REVIEW: Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton
Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
In Earth, a planetary scientist and a literary humanist explore what happens when we think of the Earth as an object viewable from space. As a “blue marble,” “a blue pale dot,” or, as Chaucer described it, “this litel spot of erthe,” the solitary orb is a challenge to scale and to human self-importance. Beautiful and self-contained, the Earth turns out to be far less knowable than it at first appears: its vast interior an inferno of incandescent and yet solid rock and a reservoir of water vaster than the ocean, a world within the world. Viewing the Earth from space invites a dive into the abyss of scale: how can humans apprehend the distances, the temperatures, and the time scale on which planets are born, evolve, and die?
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
“Where is the edge between knowing and imagining?”
This one sounded interesting: Humanistic and scientific viewpoints of Earth. A quick little primer of this place we all call home. This is a charming interchange of letters, IMs and conversations between two professors of different fields (geology and medievalist) as they contemplate, discuss and theorize about aspects of our little planet. Each adds from her or his store of specialized knowledge and sprinkles from personal reflections on top.
For millennia, we have both looked inwards to and outwards from our planet. What is here, or under Earth’s crust? In some places we still don’t know while we’ve yet to be able to see much below the surface. What is our place in the cosmos and how is our planet viewed from above? We are the center of “our” universe but not of “the” Universe anymore which more ancient scientists thought than we used to realize. Is Earth interesting for itself alone or because we happen to be here?
I agree that scale is a tough one for humans to contemplate. We can grasp such a limited bit of it no matter what we’re measuring: from our own lives to the lifespan of our solar system or the length of a light minute as compared to that of a light year. Gravity – is it just a physical law keeping us on the Earth surface or also an emotional pull to remain here instead of trying to actually use it to slingshot ourselves off planet? And where would we be without the thin layer, relatively speaking, of water that makes life possible here?
Roman Scipio and Chaucer’s Troilus imagined viewing Earth from above. Apollo astronauts gave us the stunning images (Earthrise, The Blue Marble) of our beautiful blue/white/brown world hung on a background of the blackness of space. Two viewpoints (science and literature) finally merging into one. This book made me think and will probably jumpstart some more internet investigating on my part. B