The School of Athens

The School of Athens
The School of Athens by Raphael (click on picture to view short documentary from Columbia University)

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Perspective, truth and baklava

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.

At the start of the New Year, it's valuable to stop, pause and reflect, and gain important perspective about our planet and species, in space and time, and in life and love.

Please note: This piece goes into some depth - in word, illustration and thought - so I'd encourage you to make a nice cup of tea and perhaps collect a lovely slice of baklava, then please join my Uncle Archimedes (pictured below) to settle in and ponder these musings.

(Archimedes Thoughtful by Domenico Fetti 1620)

In the vastness of space, our planet is merely a micro-speck of dust; and in the immensity of time, humans have existed for barely a nano-second; yet we behave - still shackled by a pre-Copernican smugness - as if we are the centre of the Universe and have been, and always will be, around for all time.

Such profound ignorance about our true insignificance and sheer arrogance about our imagined supremacy, if left unchecked, will inevitably overwhelm all our enlightenment and eventually lead to our disappearance.

Only when the collective consciousness of the human species finally comes to this realisation, will our species truly be at one and reach its full potential - a potential with immeasurable scope.

Perspective is the tonic that can awaken that consciousness: a veritable elixir of life, expertly prepared in the apothecary of wisdom using only the purest ingredients of unadulterated truth.

The six sections below will explore perspective. First providing an overview, then exploring four key elements - space, time, life and love - and ending with a conclusion (including reflections from two giants of humanity plus a few sublime cartoons).

Table of Contents.

1. Perspective overview.

2. Perspective in space.

3. Perspective in time.

4. Perspective in life.

5. Perspective in love.

6. Perspective conclusion.

1. Perspective overview: a mirror for the truth.

The difference between having perspective and not having perspective is clearly illustrated in the difference between Renaissance art and Medieval art.

In 1420, architect and mathematician, Filippo Brunelleschi re-discovered the laws of linear perspective by holding up a mirror to the Baptistry in Florence and painting the lines of the reflected building on the surface of the mirror (on top of its own reflection) thereby transferring a three-dimensional image accurately onto a two-dimensional surface (we say re-discovered as scholars believe the ancient world understood the concept, but it was lost during the Dark Ages).

To verify that he had, in fact, made an exact replica of the image of the Baptistry, Brunelleschi undertook a remarkable experiment (explained step-by step below):

1. He drilled a small hole in the mirror on which he had painted the Baptistry. 

2. He then stood directly in front of the Baptistry building, held up the painted mirror in front of his eyes and faced the painted side with the newly drilled hole (through which he intended to look at the Baptistry) toward the building.

3. He then held up a clear mirror in between his painted mirror and the building and used the clear mirror (which he faced towards himself and away from the building) to reflect the image of the painted mirror and block his peep-hole view of the Baptistry. 

4. With Brunelleschi's peep-hole view now only seeing the clear mirror (which was reflecting the image of the painted mirror) he alternatively moved the clear mirror in and out of the way of his peep-hole view of the Baptistry. 

5. By seeing there was no difference between his peep-hole view of the real Baptistry and the reflection of his painted mirror copy of the Baptistry, Brunelleschi confirmed he had indeed made an exact replica of the Baptistry building.

Prior to Brunelleschi's re-discovery of perspective, artwork looked like this (Medieval Market):

And this (Medieval War Image):

And this (Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Lorenzetti 1320):

After Brunelleschi's re-discovery of perspective, artwork looked like this (The School of Athens by Raphael 1511):

And this (The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci 1498, unfortunately, deteriorating badly):

And this (a copy of the Leonardo classic by Giampietrino 1520):

And this (The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo 1512):

Perspective is a mirror for the truth. 

In art, perspective shifted our outlook from a stifling two-dimensional view to a liberating three-dimensional view; in our existence, perspective shifts our outlook from a narrow and insular one to an expansive and grand one.

In other words, perspective encourages us to look up at the stars, not down at our feet. [Stephen Hawking]

2. Perspective in space: we are merely a micro-speck of dust.

Come with me on this magnificent journey through space as we venture from our home to beyond the edge of our Universe.

Our home continent, Australia, measures 4,100 km across with a 7.7 million km² surface area and a human population of 23 million.

It takes a commercial jet aircraft about 4 hours to travel from coast to coast and it takes about 3 days to drive by car if there are a number of drivers to share the workload.

It takes light 0.013 or 1/75th of one second.

Our home planet, the Earth, has a 40,000 km circumference, a 510 million km² surface area and a human population of 7 billion.

It would take a commercial jet about 2 days to travel around the Earth (this is in theory, as it assumes no stopping for refuelling). 

It takes light 0.13 seconds.

Our home planet Earth viewed from our sibling the Moon. A distance of 384,000 km.

It took the Apollo missions 3 days to reach the Moon, it takes light 1.3 seconds.

Earth and the Moon viewed from sister planet, Mars, which is on average 225 million km or 12.5 light minutes from Earth. It took 253 days (8.5 months) for the Curiosity Lander to reach Mars in 2012. 

Earth and Moon viewed from cousin planets, Saturn and Mercury. 

Saturn is on average 1.4 billion km or about 1.25 light hours from Earth, and Mercury is on average 75 million km or about 4 light minutes from Earth.

In the 1970's it took Voyager 1 three years and two months to reach Saturn and Voyager 2 took four years, while the recent visit by the Cassini spacecraft took six years and nine months to reach Saturn. 

In the 1970's it took Mariner 10 about five months to reach Mercury and the recent visit by the Messenger spacecraft took three and a half years. 

(Journeys to the planets vary in length due to the position of the planets around the Sun, the power of the rocket boosters used and whether the mission requires the spacecraft merely to fly-by the planet or for it to enter planetary orbit, as with Cassini and Messenger, resulting in a much slower journey).

Our home Solar System. Earth is 150 million km or 8 light minutes from the Sun; the "Plutoids" are about 5 billion km or 7 light hours from the Sun. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will fly past Pluto in 2015, following a nine and a half year journey.

Earth compared to the size of the Sun. It would take 1.3 million Earths to fill up the Sun. 

The Sun compared to hyper-giant star UY Scuti. It would take 5 billion Suns to fill up UY Scuti.

The nearest star to the Earth (outside our Sun) is Proxima Centauri, a distance of 4.2 light years. Closely followed by its larger sister star Alpha Centauri, at 4.35 light years or 41 trillion km.

Proxima Centauri is about 10% the size of our Sun, and Alpha Centauri is about 110% the size of our Sun.

It would take a spacecraft travelling at 40,000km/p/hr (at that speed it would take only one hour to fly around the Earth) about 125,000 years to reach the Centauri sisters.

The closest stars in our local solar neighbourhood to about 65 light years.

Stars to within 250 light years from Earth, numbering about 260,000 stars.

Stars to within 5,000 light years from Earth, numbering about 600 million stars. The Orion Arm is the spiral arm of the Milky Way on which the Sun and our Solar System is located.

Another view of our location on the Orion Arm (aka the Orion/Cygnus Arm) in the Milky Way Galaxy. 

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of 400 billion stars and measures 100,000 light years across.

View of the Milky Way from Earth.

We can see about 10,000 stars on a clear, moonless night in the country, far away from the city lights. That's about as many grains as in one handful of sand.

Our satellite galaxy group consists of 12 galaxies and measures 500,000 light years across.

Our local group of galaxies consists of 54 galaxies and measures 10 million light years.

Our sister galaxy in the local group, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years from Earth. It consists of 1 trillion stars and measures 260,000 light years across.

Our brother galaxy in the local group, Triangulum, is 3 million light years from Earth. It consists of 40 billion stars and measures 60,000 light years across.

The Virgo supercluster of galaxies, of which our local group is one, consists of 50,000 galaxies and measures 110 million light years.

The Laniakea supercluster of galaxies consists of 100,000 galaxies and measures 500 million light years.

Galaxies to within 1 billion light years.

Our Universe, 92 billion light years in size.

The Cosmos of universes, known as the multiverse, of which our vast universe is theorised to be only one of an infinite number. On this scale light years become meaningless, so the section below "The Ultimate Perspective in Space" provides some context to explain how big this Cosmos might be.

The Ultimate Perspective in Space

There are more stars in our Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of all the world. 

Yet, there are more atoms in one grain of sand than there are stars in our Universe. 

And yet, there might well be more universes in the Cosmos of multiverses than there are atoms in ALL the grains of sand on ALL the beaches of ALL the world.

3. Perspective in time: we have existed for barely a nano-second.

Our Universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago.

Our Solar System formed 4.7 billion years ago.

The Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Not long afterwards the Moon was believed to have formed following a collision between Theia (a Mars sized object) and the Earth, which was also responsible for giving the Earth its tilt and our seasons.

Timeline of life evolving on Earth. 

Life has existed on Earth for 4 billion years, humans have existed for 200,000 years, or about 0.005% of the time that life has been on Earth.

4. Perspective in life: we all have the same parents.

While humanity for the most part believes itself to be invincible and lives in denial about our limitations, in particular our mortality, and mostly ignores the paramount need to live in harmony with the planet; the truth is, all life on the Earth, including humans, have the same parents - Mother Nature and Father Time. We disrespect our parents to our great discredit.

However, unlike Shakespeare's lament of "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child" our eternal parents aren't remotely interested in human swagger, much less pained by human insolence. 

5. Perspective in love: we all have the same beliefs.

While our leaders (elected, hereditary, military and religious) have often made the most of exaggerating differences in human beliefs for personal and political gain, and we have far too often gleefully marched to the beat of their divisive drum, frequently to our deaths; the truth is, for the most part, atheists, agnostics, monotheists and polytheists all have the same desire to live in peace and harmony with, and show love and respect to, our fellow human beings. 

The creed of "Do Unto Others" permeates through all times and all societies.

(Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell 1961)

6. Perspective conclusion: the truth will set us free. 

The human species thinks itself to be very special. Like a spoilt child, whose only interest is instant self-gratification, we believe we can behave as we wish with impunity. 

And just like the over-indulged spoilt child who is given far too many toys, valuing none and unconcerned about trashing them all, we behave in the same way.

We trash our fellow humans, we trash our fellow living creatures, we trash our home planet, we trash outside our planet, we even trash ourselves - and seem unconcerned about any of it.

This petulant behaviour stems from our conceited delusion that we have some privileged status, not only on this planet, but also in the Universe; and not only in this time, but for all time. 

None of this is true.

Perspective, however, provides a mirror for the truth: in space, in time, in life and in love; and if fully embraced will set us free from the narcissistic cell in which we have incarcerated ourselves. A cell that we've masterfully crafted to indulge our insatiable self-absorbed needs, exquisitely appointed with a perfectly still pool enabling us to while away our time enchanted as we endlessly gaze at our captivating reflection.

(Narcissus by Caravaggio 1599)

What is the truth?

We humans are not special.

Much to our disbelief, we are not the chosen ones, nor the anointed ones, nor the sanctified ones, nor the favoured ones; rather, all too often, we are just the obnoxious ones. 

The Universe is not privileged by our existence, rather we are privileged to exist as part of the Universe.

Our home, the Earth, is not the centre of this Universe but an infinitesimally small part of an incomprehensibly large Cosmos; we humans, far from being eternal, have existed for a very short period of time; and, we humans, while we like to believe we are very different from one another, are all the same species, in fact, and in belief.

With this truth constantly at the forefront of our collective consciousness, humanity can progress and reach its full potential. A potential that is rich in possibilities, if we awaken our consciousness and shift our outlook from a narrow and insular one to an expansive and grand one and, most importantly, underpin that outlook with a solid foundation of respect and humility.

However, refusing to accept this truth or, worse, actively choosing to ignore it, will see us continuing to behave as we always have, leading to our demise and eventually our disappearance.

What will our epitaph be?

Will it be one that is never written, because our species decides to embrace the truth of perspective thereby ensuring we reach our potential and hence exist for as long as space and time exists? Or will it read - "Humanity: could have been so very much, chose to be so very little"?

There is no guarantee for our species. 

Our survival, and that of the Earth, is in our hands.

A few eloquent thoughts from two giants of humanity: Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein.

Carl Sagan, as he reflected on Earth viewed from Saturn, 1.4 billion km away.

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. 

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. 

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar', every 'supreme leader', every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. 

Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. 

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. 

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. 

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. 

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot, 1994.

Albert Einstein, as he reflected on humanity:

"A human being is part of the whole called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. 

The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive." Albert Einstein, 1954.

A few reflections from the truth-sayers of humanity, cartoonists.

A medical opinion:

A second medical opinion:

An extra-terrestrial observation:

A legal enquiry:

A clairvoyant's vision:

To fittingly conclude what I trust was a challenging and provocative odyssey together, please join my strapping bronze colleague seated below and experience the sheer brilliance of this superb piece, as the genius of each perfectly composed and magnificently performed note caresses the yearning soul and nourishes the meditative mind:

Yo-Yo Ma performing the Prelude, J.S. Bach's Cello Suite no. 1 (BWV 1007) YouTube link here

(The Thinker by Auguste Rodin 1902)

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Blog Archive

Our home

Our home
Earthrise over the moon (click on picture to view film)

The pale blue dot

The pale blue dot
Earth viewed from Saturn (click on picture to view film clip)

Our neighbourhood

Our neighbourhood
The Solar System (click on picture to view film)

Our Home Galaxy

Our Home Galaxy
The Milky Way (click on picture to view film)

A sister galaxy

A sister galaxy
Andromeda (click on picture to view film)

Another sister galaxy

Another sister galaxy
Triangulum (click on picture to view short film clip)

The Local Group of Galaxies

The Local Group of Galaxies
Our Galactic Neighbourhood (click on picture to view film clip).

Our farthest view of the Universe

Our farthest view of the Universe
Hubble's farthest view (click on picture to view film clip)

The virgo super cluster of galaxies

The virgo super cluster of galaxies
Galaxies within 100 million light years (click on picture to view film clip)

Galaxies within 1 billion light years

Galaxies within 1 billion light years