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How We Live Now: Marjolijn van Heemstra on the overview effect
Outer space, awe and making friends with the night
I’m not sure why, but I always see space as a concern of childhood. Perhaps that’s the point in our lives when we’re still remembering what a strange thing it is to be floating in a void, when we’re still awed by the planets and stars. Space is visible to us when we’re young. As we grow older, it fades out of view.
My husband has always wanted to travel into space. He still hopes that, in his lifetime, it’ll be possible to take a holiday on the moon, or at least to leave the atmosphere for an hour or two strapped safely into a space shuttle. This makes no sense to me whatsoever. Space, to my mind, is bleak, lifeless and unaccommodating, not to mention inherently dangerous. I’m more than happy to wonder at it, but I need to do that with my feet planted firmly on planet Earth. That way, I can filter the engulfing facts of space through a human culture that helps me to interpret it. Space alone is simply terrifying.
This week’s podcast guest Marjolijn van Heemstra believes that we can change the world by gazing into the night sky. Her book, In Light Years There’s No Hurry, explores the “‘overview effect”’, a personal transformation reported by astronauts who have seen the Earth from space. People who’ve experienced this rare view often report an ethical shift taking place, a new sense of mission in their lives. They come to see themselves as guardians of their planet, rather than its passive citizens.
Clearly not all of us can - or want to - leave the atmosphere to gaze over the Earth from space. But in this thought-provoking conversation, Marjolijn makes a case for us learning to draw on the overview effect from where we stand, suggesting that this could lead us to become better stewards of our environment, and form closer bonds with the communities around us.
Marjolijn is a Dutch theatre-maker, journalist and poet who has recently been named Amsterdam’s Poet Laureate. Her most recent work has focused on reacquainting ourselves with darkness, and this includes her creative project The Night Watch, and the Amsterdam Dark Festival, of which she is the founder.
I couldn’t resist asking Marjolijn whether she’d ever go into space herself; you can hear her answer in the episode. I’d love to hear your answer to that question too - tell me in the comments below. It’s a “no” from me. I prefer to take my awe with a side-order of gravity.
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From the transcript
One of the things that really struck me as I was reading through In Light-Years There's No Hurry was the poetry of how we've named space. I felt like that was a real glimpse of our desires around it and our imagination that we put onto it, particularly the moon and all the places. I mean, the Sea of Tranquility is a really familiar one, which is just such a beautiful thing to name this, I don't know, fairly desolate spot floating in space. Was that something that inspired your poet’s mind?
Marjolijn van Heemstra:
I've always been so inspired by all those space names, but also by all this research. I would go to the European Space Agency for readings that were actually meant for all the people working there. And I would not understand anything, but then they would talk about fingerprints of light, for example. And then just these words together, my mind would really start flowing just listening to the combination of words they used.
And it was funny because I was there as a poet and as someone just listening to the words they put together. And then these people were actually understanding what the story was about.
But I also thought while being there, that it's such a shame that the way people talk about the universe is either in a very physicist way, or technical way, or really explaining the natural phenomenon of it. Or it is in a spiritual way or maybe a poetic way. And these two vocabularies, these two ways of talking, they never really meet. And I think that's really a big loss. Because it took me years to find the courage to write about space being a poet, because I thought, "What do I know of gravity?"
Everyone could jump in and correct you.
Marjolijn van Heemstra:
I cannot explain gravity, I cannot explain a black hole. But I think I can understand it on a different level. And that was what attracted me so much to it. And then I really wrote the book that I wanted to read through a poet's eyes on space. And I found what really was so interesting that many of the scientists who studied space, the ones that interest me most are people who are also either religious or poets. So you have some astronomers who are poets at the same time.
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