What did Plato think the Earth looked like?

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY TEDWIDMER Ted Wid­mer is a dis­tin­guished lec­turer at the Macaulay Honors Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­sity of New York and a fel­low of the Carnegie Coun­cil for Ethics in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.

“Hey, don’t take that, it’s not sched­uled,” Frank Bor­man said, jok­ing to his fel­low Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts on Dec. 24, 1968. They were or­bit­ing the moon, farther from Earth than any hu­mans had ever been. On the fourth pass, they were con­fronted by an ex­tra­or­di­nary sight that jolted them out of their reg­i­mented pro­ce­dures. There, seen through a small win­dow, was Earth it­self, ris­ing out of the void.

For a split se­cond, the as­tro­nauts were daz­zled by the lu­mi­nes­cent blue sphere, whorled by a white cloud cover. Then, as they were trained to do, they went back to work. As it turned out, Wil­liam An­ders was the one who snapped a color photo, just after his fel­low as­tro­nauts, Frank Bor­man and James Lovell, called his at­ten­tion to the great­est photo op in his­tory.

The color film proved to be the key; a sim­i­lar photo had been taken two years ear­lier, but with­out the daz­zling blue. When the photo was re­pub­lished on the cover of Life mag­a­zine, and beamed out on Amer­ica’s color TVs, bil­lions of oth­ers had the same chance to look back at Earth in all its cerulean glory.

That this life-giv­ing place was the same thing as Cre­ation was a mes­sage the as­tro­nauts re­in­forced on the same day, with their read­ing from the Book of Ge­n­e­sis. At the end of a bit­terly di­vi­sive year, it was a rare chance, un­sched­uled, for all of the in­hab­i­tants of the planet to re­mem­ber that they were united by fac­tors be­yond their con­trol. Evan­gel­i­cals, sci­en­tists, Amer­i­cans, Rus­sians, Chi­nese, Viet­namese: All peo­ple on Earth mar­veled that it was pos­si­ble. The mis­sion was a mir­a­cle, and so was the planet that hov­ered there, above the tiny space­craft.

A great deal of earth science has come from that dis­cov­ery; per­haps self-dis­cov­ery is a bet­ter phrase.

Sadly, NASA is one of the agen­cies af­fected by the gov­ern­ment shut­down. About 95 per­cent of its em­ploy­ees will not be able to work un­til its fund­ing is re­stored. High-pri­or­ity mis­sions will con­tinue, in­clud­ing a close en­counter with a dis­tant ob­ject called Ul­tima Thule, sched­uled for 33 min­utes past mid­night on New Year’s Eve. But the longer the im­passe con­tin­ues, the worse it will be for a pro­gram that de­pends on nor­mal pol­i­tics for its re­mark­able science.

For mil­len­ni­ums, hu­mans had won­dered what it might be like to look back at them­selves from a great dis­tance. It was a uni­ver­sal hu­man as­pi­ra­tion, unit­ing peo­ple from all parts of the world. To a sur­pris­ing de­gree, many knew, or at least in­tu­ited, that Earth was a sphere, and not flat at all. Plato likened it to a leather ball made from a “patch­work of col­ors.” Around the time Christ was born, the Ro­man poet Ovid de­scribed the planet as “poised in the en­velop­ing air, bal­anced by its own weight.” In other words, ex­actly as the as­tro­nauts saw it.

Flat-earth­ism has not en­tirely dis­ap­peared, de­spite the achieve­ment of science, and so­phis­ti­cated forms of de­nial still oc­clude the at­mos­phere. But the planet was round all along, equally home to all of its in­hab­i­tants, unique and ir­re­place­able.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.