Dem Space Feels: Emotional Connection, Visual Culture, and Saving Our World

CHALLENGE: See how far you can scroll in this model of the solar system If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.  Go ahead, I'll wait. Now that your wrist hurts as much as your brain, familiarize yourself with the relative size of the planets with the largest known stars in the universe GIF.

Teeheehee sorry for the cheap shot, I didn't create it.  Now then, on with the show...

"Space is soooo big!  It just makes me feel so small and insignificant."

I have never fully understood this sentiment.  Conversely, does the subatomic realm or the goings on of the bacterium in your gut make you feel large and in charge by comparison?  I think not.  So what is it?What is this squirmy sensation that gazing at the night sky engenders?  I suppose that I can empathize because in a very rudimentary way I have dimly grasped the vast scales with which we measure the cosmos and it really is astronomically big (that is why that noun was made into an adverb), and I have on many occasions for my own sake and the sake of others around me tried to feel into the feeling of being quite small and quite insignificant.  I have cut ties with beliefs to experiment with drifting untethered in the existential voids which science is so cheerful to drop out from beneath us and I have wandered anonymous under the towering institutional structures of our big, light/noise/air  polluted cities and felt the aloneness of the teeny tiny speck of fleshy self pitted against the sheer steel walls of meaningless postmodern bottom line-ism reality.

And it is real.  This sense of insignificance is emotionally available, perhaps to your edification or perhaps to your depression, but it IS real.  You really can convince yourself that you are alone in a random and meaningless universe.  But it is also somewhat of a trick because if there is one thing that humans do, its create meaning.  We create meaning and then convince ourselves that it doesn't actually matter.  We are involved in a game of hide and seek on a cosmic scale.

Humans evolved in grasslands and savannahs competing for survival amongst large carnivorous animals with powerful jaws and sharp claws and so as a strategy we developed ways to physically and emotionally identify with the bags of skin with which we moved through this treacherous world.  Its called the ego and it served to keep us alive and out of danger long enough to pass along our genes and raise our offspring to sexual maturity.  That's the name of the game.  But this capacity to assess threat plays a devious trick on us in the modern world where many if not most of those big, scary realities cease to impact our daily lives - reality itself becomes very big and very scary.

Not that it isn't.  Science has helped us to understand for the first time our true size if not our true significance in the universe and there are still a smattering of quite serious and impending threats to our continued survival, not the least of which is our own sense of cultural importance and technological momentum.  Through that same technology we have become the first generations to bear witness to the enormity of space which surrounds us, the gaping eons of time stretched behind us, and to face the terrifying prospect that though the cosmos can be rationally apprehended through numbers (which is weird), it is ultimately unintuitive and for the most part seems to be extremely hostile to life.  But then we are also the first to have smack us in the face images like this:




And this:


Not to mention the Hubble Deep Field and Extreme Deep Field  gravitational lensing and all that.  Astronomy is lucky in that way that as big and somewhat terrifying as the sky and its denizens are, they are just as awe-inspiringly wonderful to behold.   But we live in this world everyday and all day struggle to survive and all night we rest to prepare ourselves for the coming day.  Many things seem to conspire to make the world seem ordinary and hum drum and most of us do not own a thousand or million dollar telescope anyway so who can be bothered? That is why it is so crucial for space science communicators to grab the public by their collective shoulders and shake the hell out of them and shove these images in their faces (especially the social planners and politicians) and scream "Wake UP!" Because its a part of nature and a part of you and is going on all round you.  You who are in an insanely unique and privileged part of the cosmos to be conscious and breathing on a living planet with the information technology to have it all served up for your consumption.  Just a couple tappytaps on your pocket computer and away you go!  And again astronomy is special because while we throw away most things after we consume them - we are perpetually fed by the visual culture of space and as we emotionally connect to it, it suffers no depletion, no ablation, no scarcity and no banality.  So soak it up for it cannot be drained.

And so as we wake up to space so to are we changed by it.  As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson points out in his Space As Culture keynote lecture for the 28th National Space Symposium, before the famous images of Earth were captured by Apollo astronauts, the planet was almost never pictured as having clouds even though ~75% of it is covered at any given time.  In those photos we see no borders, no races, no cultural divides so apparently important on the surface - Humans awoke to the Earth as a solitary whole and not just as a metaphor.  These images were directly caught up in the emerging conservation, ecology, environmental movements and were famously featured on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog (a sort of hippy manual for off-the-grid and alternative lifestyles).  Cars, furniture, and various cultural bric-a-brac of the 50's and 60's took on the sleek, sharp styles of rocketry and we called it the Space Age and the intervening years harbor many more examples of this cross cultural pollination.

Flash forward 50 meandering years as we get rolling here in the 21st Century and come to terms with budget cuts to space science and exploration in the midst of financial prestidigitation and the coming realization that America is not a Democracy but an Oligarchy, climate change denial in the face of increasing climate change and increasingly dire predictions.  We must as culture and as a species take pause to look back at that small thing that the hippies, and feminists, and the conservationists seemed to be on about when a generation saw the planet Earth from space for the first time.  We should take advantage of the technology we have now and get connected in the social media to NASA, the ISS, Astronomy Picture of the Day, check out your local observatory or star party, play some Kerbal Space Program, become a citizen scientist and classify galaxies with Zooniverse, watch Cosmos on National Geographic (or FOX)  and gaze out into the abyss of space so that it can gaze back into you.  Look out to the stars if only to look back at our own planet because if there is one small thing that is as beautiful and significant as the stars are massive and overwhelming, it's a romantic human standing on Earth contemplating it all.

Let night have new meaning. yugen

And wash it all down with a short documentary about picturing our local cosmographic neighborhood.

Documentary Culture: The Wheat And The Chaff

Who doesn't love a good documentary? In the last 10 or 15 years the documentary film has slowly become a dominant cultural force for education and persuasion - often eclipsing more tried and true efforts of magazine and newspaper writing, cable and local news and even, one could argue, the public education system.  Documentaries have always been popular, hell they even helped Kuwait drag the US into the first Iraq War, but these days its reaching a whole new level.

In the last decade we have seen whole social movements and giant swaths of public opinion produced and directed by documentary filmmakers.  Political, economic, and religious histories have been exposed, altered, and even completely invalidated in the public mind by sheer rhetorical technique accompanied by dramatic moving images and sweeping soundtracks.  We have been bowled over by the Michael Moores and harangued by the Alex Joneses, inspired by the Zeitgeists and enraged by the Loose Changes - but what have we learned?  Do you know all about Natural Gas and the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing because you watched Gasland? Or maybe it wasn't until you saw the sequel that you really became an expert.  The Illuminati conspiracy is super sexy and employs Madonna, Katy Perry and Jay Z, but could it just be a hangover from centuries of Catholic propaganda?  And for that matter what really happened on 9/11?  A good documentary is an open can of worms.

The reality is that most of us do not know how to think.  Not really.  We were not taught to look for the signs of good and bad sources of information.  We do not know how to receive and process said information so that we can form an educated opinion and make of ourselves informed citizens, essential for the functioning of our free societies.  Most of us readily accept the reality that is presented to us by our parents, teachers, friends and mainstream media.  Its how civilization is possible in the first place and how social animals collect themselves and grow.  We read it in the paper or see it on TV and say "I knew it!" or conversely, "That guy is an asshole!" depending on our guts and our emotions that we believe are our own. We think that a headline that ends with a question mark means that the article is intriguing and controversial (it isn't).  We do not know our logical fallacies or logical razors (just BECAUSE it is simple does not make it true) and many of us too often rely solely on the force of our convictions to carry us through an intellectual argument.  If you haven't heard this by now let me be the one to inform you - the Universe does not care about your convictions, no matter how cheerful.

Even if some of us have taken some initial baby steps to climb out of the allegorical cave and look around at multiplistic, complex, fractured, messy, unintuitive reality we are often still swept back in by the widely cast net of the undertow just waiting to scoop us up in a warm embrace of confirmation bias that caters to whatever varying level of hope, fear, cynicism, trust, disillusionment, despair or disenfranchisement that we have brought along to meet it.  Rarely do any of us escape the prevailing currents and keep diving to reach REAL depth.  REAL understanding.  And I am not saying that I have.

The fact is every society, every social movement, every marketing, religious, research, or political group, and every sub-culture underground collectivist autonomous food sharing quilting bee has always been 95% sure that they know basically what is going on and what is wrong with the world and that they will have that last bit nailed down within the next 5 years.  Rubbish! (to quote the Bard..)

And I should know - I have studied logic, public speaking and persuasive argument, the Media Monopoly, the Rhetoric of Visual Culture, the Society of the Spectacle and the Century of the Self.  I have learned to disabuse myself of my own propensity to believe along the narrative lines that I invest in and cherish and I no longer fall for all the same tricks and traps that you do...only fall for about half of them.

ancient aliens

And so after hours and hours of TV learning just what Ancient Astronaut theorists believe, jumping over all the sharks swimming in the Wormholes with Morgan  Freeman, escaping doom and gloom and death by asteroid, comet, dying sun, black hole, solar flare, cosmic ray, poison gas atmosphere, and alien contact in The Universe I finally began to search that last bastion of objectivity and rigor that is the Internet for some space documentaries. Heaven help me..

Boy, was it tough slogging.  I had to maneuver through all the giant glass structures on the dark side of the Moon, trek around the face on Mars, only to narrowly survive the alignment of Planet X with the center of the galactic whoop dee doo!  There were UFO sightings, mind controlling chemtrails, the descent of the Lizard People, secret NASA transmissions - who could keep up?    Thankfully I was at same time a card carrying member of the Church of the SubGenius and stuck to a steady diet of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to keep my BS detector functioning and my reservoir of incredulous quips ready at optimal levels (thanks a million Bob, Joel, Mike, Crow, and Servo, you may never know all the good you have done).  And yet still, for all my posturing,  I really am just as gullible as the worst of us.  And so at the end of the day I just keep on searching for that perfect documentary with that perfect blend of provocation and reassurance.  Perfect intuition and perfect understanding.  Until then I just try to stay away from the ones that sound like they are narrated by that guy who voices every single action/suspense movie trailer in that deep, throaty know the one:

"In a world..."

"One man..."

"One last job..."

"He would risk, everything..."

All that is a long-winded way to say that I have compiled somewhat of a list of higher-brow-than-thou documentaries, lectures, debates, and conferences based loosely around space science, the history of Astronomy, telescopes, famous scientists, missions, and theories, etc. in order to combat the seemingly endless tide of lazy, delusional, conspiratorial, tiresome, and down right insulting apocalypse-porn style documentaries that overstimulate and Balkanize the already paranoid American palette for space related news and info-tainment.  Accordingly, you will notice many of the titles are provided by the BBC, most of them have nothing to do with conspiracy and they all subscribe to the official story so suck it.  Some you may have seen, many you may have not.  Some may enlighten or bore you.  Some may offend.   Most have really pretty pictures.  Cheers!

<Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery, The Super TelescopesGalileo's Battle, Virtual Star PartyThe Story of Maths, 400 Years of the Telescope, Stargazing: A Guide To The HeavensInto Deepest Space: Alma, NASA Triumphs and Tragedies, Seeing Stars, Seeing In The Dark, The City Dark, Cosmic Vistas, Discovering Deep Space, 7 Ages of Starlight, When We Left Earth, Final Frontier - Guide To the Universe, The Storytelling of Science, Moon ShotAstrophysics: Space, Time, and the Universe, Beautiful Equations, Hubble Vision - The Sharpest Shot, Hubble Space Telescope, House Science and National Labs Caucus, Star Party, Carl Sagan's COSMOS, Beyond Belief, Fractals-The Colors of Infinity, Issac Asimov Memorial Debates, NDT: Space As CultureStephen Colbert and Neil Degrasse Tyson, Newton's Dark Secrets, Feynman-No Ordinary Genius, In The Shadow Of The Moon, Stargazer, Benoit Mandelbrot-Hunting The Hidden Dimension, Einstein's Big Idea, Mysterious Titan, Space Race: Race For Satellites, How To Build A Satellite, Mission Juno, Mystery Of The Milky Way, To The Moon, ISS First 10 Years Next 10 Years, Failure Is Not An Option, Failure Is Not An Option 2, NDT: The History And Future Of NASA And Space Travel, Poetry Of Science, The Dark Side Of TimeNew Horizons: Passport To Pluto And BeyondNDT: Star Talk w/ Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan,The Overview Effect, Chris Hadfield Space Oddity, and the piéce de la résistance Why The Moon Landings Could NOT Have Been Faked!>

flag and shadow images


Many videos have multiple parts so follow the rabbit hole down.  Please let me know if any of the links are wrong or broken.  I'll probably keep updating this list as I see fit so let me know if there are any others I should include and check back periodically.  Enjoy!

PS > please don't read youtube comments :(