The recent media buzz surrounding Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, whose cover version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” went viral, has given new life to a particularly modern psychological phenomenon called “The Overview Effect.”
Coincidentally, my Science Writing class discussed the OE just last week, when we were floating in existential vastness after a unit on cosmology.
What is The Overview Effect? According to Wikipedia,
It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.
This would put the birth of the Effect somewhere in the 1960′s; Frank White, of the Overview Institute, coined the term itself in the 1970′s. There is also a Vimeo video about the Effect, titled, simply, “Overview,” which begins with a quote by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, in 1948: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
Evidently, Hoyle was half a century too late. This morning I found (while looking for something else) that the Overview Effect predates the space program by several decades, showing up in a Thomas Hardy sonnet, from Poems of the Past and the Present, which was published in 1902:
At a Lunar Eclipse
Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.
How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?
And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?
Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?
“Moil,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the noun version of a verb of the same name, meaning:
“to labour in the mire” [Johnson], c.1400, from Old French moillier “to wet, moisten” (12c., Modern French mouiller), from Vulgar Latin *molliare, from Latin mollis “soft,” from PIE *mel- “soft”…
Hardy’s sonnet reflects this contrast between the seemingly formless fumblings of living on earth, and the sharp, distinct lines of cosmological eternity. In this sense, the “monochrome and curving line” of “yon arc” reminds me of the ethereal rainbow poised above Robert Lowell’s corporeal—and rotting—”“Drunken Fisherman”:
Wallowing in this bloody sty,
I cast for fish that pleased my eye
(Truly Jehovah’s bow suspends
No pots of gold to weight its ends);
Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout
Rose to my bait. They flopped about
My canvas creel until the moth
Corrupted its unstable cloth.
Meanwhile, Hardy’s “sun-cast symmetry” and “stellar gauge of earthly show” are reminiscent of Satan’s final defeat in George Meredith’s “Lucifer in Starlight”:
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
The interesting difference between 1902 and the current form of The Overview Effect, though, is Hardy’s idea of eternal truth being, not observed from without, as astronauts like Hadfield enjoy it, but projected from within. Such is the “sun-cast symmetry” of our own thought being displayed on the face of the universe.