Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id OAA04565 (8.6.9/5.3[ref email@example.com] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from firstname.lastname@example.org); Tue, 19 Jun 2001 14:58:42 +0100 Date: Tue, 19 Jun 2001 09:54:55 -0400 Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed; charset=iso-8859-1 From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org X-Mailer: Apple Mail (2.388) Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Subject: Fwd: Familiar images make false impressions Message-ID: <20010619135456.AAA25658@camailp.harvard.edu@net-31729> Sender: email@example.com Precedence: bulk Reply-To: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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