Chalkeyes presents: Eight miles high

No matter how many times it happens, I am always wildly impressed to be shown an image of my eyeball.

In part, that’s because I’m impressed by any kind of technology more finely tuned and sophisticated than something you hook to the back of a tractor. I will always be the farm boy accustomed to making things work with a sledgehammer, a piece of 4 x 2 and a length of number eight wire. To me, equipment that can point a lens at my eye and produce an image of such amazing clarity is a marvel.

The further marvel is to see how an eyeball is composed. So much like a planet, so much like Mars. I daresay many patients will observe this, and it will be necessary to politely listen as they make the comparison because both these objects are spherical and appear to be uninhabited. If this is something you have to endure, thank you for your good-natured forbearance.

I can’t recall when I first saw a photo of our own planet, but that too always amazes me; this thing that was entirely unseeable for most of human existence. What a thing of beauty: the wispy clouds, the deep blue oceans, the blobs of tan which we know to be vast continents. And more than anything the delicate fragility of it: the beautiful entity that is our home, set in the dark of a universe whose scale surpasses imagination.

That image, with the sun casting its light over our fragile planet had a remarkable effect. In giving humanity a broader view in a vastly broader setting, it gave us a fresh sense of its - and our - delicate vulnerability. Over the course of the Apollo missions there were more photos, all of them breathtaking and memorable, but perhaps none more so than the one that came to be known as the Blue Marble.

It was taken during the Apollo 17 mission, snapped swiftly in a snatched spare moment because every last minute from takeoff to splashdown had been programmed and accounted for, which is also something I can’t say I’d imagined. I’d imagined a lot of sitting inert in a very confined space for a long journey into the dark, but no, they used every minute to ensure the success of their work.

The Blue Marble really is a breathtaking photo and no human since has been far enough away from earth enough to take another like it. It takes in the entirety of our planet, a sphere wreathed in cloud, a marble, with seas of blue.

There’s an added treat, for those of us who happen to live in the southern hemisphere, accustomed to seeing our part of the planet always placed, according to map convention, at the bottom. In this photo, snatched in a moment by a weightless Major Tom floating in his tin can, Antarctica is on top!

I like the notion that it conveys a sort of fragility because I look at the image of the eyeball and see the fragility to it too - this amazing thing that can do such a great thing for us and yet it wouldn’t take much at all to ruin it.

The largest sense I take from this though, is the consideration that taking that image changed us; changed the way we see our planet, rounded and filled out our understanding. This is an enduring proposition: anyone who helps us to see more, to see better, to see more clearly, to see from a fresh perspective, is doing something enormously valuable.

This year brought a compelling TV drama about the Chernobyl disaster, for instance, and with it a much fuller understanding for many of us of what happened, and why. In the simplest terms, we’re told the disaster happened because the tips of the control rods in the nuclear reactor were made of graphite which sped up the reaction when the control rod was supposed to slow it down. Why was the reactor designed this way? For the same reason that other safety precautions had been ignored - it was cheaper! Who was at fault? More than any individual, the fault lay with the soviet state, an impenetrable maze of propaganda and censorship that made it hugely difficult to distinguish between what was real and what was fabrication or obfuscation. In a system is which the state is forever restating and revising history it becomes quite impossible to know what is real, what is knowledge and what is fiction, and what is going on. In effect, the Soviet system created Chernobyl and made the explosion inevitable.

The more we see, the more we know, the better we do. The capacity to see means so very much. The absence can be catastrophic.

David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.

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