As the world reflects on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Earth Observatory team has been struggling with what to say and do. Like so many other media outlets, we felt compelled to say something, to show something.
Our data visualization team found this: a previously unpublished view of New York City on September 12, 2001 (below). It was captured 10 years ago today by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite. (Other satellite views are here and here. The space station view is here.)
But all of us were left cold by it. Science left us cold.
I have been searching for several days for an old quote, but it eludes me. The gist of the thought is this: You start with a group of organisms — robins, dolphins, ants, humans — and you have life to study, life force to study. With scientific tools, you can study individuals…dissect down to
anatomical systems (circulatory, neurological, etc.)…then to organs…tissues…cells…mitochondria and nuclei…compounds and molecules…atoms…electrons, protons, and neutrons…quarks. But somewhere along the way, you lose the “life” of the thing. (Lewis Thomas? Bill Bryson? Richard Feynman? If you know the source, please tell us.)
So it is sometimes with satellite photos. We can learn a lot about our environments, our niches, our human fingerprints on the Earth. But sometimes you lose the life along the way. When we thought about running the above photo as an Image of the Day, it felt unworthy of the moment. You can see a city, but you can’t see the loss, the humanity, the soul.
But science and satellites can show us something: We all have one home that we share. It is a beautiful, fragile, awe-inspiring place.
Songwriter Julie Gold captured the thought in “From a Distance” (performed here by Nanci Griffith):
From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.
From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace,
it’s the voice of every man.