“Glorious But Fragile.” On Looking at the Whole Earth and Finding Peace
Marjolijn Van Heemstra Explores the Intersections of Astronomy and Psychology
I lean over a low Plexiglas wall and watch the earth rotate under my feet. I try to make out the continents, the pale patch of the Arabian Peninsula, green-splotched South America. But what I see most is sea blue, alternating with the milky white of passing clouds. Here in the Netherlands we’re rotating faster than I would have guessed: about 650 miles per hour, every hour of the day, every day of the year.
And that’s only the spin of the earth around its own axis. Add to that our 67,000-mile-per-hour revolution around the sun, which in turn whips around the center of the Milky Way at a speed of about 490,000 miles per hour. I press my knees against the Plexiglas panel, try to suppress the dizziness as the Pacific Ocean sweeps underneath me.
I’m looking at the view from the International Space Station, some 250 miles above the planet, projected onto a giant screen below. I am in Kerkrade, at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, in the Columbus Earth Center, a museum devoted entirely to the astronaut’s view of Earth.
This seems like a logical place to start my search for an equivalent of the overview effect. To see what astronauts see, feel what they feel. So this morning I took the train to the south of the country, and here I am staring down into this cylinder. Once the dizziness has subsided, the steady pace of Earth and the clouds has a soothing effect. It’s like looking at the ocean. We all have a “blue mind,” the marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols once said. The sight of water, essential for life, puts people at ease.
I give the watery sphere one last look. It’s beautiful, but I’m not overwhelmed the way the astronauts were. I try to imagine what it would feel like to see this for the very first time. But I’m unable to separate it from the countless Earth-image mouse pads, coffee mugs, posters, and T-shirts I’ve known my whole life. The most reproduced image on Earth is perhaps a photograph of Earth itself.
The French philosopher Bruno Latour holds that the image of our planet seen from space offers a misleading idea of humanity’s position. The photo wasn’t taken from space, he says. It was taken from inside the cramped, noisy capsule of a rocket, a place where no human can survive without artificial life support.
For Latour, that famous Blue Marble photo of Earth taken from space is too sentimental and therefore skews our worldview. We mustn’t look at the world from without, but from within. We are here, not there.
As I walk away from the Plexiglas, behind me I hear a new group of visitors shuffle in, ready to gaze down at themselves. Bruno Latour’s comment nags at me. For him, looking at Earth from outer space constitutes unhealthy escapism. Zooming out to avoid having to zoom in. Is that what I’m doing? Dodging reality?
Reading most astronauts’ statements, you can only conclude, contrary to what Latour says, that there is no escape. Or that if there is, it boomerangs right back at you. Those astronauts, once back home, commit themselves more than ever to the planet they temporarily left.
Well, most of them do. Here and there, you do find the story of spacefarers who were apparently immune to the overview effect. In an episode of the podcast This American Life, the astronaut Frank Borman recounts how indifferent he was to the sight of earthrise from his Apollo 8 capsule. Back home, he didn’t even talk about it with his wife and children. “It was more important to see the boys and see her….We [just] got right back to the nitty-gritty’s” of everyday life.
Compare that to the effect earthrise had on Borman’s two fellow astronauts, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. The view of Earth reminded Lovell of all the times he had heard people say they hoped to go to heaven when they died. But heaven, he realized up in space, is where we were born. It is that tiny planet that provides us with everything we need to thrive. And for Anders, “borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.” Maybe, in addition to seeing it, it’s also a matter of wanting to see it.
When I get back from Kerkrade, my neighbor Bob is furtively watering the plants in defiance of a nationwide sprinkler ban. “Otherwise they won’t survive,” he says, nodding at the lavender, his favorite.
I watch as Bob pinches dead leaves from the dry plants. His perpetually tanned limbs, his combed-back hair. He has set a dish of water next to the lavender for the birds. Bob tells me he used to have a small rose garden here. One day, a landscaping firm came and cut it down. Too many front yards in the neighborhood were being neglected, so the city council decided to outsource the grounds maintenance. Gone were the roses, and in their place came the rows of rugged, vandal-proof hedges that were there when David and I bought the upstairs apartment.
Shortly after we moved in, Bob offered to share his front yard with us. There was nothing about it in our contract, but we enthusiastically accepted his offer and since then we have replaced the hedges, bit by bit, with plants of our choice. At first we had to protect them from the hedge clippers, but now the landscapers have caught on and skip us on their monthly rounds.
Bob asks where I’ve been today, and I mumble something about working on a report for work. Here among the withering garden plants, I can’t find the right words to describe what I’m looking for. Connection, overview, the attitude of an astronaut: it all sounds so remote from this patch of yard, from this square, from Bob in his cutoff jeans and white T-shirt.
As I walk inside, Latour’s remark is stuck on a loop in my mind. We’re here, not there. But aren’t we in both places? Here and there? Why choose? From within or from without?
The house is quiet. Evidence of this morning’s rush is everywhere: an upset drinking mug, stray socks, the crumb-strewn breakfast table. I flip open my laptop and turn on the TEDx Talk I had googled on my way home. I don’t much like TED Talks—all that pacing back and forth, the obligatory punch lines—but this is one speech I simply cannot skip: “The Therapeutic Value of the Overview Effect.”
On a small stage somewhere in London, the psychotherapist Annahita Nezami (dark medium-length hair, a nervous laugh) tells an audience how her quest for a comprehensive therapy led her beyond the atmosphere. She saw that the way we live together feeds our insecurity and greed, she says. Fear and negativity circulate throughout modern society in thousands of forms, causing depression and loneliness.
As a psychologist, Nezami explains, you can treat all those symptoms individually, but you can also ask why we’ve run up against this wall en masse. She pauses, looks into the auditorium. “Brokenness,” I mumble in our silent living room.
We face deep-seated alienation on all fronts, Nezami says. Lost connections with one another, with our jobs, with the place where we live. Psychologists shouldn’t only treat individual patients, she says, but should heal society as a whole, too. “A bit of a tall order,” she laughs.
Where do you start looking for a solution to global alienation? Maybe in its opposite: global connection. For her dissertation, Nezami scoured scientific theories about how people experience cohesiveness. While doing so, she stumbled upon Frank White’s study and the testimony of those thirty astronauts who, far outside the atmosphere, felt deeply connected to the entire web of life.
Ha, Frank White! This week I revisited his documentary about the overview effect. I hoped to catch something new, something I might have missed the first time, a handbook for those of us within the atmosphere wanting to feel what astronauts felt outside it.
I hadn’t missed anything. The film is a paean to the attitude of an astronaut, but offers no suggestions for earthlings.
Nezami does. To better understand the effect, she says, she conducted in-depth interviews with seven astronauts. These interviews more or less corroborated the conclusions White and the subsequent University of Pennsylvania researchers reached. The astronauts she spoke to experienced cohesion where they first saw division, and were overcome by a sensation of belonging—to humanity, the forests, the wind, the lightning, everything that makes Earth Earth. And most of them still feel it to this day.
These astronauts were also part of White’s study. So, not a huge test group. Scientifically speaking, the study of the overview effect is a winding path, not yet paved with heaps of hard facts—yet it still feels like the route I’ve been looking for.
Nezami, by the way, has her doubts about the effect: one look at Earth from space, she says, is not really enough to achieve a full overview effect. Her research reveals that the more the astronauts looked at their home planet, the more intense the experience. I think of this morning in Kerkrade, where I gave up after hardly fifteen minutes. Not exactly the attitude of an astronaut.I need something to pry me loose from my daily patterns, from my anxiety, so that I can see where I am.
And then, more nuance. As the end of Nezami’s talk nears, a video plays on the screen behind her, panning slowly over the surface of a darkened earth. The aurora shimmers along the horizon, then gives way to the gleam of city lights. I think of how we associate the experience of astronauts with the famous Blue Marble photograph of Earth as a fragile little ball hanging in the darkness, the only traces of humankind being damage and destruction.
But at night, the impression our planet offers from space is completely different. I see how human presence, all those countless twinkling lights, gives the nighttime view of earth a lively, vital appearance. People are not only destroyers of the ecosystem, but also illuminators of the night.
And then Nezami says just what I’ve been waiting to hear. Most of us will never leave the atmosphere, but “I really want to try to bring this experience down to all of us,” she says. I turn up the volume on my laptop so as not to miss a word as Nezami walks past the iconic TEDx letters and explains a virtual reality program she’s working on. A VR experience that allows you, in multiple sessions, to hover in space like an astronaut, with a view of Earth, both at daytime and at night. Earthgazing as therapy.
I look up Nezami’s email address while the London audience applauds and cheers. I want to don those VR goggles, gaze therapeutically at Earth. But when I speak to her a few days later, she tells me the project is still in its infancy. They need more research, a pilot, a test group; it will be months before the first phase of the project is ready to be implemented. Developing the goggle software turned out to be complicated. “We’re still experimenting with how we can implement language and music to bring the viewer into just the right astronaut-like state of being.”
Outside, Bob shouts to someone. I walk to the window, phone to my ear, and while Nezami continues speaking about how to turn the earthbound into astronauts, I see John, a neighbor from a few doors down, step into the front yard. His round belly hovers like a planet above his legs. Yellowish with a pink glow in the sunlight. On hot days like this he goes shirtless, like so many men in this neighborhood, men who spend their summer on chairs out front, their big bellies a solar system of planets around the square.
Bob looks up, sees me standing there, waves. I see myself through his eyes. A feverishly telephoning mother, her children at day care, still an interloper after seven years in the neighborhood, while he belongs here. Bob, who suffers from the gentrification I embody, whom I see every morning in the front yard but never in the café where I drink my latte or at the hip art-house movie theater that just opened up nearby. How would I explain this conversation to him?
A telephone consultation with a London psychotherapist who tells me how seeing Earth like an astronaut is an antidote for doomsday thoughts. Just as Nezami pauses, Bob walks back inside, and in a flash I imagine he picks up his phone on the kitchen table to take over the call to London. What would he have to say about this self-help project, about my attempt to reset my understanding of the world via the universe? What would his remedy against divisiveness be? He comes back outside carrying a shovel, and sets about moving a thirsty plant to a shady spot.
I ask Annahita Nezami whether she ever doubts her mission to use the attitude of an astronaut to cure society. She laughs. “Yes and no. I think today’s problems are so comprehensive that they’ll require a comprehensive therapy.”
I stifle a sigh. Against my better judgment, I had hoped for a ready-made key to the overview effect.
“It’s a mad undertaking,” Nezami continues. “But the way we live today is at least as crazy. We treat psychological ailments with pills and therapy targeted at the individual. But what if the problems are bigger than the individual? If those ailments are the logical consequence of our relationship to the world?”
John walks back home, Bob coils up the garden hose. A flock of ring-necked parakeets swarms above the square, drawing a bright green stripe across the houses. Nezami’s last words comfort me.
This quest of mine feels idiotic. But with David Foster Wallace’s fish in mind, maybe “idiotic” is just what I need. A path that leads me away from the route of reason, from what I know and understand, away from the routine, from the water we are swimming in. I need something to pry me loose from my daily patterns, from my anxiety, so that I can see where I am. Earth. Space.
I ask Nezami what advice she would offer someone who lives in a second-story apartment in the city and is looking to feel what astronauts feel. After a moment’s silence, she says, “A condition for the overview effect is awe. Looking at Earth from space is comparable to experiencing a breathtaking landscape in the mountains or the forest. But in a city? I don’t know. In a city, there’s not much that’s bigger than ourselves. The only thing I can think of is to look up. Light in the darkness, the starry sky.”
Excerpted from In Light-Years There’s No Hurry: Cosmic Perspectives on Everyday Life by Marjolijn Van Heemstra, translated by Jonathan Reeder. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.