Saturday, 4 August 2012

Leaving Earth - Not leaving Earth

In the 20th Century the ambition to control nature and even to leave the confines of Earth were initially inspired by science but subsequently challenged by uncertainty over the unintended consequences of technology. 

The cover of  'Marvels of Modern Science'  - "very fully illustrated" by F.J. Camm.

Leaving Earth - Not Leaving Earth

By demonstrating that the laws of nature are the same everywhere, Isaac Newton enabled the idea of travelling beyond the Earth. His Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published in 1687 by Edmond Halley who later discovered the true nature of the comet named after him. The highly elliptical orbits of comets had already disproved the existence of crystal spheres arranged concentrically around the Earth. The ancient Greeks believed that an unchanging Earth was ruled by the ‘Music of the Spheres’ but the scientific age revealed that physical laws determined the characteristics of matter. Throughout the twentieth century definitions of nature became more varied and reveal much about those who use them. Way-points in the evolution of our feelings about nature have been reflected in literature. During the last century the possibilities of controlling nature or leaving Earth were reflected in books that straddle the divide between the pursuit of fact and act of imagination. 

Mars and its Canals by Percival Lowell - 1906

An intriguing chain of mistakes lead to the writing of this book. Due to an optical illusion Giovanni Schiaparelli perceived lines on the surface of Mars in 1877. His use of Italian word ‘caneli’ was translated into English as ‘canals’ instead of the more neutral word ‘channel’. Assuming that Mars was at a more advanced stage of desertification than Earth, Lowell exhaustively explored the possibilities of the lines and concluded that intelligent beings had constructed a vast irrigation system to bring water from the poles to the arid equatorial zones. Both the recently completed Panama and the Suez canals provided an example of the power of technology to transform nature.  

Lowell describes the astronomy of Mars as a form of travel in which the observatory is a point of departure. 'Mars and its Canals' is an exercise in travelling through the imagination. Probably without Lowell's knowledge Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already outlines the principles of rocketry in his 1903 book 'The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactive Devices'. Sixty years later the work of Tsiolkovsky was used to send spacecraft from the Earth to the Moon, Venus and Mars.

After his death in 1916 Lowell's theory of Martian canals gradually fell into disrepute but his book had such a strong influence that astronomers who may have seen craters and ‘cracks’ on Mars were reluctant to publish their observations. There is an interested circularity with this book and the shorter 1895 book Mars. In-between these supposedly factual books H.G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1898, the first chapter of which seems to be influenced by Lowell’s vivid descriptions of the feeling of  being  in the quiet mountaintop observatory at Flagstaff. This mise-en-scène was then amplified by Lowell in a similarly lyrical first chapter of his 1906 book. The non-existence of the canals was finally established by pictures from Mariner 4 in 1965.

Wessex from the Air by O.G.S. Crawford and Alexander Keiller. - 1928

Whereas Percival Lowell wanted to get as close as possible to the object of his fascination, Alexander Keiller and Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford used aeroplanes and photography to rise above the landscape and make sense of its archaeological remains from a high viewpoint. As the inscription at the Oracle in Delphi read “Know thyself”, so this book seeks to convince us that seeing the historic landscape from above will invest our lives with meaning. By revealing our ancestors’ patterns of land use and habitation this book brought aerial archaeology to wider attention. 

Both men were pilots with a background in military flying in the 1st World War, when aerial reconnaissance was widely used by both sides. Since 1920 Crawford had worked as the first Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey cartography department in Britain. He also founded the academic journal 'Antiquity' in 1927. Alexander Keiller was able to use his wealth from the family marmalade business to pursue his interests in archaeology and flying. 

Crawford and Keiller realised the potential of aerial archaeology by photographing in the early morning when long shadows would reveal the presence of ancient features normally hidden from observers on the ground. The two friends collaborated on the production of the photographs and Keiller paid for the publication of the book. The combination of large format photographs with explanatory line drawings have a clarity that is difficult to equal. 'Wessex from the Air' established aerial archaeology as a valued discipline.

Aircraft by Le Corbusier - 1935
"L'avion accuse..."

The book is written with an enthusiastic tone, as spoken in the breathless voice of someone who has just returned from a first flight in an aeroplane with an open cockpit. Le Corbusier argues that citizens will only be freed from urban squalor through a new vision based on a new perspective achieved through flying. Published in the same year as La Ville Radieuse the book expresses the need for “...a new feeling for plastic beauty in a world full of strength and confidence.” The passionately argued introduction gives way to photographs arranged like the storyboard for a film. 

Commencing with an impressive oblique infra-red photograph of Eastbourne and Beachy Head, the photographs progress from sleek monoplanes flying over banks of clouds to robust looking multi-engined seaplanes, a surreal aircraft carrier, increasingly close-up views of sculpted aeroplane bodies and parts, uncanny images of laboratory fluid-flow experiments, intriguing pictures of glider enthusiasts and their bird-like contraptions, models of fanciful historic designs for flying machines and finally aerial photographs of cities.

Keiller and Crawford used flying as a means to an end but Le Corbusier seems to suggest that the architecture of the future will be influenced by aero-engineering. His images of futuristic town planning look like a cross between the organelles of a living cell and the geometric patterns of a modern printed circuit board. In Corbusier's view the historic city is “corrupt” but the architecture of the future will follow the laws of nature, like the shapes of aeroplanes. Aircraft is part of an international modernist movement. 

I am reminded that the Empire State Building, which was originally equipped with an airship mooring-mast, has in its lobby plaques that celebrate the machine age. The tributes to masonry, heating and electricity would not look out of place in a similar Soviet public building. Picture 80 of Aircraft shows flyers reclining next to gliders with translucent wings. One has a Nazi swastika on its tail. In this seemingly innocent age the dream of soaring above the Earth is unsullied by the Second World War.

The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke. - 1951

Floating free from gravity
In his strictly no-nonsense style Arthur C. Clarke lays down the law about the future of mankind, with the emphasis on the ‘man’ and the masculine conquest of nature. The book expresses a technocratic vision of the future and introduces us to the principles of rocket flight and then sets out a vision in which the laws of nature are to be fully exploited so as to fulfil a destiny well beyond Earth. Reading Clarke’s words I can imagine his voice as it sounds in recorded interviews, slow, deliberate, persuasive The book makes believable the process of travelling and living in the artificial environment of a spaceship. 

Detailed descriptions of how every problem can be overcome are backed up by illustrations similar in style to that of Chesley Bonestell. The year before, National Geographic introduced the public to photographs of the Earth from an 80 mile altitude, taken from a captured V2 rocket. Uninhibited by the restrictions of journalism, A.C. Clarke uses this book to convey an unambiguous message; we can surpass nature and leave Earth behind. His analogy is with leaving the cradle.

The Silent World by J.Y. Cousteau with Frédéric Dumas - 1953

“To halt and hang attached to nothing, no lines or air pipe to the surface was a dream. At night I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now I flew without wings. (Since the first aqualung flight, I have never had a dream of flying.)”  The first chapter The Silent World has a vivid recollection of the first aqualung dive and how the device came to be built. Cousteau then gives us a brief flashback to the revelatory experience in 1936 when he used a face mask for the first time to see underwater. 

Essentially an autobiography, the book charts his journey from navy gunner to world famous underwater explorer. As a precursor to the 1956 film of the same name, Jacques Cousteau published this story of undersea exploration made possible by the aqualung that he and Émile Gagnan invented in France during the Second World War. 

The invention gave Cousteau the freedom to rove underwater, as well as an income for life. Unlike The Exploration of Space Cousteau and his friends were escaping into a hitherto mysterious realm that would eventually take him into oceanography and conservation. His wife hovers, at times literally, in a supportive role in the background as Cousteau pushes his body to the limits of underwater endurance. As if battling nitrogen narcosis and ‘the bends’ was not enough there are experiments with deliberate exposure to underwater explosions. 

The early years are to do with shooting, either impaling fish with harpoons or increasingly photographing them with stills and film cameras. Many of the colour underwater pictures are credited to the National Geographic magazine. Danger always seems to be present, either in mine removal, diving on wrecks, cave diving or contending with sharks. We leave Cousteau’s life story as his work with film making, and Auguste Piccard’s Bathyscaphe leaves him on the brink of fame.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson   
London: Penguin in association with Hamish Hamilton - 1962

Initially serialised in the New Yorker, this book used science to criticise technology. Carson invented the green movement as we know it today and punctured the bubble of techno-utopianism that had expanded throughout the 20th Century. Since the industrial revolution commentators had worried about the local effect of industrial pollution on the health of city dwellers and the more aesthetic despoilment of the countryside. The threat from the unregulated use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethene (DDT) described in this book re-imagined pollution as a potentially global and insidiously invisible threat.

Rachel Carson was a visionary whose genius was to make a scientific discovery into vivid and easy to understand story. After the Second World War surplus aircraft were used to wage chemical warfare on insect pests but caused unintended damage to other insects and birds. The implications of her argument went beyond the lucid description of the destruction caused by DDT. Whereas the threat from atomic weapons could be characterised as an aberrant use of technology brought about by man’s warmongering, this book showed that our desire to do good through technology could have equally disastrous consequences. 

The controversy stirred up by Silent Spring is similar to the spirited defence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection by T.H. Huxley in Oxford in 1860. Silent Spring emphasised that we cannot simply override biological nature. The preface to the book is by Julian Huxley, the grandson of T.H Huxley, who also taught H.G. Wells when he was studying to be a science teacher.

A House for the Future - T.P. McLaughlin - Independent Television Books - 1976

By the 1970's the fear of pollution and the realisation that fossil energy was being used millions of times faster than it was being formed changed our view of the possibility of escaping from nature. Even as Concorde was about to go into service mass culture media were beginning to address the issue of sustainability. Granada Television ran a TV series in which a family were helped to convert a semi- derelict building into what would now be called an eco-house. 

The Book that accompanied the TV series was as much a self-help book as a record of the television series. There is a similarity with the Whole Earth Catalog published between 1968 and 1972. In an age before video recorders and the internet this book provided a lasting resource for the reader. Many of the features of the design that are illustrated very accurately in the book can be seen today in the Hockerton Housing project in Nottinghamshire. 

In contrast to the early 20th century vision of soaring above and away, house for the future shows a dwelling that is routed in the Earth, drawing energy from the ground and the sky.

Illustration from A House for the Future

Towards the end of his 1979 book 'Disturbing the Universe' (ISBN 0-6-011108-9) Freeman Dyson speculated that humans will never thrive in space. Intelligent life might only leave this planet in a form that has been genetically modified to survive the conditions of space. The bio-ethics of this idea are problematic, but the idea was intended as a useful polemic which concentrates attention on the inseparability of human health and the conditions in which it has evolved.

 House for the Future - television series.

 Hockerton Housing Project

Chesley Bonestell 

Reach for the Sky