Fwd: Familiar images make false impressions

From: wade_smith@harvard.edu
Date: Tue Jun 19 2001 - 14:54:55 BST

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    This is a short article concerning the conference that occured on
    Thursday and Friday last week. I went to the discussion with Sontag and
    Wilson and Penrose. Sontag's major point was more about the laxity of
    meaning in an image- her main work, Against Interpretation, is still her
    philosophical stance.

    - Wade

    ***************

    Familiar images make false impressions

    By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 6/19/2001

    Certain images are so familiar that they are deeply embedded in the
    collective consciousness of human beings. They have become cultural
    icons.

    Unfortunately, many of these images - and the understanding they
    convey - are seriously misleading, creating false impressions of the
    world that are remarkably difficult to correct.

    For instance, everyone knows what ''cave men'' looked like - stooped,
    hairy, club-wielding, gorilla-like, fierce. The familiar image is
    largely based on a single drawing done in the early 1900s, based on the
    first Neanderthal skeleton to be discovered.

    And almost everything about that image is false.

    The stooped posture? Well, it may have been true of that one, original
    skeleton, which turns out to have been from a 30-year-old man with a
    severe case of arthritis in his shoulders and back. He probably did
    indeed walk hunched over, but he's as representative of Neanderthals as
    one seriously disabled individual is of all modern humanity.

    Hairy? Nobody knows, since all we have to go on are ancient, fossilized
    bones. Club-wielding? Pure guesswork. Fierce and gorilla-like? No more
    so than a lot of people today.

    ''The popular image of the club-wielding, clumsy cave man - subject of a
    million cartoons from the Flintstones to Gary Larsen - comes directly
    from a single act of scientific misinterpretation,'' said Evan
    Hadingham, a producer for the award-winning PBS science series, Nova.
    ''It persists today in popular culture, even though the science has long
    since been exposed as faulty.''

    It's a typical case of how a single image - widely copied and
    embellished - can shape impressions that become nearly universal. And
    when such images convey ''information'' supposedly based on science,
    they can enhance human understanding perhaps more profoundly than words
    could ever do - for good or ill.

    This power of images to shape our views of things was the subject of a
    conference, called ''Image and Meaning,'' last week at the Massachusetts
    Institute of Technology. And several speakers there, including
    Hadingham, focused on the amazing power of visual depictions to either
    clarify or distort our understanding of scientific concepts.

    What does an atom look like? To a modern physicist, this is a virtually
    meaningless question, because the atom itself is smaller than the
    wavelengths of light that are responsible for our visual sense of
    things. It can never be ''seen,'' so, in a fundamental sense, it doesn't
    look like anything.

    Still, visual diagrams can help our understanding, and diagrams of the
    appearance of atoms are widely used to teach science - and even by
    scientists themseselves to help them work out complex chemical problems.
    But the images they use would not be recognizable as ''atoms'' to the
    general public.

    The familiar view of the atom has been scientifically out of date since
    1925: The picture of a nucleus with electrons whizzing around in orbit,
    like planets circling the sun. ''It's so ubiquitous, and so wrong,''
    said MIT chemist Thomas Greytak. And yet the image was used in the logo
    of the Atomic Energy Commission, was recently adopted for a Girl sCout
    merit badge, and is woven into the carpeting at the new University Park
    Hotel at MIT.

    ''Is the `planetary' atom real?'' asked physicist Roald Hoffman, one of
    the speakers at the MIT conference. ''Oh, it was real in the minds of
    physicists ... for all of 12 years, from 1913 to 1925.'' But then, this
    image based on Niels Bohr's theories was quickly replaced by Edwin
    Schroedinger's theory of an atom whose electrons could never be located
    precisely in space, but existed only as a complex ''wave function''
    describing their probability of being in a given location. Orbits were
    replaced by cloud-like probability regions called orbitals.

    Did that catch on? Never, Hoffman explained: ''Too late. In the popular
    imagination, it's Bohr's orbits, and don't tell me about wave functions
    and probabilities. ... It doesn't matter. An orbit it will be, in the
    public imagination, forever.''

    But that persistence of the knowledge that can be imparted by images can
    also work to enhance understanding, if the images themselves are real
    and not misleading. For example, among the most powerful and emblematic
    images of the 20th century were those taken of the Earth by the Apollo
    astronauts during their trips to the moon. Amazingly, although it has
    become one of the best-known images of the space age, there was only a
    single picture ever taken - on the very last Apollo mission, in December
    1972 - of the whole Earth, hanging against the blackness of space.

    Harrison Schmitt, one of the Apollo 17 astronauts, took the picture on
    the way to the moon, and, because of the way the lunar orbits were
    planned, it was the only time that astronauts were ever far emough away
    from Earth to capture the whole planet easily in one frame, and in the
    right position relative to the sun to see a fully-illuminated Earth.

    The space shuttle can't fly nearly high enough to get such a view again,
    and even weather satellites in high, geosynchronous orbits can't quite
    capture the full hemisphere - and their electronic cameras, designed to
    ''see'' specific wavelengths including the infrared, do not match the
    view that the human eye would see. No spacecraft planned for at least
    the next decade will be capable of producing such a view, so for the
    foreseeable future, that single image, with Africa prominently featured
    in the foreground, will remain as Earth's only full-face portrait.

    And it wasn't even planned.

    Schmitt, who took the picture during the outbound flight from about
    34,000 miles away, said in an interview that ''that was the first
    picture I took'' of a series of views of the Earth as the spacecraft got
    farther and farther away, but the lighting was changing so that the
    illuminated portion of the planet got smaller with each picture. Those
    pictures were his own idea, he said: A lifelong interest in meteorology
    led him to want to take pictures of the changing cloud patterns.

    Since then, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have
    told Schmitt that his impromptu photo has become the most-requested
    picture in all of NASA's vast archive of images from four decades of
    space exploration. Nobody, including Schmitt, had ever imagined that his
    snapshot would become such an important icon.

    That single image, along with shots of Earthrise as seen from the moon
    by the Apollo 8 crew, have profoundly affected the human psyche and
    visions of humanity's relationship to the cosmos. The Apollo missions,
    Schmitt said, represented ''the first time humans were in a position to
    photograph the whole Earth.'' That simple fact, and the resulting
    images, ''started to shape humans' understanding'' of their place in
    space.

    Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard University biologist and author, said that
    the famous images of the Earth in space have helped to change humanity's
    understanding of the planet. ''We see it as distant and fragile'' in
    these pictures, he said at the MIT conference last Friday. ''Of course,
    the planet is not fragile, but the biosphere is fragile.'' Although the
    planet harbors perhaps 10 million species of life, he said, that
    cumulative mass of living things, as viewed from space along the
    planet's edge, ''is razor thin; it can't be seen.''

    And yet that invisible biomass includes human beings with their newfound
    power to make profound changes to the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and
    climate. ''We have become a geological force,'' Wilson said.

    While humans have the power to wreak dramatic changes on this planet,
    Wilson - whose own specialty in biology has been the study of ants -
    noted that we should remain humble about our importance. The Earth
    harbors, at any given moment, about 6 billion humans and about 1,000
    trillion ants - but those numbers add up to approximately equal tonnage
    of ants and people.

    If all humans were to vanish overnight, he added, the biosphere would
    quickly come back into balance. But if the ants were to disappear, much
    of the biosphere would immediately collapse. And it is a sense of that
    kind of fragility that the image of the Earth in space helps to convey.

    These images of the Earth have become so familiar, said author Susan
    Sontag at the MIT conference, that they are ''the visual equivalent of
    sound bites,'' and in an era dominated by images of celebrities, they
    fall into a similar category, having become ''celebrity images.''
    Another speaker suggested they could be thought of as ''sight bites.''

    ''We remember through images,'' Sontag said, ''but we understand through
    words.''

    But because of the amazing power of images to shape the way people
    remember and think about important concepts, MIT's Greytak said last
    week, ''We have to be careful in what images we expect are going to
    become icons, and make sure that we get them right.''

    David Chandler can be reached by e-mail at chandler@globe.com.

    This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2001.
    Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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