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No. 602:
Blue Planet

Today, we see our planet in a new perspective. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'm just back from an IMAX showing of a movie called Blue Planet. It was a jolt. You and I both know we occupy a fragile island home in vast interstellar space. We think about it. Then we put it out of our minds. We go on to other things.

Now I know why we've been able to do that. It's because we always see the beauty of Earth piecemeal. We see the damage we do in fragments -- a glass of brown water here, a smoggy day there. But now I've seen Earth whole as I'd never seen it before.

My eyes traced the huge vista across a brilliant screen that enveloped me. Earth dazzled me with every shade of blue and white, just as it dazzled the astronauts who photographed it.

Down on the ground the camera gazes upward through Amazon trees at the beautiful tangle of rain forest. Up in the sky we gaze downward and see a huge piece of South America under a pall of smoke. Developers are burning that rain forest away at the rate of an acre a second.

We look down at shifting blues and greens. Mighty glaciers look like delicate white arteries carrying ice to the sea. We pass over Madagascar and are astonished to see its rivers running rust red. Malagasy farmers have cleared too much land. Trees once held the soil in place -- now no longer. Now rivers cut away the red earth. Then they strangle upon it.

Back on the ground, we squint our eyes to see the Los Angeles skyline through smog. It looks like a local problem. But from the sky we see dull brown smears reaching over huge areas of the Earth. Then the narrator says one thing that rings false. She says there's still time to return Earth to what it was.

There is not. Change is irreversible. The imprint of all our actions is permanent. We can halt the destruction. But thousands of species have already perished. We can find a new equilibrium. We cannot have the old equilibrium back. If we exterminate the blue whale, no repentence will bring him back.

But there is still time to make Earth a fit habitation. There is still time to give that glorious ball of blue and white a place ahead of profit or country or even of self.

So my Saturday morning entertainment hit me very hard. I saw Earth whole. There were no national boundaries or corporate logos in the view from space. I saw instead a single dwelling -- a mansion of incomparable beauty and majesty. I saw the only home we'll ever have, being put under terrible assault. I might shrug off those violations on the ground. But from this vantage point they were too terrifying to ignore -- ever again.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The IMAX movie, Blue Planet, is presented by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. It ran at the Wortham IMAX Theatre, Houston Museum of Natural Science: August 2, 1991 to January 31, 1992.


NASA photo of Madagascar mud being carried into the Indian Ocean

NASA photo of Madagascar mud being carried into the Indian Ocean