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives,” historian Joanna Bourke wrote in her poignant meditation on what it means to be human. And yet our relationship with animals and our understanding of their inner lives remain inadequate at best.

In 2010, photographer Tim Flach gave us his extraordinary dog portraits. This year, he’s back with More Than Human (UK; public library) — a collection of striking, expressive portraits of our non-human fellow beings, captured with equal parts tenderness and aesthetic elegance.

Despite the sciency sterility of his words, perhaps Darwin was ultimately right in a broader philosophical sense when he reflected in The Descent of Man:

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

See more of Flach’s breathtaking work on his site and treat yourself to the full glory of More Than Human, for the screen hardly does it justice.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.