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Seeing the Earth as a Planetary Body

Joseph Ayaz Newland

Some pictures of planets published in the last couple of weeks made me realize what an epochal re-visioning of the Earth has occurred in my lifetime and yours. (Much less the last century—my astronomy buff dentist was telling me this year is the 100th anniversary of the Keck Telescope, which Edwin Hubbell and others used for so many groundbreaking observations.)

The first new pictures to astonish were visible images of planets circling other suns. Now we can see them, instead of inferring they exist from their effects on light or gravity. There are surely many images in technical publications, but here’s a link to some in the NY Times:

They may be giant gaseous planets like Jupiter but far bigger, yet now, in 2008, it no longer requires a leap of the imagination (or faith) to know, not just think, that there are other planets circling other suns. What would Galileo do?

The second picture that caught my eye was the republication of a 1966 photograph: the first image of earth taken from the moon, shot by Lunar Orbiter, an early space probe. We humans sent a camera aloft and it sent back “A View from There.” Of Here. Here it is on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD):

Photographs like these made immediately visible the fact our earth is not only unitary, it looks Mars or Venus, to pick two nearby neighbors that Galileo trained the first telescope on—suddenly our home planet looked like a ball floating in space. Such pictures give us, all of us, a gut-level understanding of where we live.

These images make easily accessible realizations that in Copernicus’s day took great mental leaps. It took a long time to convince some people who literally thought, who believed, that they, their place, their land was at the center of the universe. And the sun went around it.

Now we can actually see planets that are circling other suns. What a mindblower. What a wonderful way to change how we visualize the universe we live in.

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