Fragile Oasis

Connecting Space and Earth: Learn. Act. Make a Difference.

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Astronomy: The Overview Effect for The Rest of Us

Astronomers Without Borders, an organization I founded in 2007, is based on a simple truth – when we look up at the sky, no matter where we are, we know others are doing the same thing from other countries around the world. At similar latitudes the sky is identical regardless of where you are. And we all share the same wonder of the starry night sky, the planets and the entire Universe beyond. That wonder is part of the traditions of every culture, passed down through time. It will certainly be a part of our future as well.

But there’s more to it than the beauty of the Milky Way’s thousands of stars seen from a dark location. When we look up we’re looking outward, into our cosmic neighborhood. With a telescope we see even further into the cosmic hinterlands. For adventurers who long to see what lies on the other side of every hill, the Universe offers unlimited mysteries.

The Milky Way Over Mauna Kea photographed from Earth by Wally Pacholka

The Universe – all that you see when you look up at the stars – is where we live. The Earth is one small part of it. If you’ve ever wanted to travel in space, just drive to a dark location, look up and take a look around. You’re there, orbiting around our galaxy along with the rest of the inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.

The Milky Way over the Caribbean photographed from the International Space Station

The World at Night is a great demonstration of how we all share that magnificent view of the night sky. The team of expert landscape astrophotographers assembled by project founder Babak Tafreshi has imaged the night sky from locations worldwide, showing a blanket of stars above historic, cultural and natural landmarks with stunning results. Whether it’s a church, mosque, or synagogue is in the earthly foreground, the sky above is the same. We can change details of the orb we live on but the rest of the Universe hovers beyond our reach, untouched, practically unchanging.

This is the idea behind Astronomers Without Borders and the source of our slogan, One People, One Sky. The earthly view of the heavens is also strikingly similar to what some astronauts experience from their perch in orbit. Frank White coined the term, “The Overview Effect,” in his book of the same name to describe the sensation astronauts often experience seeing the Earth hanging in space among the stars and other planets, without any apparent borders between us. I’ve told Frank I consider our view of the night sky to be the overview effect for the rest of us – those of us who will never travel out of Earth’s atmosphere – and he agrees. When we connect with someone in a distant land, far beyond our horizon, and they’re seeing the same sky we do (offset by time as the Earth rotates), the sensation of One People, One Sky is reinforced. The overview effect may not be as easy to visualize as from space – or as fun as being weightless – but it’s there just the same.

Milky Way around Sagittarius photographed from the International Space Station by Don Pettit

Fragile Oasis’ Nicole Stott, who has spent more than 100 days in space as a NASA astronaut, has a similar view from a space travelers perspective. In her recent blog post “The Overview Effect: I Think It Works Both Ways”, Nicole said, “As I have watched over these past months, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, as my friends passed above me on this shiny point of light crossing the night sky, it occurred to me that this idea of an Overview Effect might just work both ways --- not only for those looking in amazement, appreciation and awe at our planet; but also for those looking up to the sky at the wonders orbiting us there. It seems that both perspectives remind us of the fragile nature of where we live – Earth with its thin blue atmosphere and ISS with its thin silver hull – both protecting their humans from the harsh vacuum of space; both reminding us that wherever humanity chooses to ‘reside’, we are obligated to take care of that place – our home.” Her solitary view engendered thoughts of our common heritage on Earth and the need to protect it together – “I” became “we.”

I started Astronomers Without Borders after visiting countries like Iran and Iraq, and meeting people who are far more like us than they are different. They have the same needs, wishes and problems as anyone else. I’ve given many presentations on astronomy in those countries to astronomy clubs in the US, and the focus inevitably turns to the difficulties others have in pursuing our common activities. Equipment we take for granted is difficult or impossible to acquire in many countries. Dark skies are out of reach without transportation. The result is sympathy for the situation of our colleagues and a desire to help. There’s nothing political about it – it’s nature, our common heritage. And it’s there for everyone, an unlimited resource. Why shouldn’t we all share in it equally? Political and other issues that seem so important most of the time just become irrelevant, at least for that moment. This is purely people to people interaction of the most basic sort.

Astronomers Without Borders now has participants in most of the world’s countries, with global programs that bring people together as never before. All based on our living on one planet, looking up at the same sky. An American amateur astronomers with the latest computerized gear and a student in a poor country may have different activities during the night but in the end they’re there for the same reason. And they say remarkably similar things about the wonders of the night sky. After all, we’re all looking out from the same place – Earth.