Ep. 476: The Overview Effect

After they’ve been to space, many astronauts report that seeing the world from above has given them a totally new perspective on humanity and the state of our planet. It’s called the Overview Effect. Today we’ll talk about this, and what this perspective can teach us all.

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Show Notes

Overview Effect named in 1987
First noted in Apollo missions to moon
High altitude pilots have some of this
Ron Garan’s spacewalk experience TedTalk
Rusty Schweikart, Edgar Mitchell, Tom Jones, and Mike Massimino are all reported to have experienced the effect. (Ian O’Neill article on Universe Today)
JP Chastain’s talk on Overview Effect
See images from the astronauts’ perspective in Image Detective!
DSCOVR:EPIC
Overview video

Transcript

Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, episode 476, “The Overview Effect.” Welcome to Astronomy Cast. Your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of technology and citizen science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you going?

Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?

Fraser Cain: Doing very well. Just, man, like two weeks from now, I will be in Iceland chasing auroras with Paul Sutter, and it’s gonna be awesome.

Pamela Gay: I am very envious. I will be – shortly after you get back, I’m going to be going to Amsterdam for the European Testing conference. Then, I’m coming home for a couple of weeks, and then I will be going to Japan for the Communicating Astronomy to the Public conference. But that’s nowhere as near as Iceland, which is on my bucket list.

Fraser Cain: Yeah, totally on my bucket list. I’m gonna hit two of my bucket list year, I hope. So, the bucket list that I’m gonna for is Iceland, and then this summer I’m going to Australia, and I will finally get a chance to see the Southern Hemisphere constellations and the large and small magellanic cloud in the omega cluster. It’s so great down there, and I can’t wait to be able to see that.

Pamela Gay: Where are you going to dark skies?

Fraser Cain: Don’t know. We’re gonna be in Byron Bay. There’s an astronomy conference, and they’re having me be the keynote speaker. So, I’ll be doing that.

Pamela Gay: Cool.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. But let’s get on with this episode. So, after they’ve been to space, many astronauts report that seeing the world from above has given them a totally new perspective on humanity and the state of our planet. It’s called the overview effect. And today, we’ll talk about this and what this perspective can teach us all. And I just want to say in advance that this is going to sound like a total woo-woo, overly spiritual conversation. And –

Pamela Gay: I’m going to make sure it doesn’t. That is my job.

Fraser Cain: For sure. But also, that I think there’s some really valuable lessons here. And I think it is really important what these astronauts have gone through. And they have a lot to teach us. So, I think we will get into a bit of a mind bending, semi-spiritual moment. And I’m okay, for one episode, for us to get a little – a little out there. So, let’s do it.

Overview effect, what is it? How did this concept first come about?

Pamela Gay: It was actually given its name in 1987 by Frank White. But it was something that had previously been noticed really as something novel for the first time in the Apollo Missions. Back in 1968, when we had the first spacecraft that made it all the way to the moon, and we’re looking back and seeing earth in complete isolation in space. It caused the astronauts to have this moment of holy – whatever you find holy, the earth is all by itself in space and appears so fragile and alone. And this is that one time you realize that all of humanity is really trapped on the outside of this sphere, orbiting in isolation.

Fraser Cain: And did it become a conversation, I guess, that other people then chimed in as well?

Pamela Gay: It’s something that came up across multiple nations. It came across lots of different projects. And it’s actually become something that psychologists have been doing research on, and trying to find ways to replicate the change in motivation and change in behavior that seems to have paralleled the experience of seeing the earth from such a high vantage point.

Fraser Cain: What was this sort of change in motivation and behavior from the astronauts?

Pamela Gay: Well, previously – and the context that they look at this within is astronauts are people who are by and large trained with a great deal of science and engineering to go through checklists, to do this, to do that, to stay alive using science.

Fraser Cain: Right.

Pamela Gay: And in general, when you see people who are speaking about awe, about fragility, about humanity in very religious kinds of language, you don’t tie it to the same kinds of people that we generally send to outer space. You instead expect to see this kind of language coming from theologians, from yogis, from people who seek transcendental states as part of how they experience the world. And for reasons that psychologists are working to understand, the same kind of emotional transcendency, that can be achieved in some meditative states, is also achieved almost consistently with astronauts. Less consistently with high altitude pilots.

And there seems to be something about being utterly disconnected from nice, safe, able to live without thought, and being in a situation where you realize the only safe place to live is not where I am. And people don’t realize how special that is. At a very subconscious layer, all this goes through, and it changes how people relate to humanity.

Fraser Cain: But I wonder – So, I think you sort of a touched a bit of it, right? Is it about the fact that when you’re an astronaut, you are in an incredibly precarious situation? That you are depending on every single piece of hardware that surrounds you to keep you alive. The oxygen, the water, the CO2 scrubbers, the hall itself. And then, of course, the capabilities of both the ground and your astronaut crewmates to keep you alive, and to keep each other alive. And that it is very much like you’re in a life raft, and there is a big ocean liner right over there. And if you do everything right, then you’ll be able to make it to safety. Otherwise, you’re gonna die in just a million different ways.

I’ve had sort of senses of that. You know, when you’re flying in an airplane, and you’re having really awful turbulence. You know what I mean? Like it’s just terrible turbulence, and you’re just like, there will be a time when I’m on the ground – and you look out the window – and you’re like, that’s the ground and someday, very soon, I will be down there and everything will be better.

Pamela Gay: So, luckily, the astronauts tend to not have this when they most think they’re going to die, like you. They tend to most have this when their view is isolated. So, it’s something that occurs at a subconscious level due to the physical vantage point.

Ron Garan, in 2008, did this amazing tethered arc off of the robotic arm. And he talks about this as when – and I’m gonna quote him, “I was hit in the gut with an undeniable sobering contradiction.” He’s talking about the effect of seeing a stunning, fragile oasis. This island that has been given to us and has protected all of life from the harshness of space. So, it’s in seeing this contradiction between earth; vibrant and alive, and space; death, surrounding that fragile bubble that this feeling is brought about. And in psychology, when people are trying to understand this, it is seen as a cognitive shift that takes place where people change just their entire perspective on how they look at life here on earth.

Fraser Cain: We talked about this a bit. How viable the universe is for life? And we always say that the universe is trying to kill you. And when you consider the state of the entire universe, 46 billion lightyears in all directions, just for the observable universe, who knows how much bigger the actual universe is. When you consider the solar system, every place in this entire universe, even potentially other habitable worlds in a habitable zone, they are not earth. Earth is the best place in the entire universe for life on earth.

And it’s not just the whole earth. It’s this – as you say, it’s this thin skin. It’s this tiny, little atmospheric section that, in this slice of time that we live in today, is the only time and place that this is gonna be the best place in the universe for life on earth.

Pamela Gay: And where this becomes particularly fascinating for psychologists is, can you cause people who haven’t been to outer space to experience this moment of shifted perspectives? And this is where Frank White comes in, in a lot of ways. Because he experienced this as an airplane pilot, flying high above the planet and looking down. And realizing, against the vastness of just the horizon, how fragile the earth is.

And there are researchers trying to figure out, can we put people into VR simulations? Can we put people into situations where they have this Ron Garan flying over the space station, looking down and see the fragility of all of it moment? Because we’re never gonna be able to send everyone to space. But when you look at how the astronauts have gone on to cherish things in a very different way, you have to wonder, can we spread that change in perspective?

And in some ways, there’s always been something like this where explorers coming back from the wilderness have a very different view on the lack of birds in the city. When people who’ve only ever experienced one small part of culture – If you had only ever been to Vancouver, if I had only ever been to Boston, we would be completely different people who had a much more limited perspective on culture, on life, on even just geography of landscape.

If you and I can be changed by the fact that we’ve gotten to travel around the world, well, we’ve only adhered to the top 40,000 feet of it. What if we could get 65 miles up, 300 miles up on a regular basis through VR and experience that as our perspective on how we make our decisions?

Fraser Cain: But I wonder if you can sort of induce it. If you can force that effect. Like when you’re flying over – I remember as a little kid, my parents took me to Mexico. And we flew into Mexico City, and I must’ve been four or five years old. And I guess the path that airplane took was right over the city for a big chunk of it. And so, I could look down and see these big, tall buildings, but then also see cars driving around and even people walking around. And I got this really bizarre perspective. And it’s funny because it felt, to me, like it was such a normal thing that you always experience.

But I actually – for the amount that I’ve flown since then – never have experienced seeing humanity from that perspective since. And I think it possibly was just the pathway that the airplane took as it went over the city, and I got to see in my little, childhood brain. But it was very profound. And it’s one of my sort of anchor memories of my adulthood.

Pamela Gay: The Dallas to Los Angeles approach. Going in to land at LAX, you get that almost every time depending on weather. But weather in LA is fairly consistent. And it is profound to be able to look down and see a kids’ soccer game going on in the school. To be able to tell it’s recess time. Or everyone’s stuck in traffic on the commute. And there’s that motorcycle racing between lanes. It is different.

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Hi. This is Dr. Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast, and I’d like to invite you to join me in Amsterdam on February 19th and 20th as I work to get better at doing one of the most important things I do in my profession. And this is getting better at testing and exploring my software, so that I know what it’s actually doing, how it’s actually failing. And I can make sure that when things go sideways, I can fix it rapidly and effectively because my unit testing and my explorer testing is doing the things it needs to do.

The European Testing conference is going to be on February 19th and 20th in Amsterdam. And you can get 15 percent off your conference admission if you use the code “astronomy.” There’s going to be speed meets, there’s going to be all sorts of different sessions. The group of keynotes looks amazing. And one of the things that matters the most to me is I know the people who are putting this together, and I know that when they put conferences together, it’s the kind of place where it’s safe to learn. It’s safe to not know things. It’s safe to be different. It is inclusive. It’s welcoming.

And this is our chance to learn how to be the best we can be because we care about the software we produce. And we’re gonna do it right with unit testing and exploratory testing. So, go to europeantestingconference.eu, buy your tickets, and use the code “astronomy” to get 15 percent off. I hope to see you there.

Fraser Cain: We’ve talked a bit about the impact, and they’ve gone on to sort of dedicate their life to – The astronauts, after they’re done astronauting, many have dedicated themselves to the planet, to some of these causes, right?

Pamela Gay: Yes. And so, we see many of the astronauts go on to become advocates for the environment, advocates for protecting climate, atmosphere, water. We see them go on to participate in arts, where several of them have found ways to try and communicate what it was that they experienced through painting, through – we have Chris Hadfield with all of this photography. There’s, now, the Overview Institute that has been formed, and they’re trying to capture the spirit of this however they can.

There was a movie released several years ago, it’s completely free and available on Vimeo that’s about the overview effect. And their goal is to go from having just a movie that tells the story of this to they’re putting money into how do you develop the VR experience? Is it enough to just stick the goggles on and put someone in a chair? Do you need to put them into some sort of a neutral buoyancy container, so that they can have more of a sensory experience, as well? What is required to trigger the cognitive shift? And this is fascinating where it starts to became a science question to change our emotional response.

Fraser Cain: One of the things that people always ask me is, why should we go to space when there’s all of these problems here on earth that need to be fixed? And I’m sure you’ve heard that question many times. And my answer used to be, “We need to do to space because we need to make humanity a multi-planet species.” And that’s very much the Elon Musk perspective. And actually, my perspective on this has totally changed in the last, I would say, two years or so.

And it’s Jeff Bezos, richest man on earth, who was in a conference and someone was like, “Why go to space when there’s so many problems here on earth?” And he said – the gist was that he recognizes that earth is, as I said, the best place in the universe for life on earth. Earth does one thing better than anything else you can find in the entire universe, and that is to be a place that has life on it. That has an ecosystem. That has the atmosphere surrounding it and the water cycle and the temperature and the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide and nitrogen and all these things, right? And that we pollute it with our heavy industry, with our vehicles, with all of these things.

And in his perspective, the best reason to go to space is to get that stuff off of the planet. To set up the asteroid mining and the solar power beaming back down to earth to take all of the things that take away from the planet, that planet’s number one job, right? The only place in the universe that can do this one thing, let’s let the earth focus on that. And if we can get everything else off of this planet – And I feel like that perspective, that as we start to – you see what’s happening with the people in Cape Town where they’re starting to run out of water.

You see these issues that as we push the environment to the limits – And again, we’ve mentioned this in the past, right? Protect the earth. Earth’s fine. Earth doesn’t need us. Earth is in no way concerned about how we’re gonna be. What matters is we want to protect the earth for us. And that’s the perspective.

Pamela Gay: And going to space gives us the ability to study ourselves in a way that can’t be done as effectively any other way. Just last night, I was looking at some satellite imagery of Algeria where there is amazing imagery of an old Roman city. Where you look down and you see lush vegetation interrupted by a perfect grid of old stone walls with a triumphal arch in the center of it. And it gives you this realization that these disparate places on our planet are all connected through ancient architecture of all things. That humanity has always been out there, waring and finding peace has always been out there. Crossing our cultures, crossing our ideas, and changing how each of our cultures is able to live and evolve.

And from space, you start to realize that we all have our own traditions, but we’re all still one people on one planet. And it’s important to see both the sameness and the other. And all of this, somehow, comes into focus at once when you’re looking down at these diverse geographies that are still, somehow, all on one planet.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. And every astronaut that I’ve ever talked to, when they look down on the earth as they’re orbiting around the planet, the thing that they always notice is how they don’t notice the differences between the countries. They don’t notice the difference between the political regions. You can’t really see when you’ve moved from Canada to the United States. You may recognize specific features, like the city of New York or things like that, especially at night. But you can’t. But what you do notice is these times when you cross over regions that have some kind of environmental problem. If you go over Haiti, for example, half of that island is completely deforested, and then the other half of the island isn’t. It’s two different nations that had two different –

Pamela Gay: The Dominican Republic.

Fraser Cain: Yeah, the Dominican Republic. They had two different approaches to handling the resources of their countries, and you can see that from space. Of course, it’s a big myth, you can’t see The Great Wall of China from space.

Pamela Gay: But you can see the demilitarized zone in Korea. And that’s one of the great sadnesses that many of the astronauts talk about is looking down on the Korean peninsula and seeing this brightly lit South Korean nation with all of its technology, literally, shining its lights up into space. And then, there’s this concentration along the border, and then there’s nothing. There’s a bit of a dot for Pyongyang. And there’s bits and pieces, but nothing substantial like you see scattered in other rural parts of the world. And these sadnesses become even more poignant when you can see, with your own eyes, the difference between the haves and the have-nots from 300 miles away.

Fraser Cain: I think one of the most – the best crack that anyone has done to try and give as many of us as possible the feeling of the overview effect was the pale blue dot image. And this was this photograph that was taken by the Voyager spacecraft, required some convincing by Sagan and others to convince them to turn this spacecraft back and take pictures of all of the planets. Not for, really, science purposes, but to help us see our perspective in the universe. And what I love about this story is when they got the image of the earth, they couldn’t find the earth in the image. And they’re like, “Oh, well, I guess it’s too small. We don’t have the resolution.”

And then they’re like, “Wait a minute. Nope, there it is.” And in this one streak of sunlight, this one piece of optical interference in the camera system – because the earth was too close to the sun for it to be a really great picture – was the earth. And so, the entire planet could hide in this little sunbeam that was being seen by the Voyager spacecraft. And you realize that that’s it. That’s all of us. Right there. The whole planet. As Carl Sagan, right? Everybody who’s ever lived, everybody who’s ever died, all of your friends, all of your family, they’re in that one little, pale blue dot hidden inside that sunbeam.

Pamela Gay: And this is something that every time we look back at earth, it’s always the same “wow” moment where when we look back with OSIRIS-REx to see the earth and the moon so far apart in such a black field. And we need to try and understand why it is we feel this way. That’s a cool scientific question. And then, we need to figure out how to share the perspective because maybe that will get more people thinking about how all the pieces fit together. And that’s the cool part.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. Like this Argeon is saying in the chat, I remember an astronaut saying he was able to cover the earth with his thumb when he was on the moon. And so, when you go outside, you can cover the entire moon – we talked about this many times – with your pinky fingernail. And from the moon, the earth is about 13 times bigger than the moon is from the earth. And so, it gets perfectly covered by your thumb.

Pamela Gay: Held a little closer to your face.

Fraser Cain: A little bit, yeah. But I think closer to arm’s length you could blot out the entire planet with one hand, which is, again, just amazing. So, what can people do to, maybe, share the overview effect or attempt to kind of recreate it apart from going to space? If that’s what we gotta do, I think that’s just the sacrifice we’re all gonna have to make is we’re all gonna have to take these trips out to space. But assuming we can’t do that, how can we gain some of that perspective?

Pamela Gay: For starts, go watch The Overview film on Vimeo. Like I said, it’s completely free. It’s put out by the Planetary Collective. And it takes into consideration these different ideas. Celebrate the blue marble image that NASA updates on a fairly regular basis that looks at our planet in its entirety both during the day and then, often, at night as well. That one I don’t think is updated quite as frequently. And get other people looking at the world as a whole in space imagery. Stop using just your Google Maps and start using actual space photos. Don’t just look at astronomy picture of the day, also go look at what’s coming down with the Aqua and Discover spacecraft. See these pictures of the earth.

Go try out Image Detective on CosmoQuest on explore all the astronaut images and see just how beautiful and how broken our planet is. And we’ve all seen, hopefully, that picture of the one last black rhino being protected by a soldier. A picture tells a story that it sometimes takes too many words to get a person to hear. Find that picture that changes you. And then, change others with that picture.

Fraser Cain: Awesome. There, see, told you. We were gonna go off the deep end today. But that was great. We’ll see you next week, Pamela.

Pamela Gay: See you.

Male Speaker: Thank you for listening for Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode on astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, tweet as @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google+.

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[End of Audio]

Duration: 30 minutes

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