Saturday, October 5, 2013

Of wonderful and terrible things

This wax replica of the body of a dead girl can be found at the Specola Museum in Florence. (from "LaRocaille")

Think of the time when Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the sky. All of a sudden, the world changed completely. It was like emerging out of a dark basement into full light. Planets were not any more just bright dots in the sky; no, they were giant spherical balls. And they had moons and rings, and phases just like the moon. Think of the revolution!

At that time, telescopes were not so difficult to make and everyone could see these marvels with his or her eyes, or refuse to do so, if so inclined. Discovering that the Earth was not the center of the universe was a shock: it was both wonderful and terrible.

But those times were not just those of progress in astronomy. It was also a time when the human body was explored. Dissecting cadavers brought a continuous wonder and an endless stream of discoveries. It was the discovery of the reason of our own mortality, of the way the human body would function and degrade. It was a revolution.

But cutting up dead bodies was not for everyone, everyday. So, in a time when photography didn't exist, a complete technology for taking molds of dead bodies was developed, building it on the "lost wax" techniques that had been created to make statuary during the Renaissance. Seeing these finely reproduced, dissected dead bodies, in full size and in color, must have been wonderful and terrible at the same time.

Think today of the revolution we are having in the study of our planet, of our ecosystem. We are discovering the very mechanisms that are making us live: it is what we call "Gaia"; the ensemble of  the mechanisms that create that delicate balance that keeps the Earth a blue planet, full of life, with liquid water in the oceans and oxygen in the atmosphere. That's both wonderful and terrible, because we are discovering that, just as the human body has a limited lifespan, also the Earth's ecosystem does. It was born in remote times, it will die some day in the future when the sun will have become too hot for the balance mechanisms to keep the Earth alive. And that might occur much earlier if we continue tampering with the system.

But, unlike for astronomy and medicine, we have no simple images that can carry the meaning of the incredible complexity of the ecosystem. The data and the discoveries that are creating this revolution are hidden beyond paywalls and made mysterious by the arcane language used by scientists. We have only a name, "Gaia," as a term that describes in a single world the whole meaning of a scientific revolution. But you would search in vain in the Web for some image that could convey the true meaning of the term.  How do you represent a whole planet, a whole ecosystem, as something that you can grasp at a glance?

In the end, the best that I could find is a cartoon that shows Gaia in her double role of mother and death giver; funny and cruel at the same time, indeed wonderful and terrible, just as everything in our universe.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful reflection and wonderful cartoon. A very interesting shift in perspective that can make us more conscious of the harm that we are doing to ourselves.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)