Category Archives: Science & Technology

Film: A Beautiful Planet

Screenshot from the website for “A Beautiful Planet” (click to visit)

When these breathtaking views of our planet begin to fill the domed screen of an IMAX theater, filmed at the International Space Station by astronauts living there, it is difficult not to be moved. (Although the young students all around me in the theater, at Stockholm’s Natural History Museum, had no trouble not being moved. At lunch, some of them confessed to falling asleep.)

“A Beautiful Planet” begins with a simulated faster-than-light trip into the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of billions of stars, which underscores the absolutely non-special status of the star we know as the Sun.

But somehow, all this stellar ordinariness only enhances the planetary uniqueness of Earth — covered with glittering water and air, just warm enough for life, protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field, which reveals itself in the shimmering green curtain of the northern lights.

Familiar and unfamiliar places float by — Paris, Florida, massive lightning storms over the Congo, the enormity of the ocean, Arctic icescapes, great river deltas — and the message digs deeper and deeper into your consciousness: this planet is alive. We are part of that life.

By the end of the film, the astronauts whose pictures and voices have filled one’s head and heart have begun to speculate about whether another “Goldilocks Planet” (a planet where everything is “just right”) might host life as we know it, or at least something similar. Of course, given the vastness of space, that is very statistically probable.

But without real (as opposed to simulated) faster-than-light travel, we are not likely to find out. And until then, there is only Earth — Gaia — our spaceship, our extraordinarily beautiful home, captured in all its glory in this wonderful film.

Object: The Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism, used in ancient Greece to predict the movements of celestial bodies. Photo: Wikipedia

The Antikythera mechanism is considered the oldest known machine for accurately predicting the future based on scientific observations and mathematical calculations — in this case, the positions of the stars, the orbit of the moon, the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games, and astrological features that were important to the Greeks.

Computer-generated reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism’s display face. Image: Wikipedia

Discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1902, the mechanism dates to approximately 100 BCE. A complex set of 37 gears powered the mechanism, like a clockwork, and a display face indicated when future events would occur (see the computer model reconstruction).  The knowledge of science and technology that are reflected in the Antikythera mechanism were lost to the Western world for well over a thousand years, only reappearing again in Europe during the 14th Century.

Book: Exact Thinking in Demented Times (Sigmund)

Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017.

Sigmund tells a riveting story about the intellectual vortex of ideas and thinkers centered on Vienna in early years of the 1900s, and how those thinkers survived (or in many cases, did not survive) those years of increasing violence and persecution, climaxing with World War II.

Attempting to establish firm foundations for the new “scientific worldview” was an extremely future-focused activity, not to say visionary. Participants in the Vienna Circle — overwhelmingly male — were aiming at nothing less than the intellectual reform of humanity. To an astonishing degree, when one looks at the various threads of impact that ultimately radiated out of Vienna and into the world, from the interpretation of the implications of Einstein’s breakthroughs, to the development the fundamental mathematical theory behind the design of computers, to the invention of the use of infographics for public education, and more, they succeeded.

About this Category: Science & Technology

In development.

Under the topic “Science & Technology,” you will find texts and artifacts related to these fundamental drivers of change and shapers of our future. Note that science and technology, while deeply related, are two very different things: science seeks understanding about how the universe works, while technology seeks to change how the world works. Science certainly drives change, but it does not seek to shape the future; while technology’s very purpose is to alter the present in ways that make a desired future outcome possible.