Earth, by Jeffrey Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton (Object Lessons)

How did this review get so long and so late? Bloomsbury sent me an advance copy of this gorgeous planetary addition to their Object Lessons series some time ago. I read it instantly, but haven’t found time to organize my many thoughts about it until now. Maybe I’ve enjoyed writing about it too much?

The Earth on my table takes an impossible problem —  our planet’s inhuman scale — and responds to it with multidisciplinary conversation. The book’s words and images can’t quite banish scale’s disorienting shifts, but interweaving planet-sized ideas with human words and emotions opens doors.

Planet on my table

Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far of Earth discuss the novelty of the co-authorship between Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist who directs the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor who founded the Medieval and Early Modern Institute at George Washington University. In reading and thinking about their collaboration – I was lucky to be in the audience for their joint BABEL plenary lecture in 2012, the initial spark for this shared project – I’m struck not so much by the disparity of their fields as their shared curiosity and commitment to generative and generous thinking.

One of the things that fascinates me about this book is its flexible structure, which both highlights and performs its interest in dialogue and mutual questioning. The book combines multiple forms of exchange – email, instant messaging, recording a conversation while hiking in the Arizona desert – and demonstrates its commitment to being “faithful to the mode in which it was composed” (2). That fidelity is both a matter of practical convenience – it’s hard to imagine any other way for two busy academics to co-write a book when they live and work nearly 2,000 miles apart – and also an opportunity to think extemporaneously about how mediums change messages, and how the generosity of our interlocutors can complete thoughts we didn’t quite recognize that we were thinking.

I’ll splash through some moments in the book to explore how it embodies its communicative ambition and imagines possible futures.

1: Prologue: Genesis

We hope that this book invites you into the conversation, as partner and as future (3).

The opening pages envision the book-as-conversation. That mode not only describes the form of the chapters, which reconstitute eighteenth-century epistolary structure via email and IMs, but also its invitation. Readers read as though overhearing a conversation into which we are invited to join.

2: Orbit

Earth is a home, a limit, and a recurring challenge (5).

Probably my favorite of the many resonant lines in the book, this triple list miniaturizes the three directions in which the book’s conversations develop. Earth is home, in the sense that it comprises our physical environment and is the substance (“ground”) of so many of our metaphors. The planet is also limit, in that it places boundaries and shapes – spherical shapes – on our imagination. Let man’s soul be a sphere, intones John Donne. Let the sphere be the most profound form of the Western imagination, theorizes Peter Sloterdijk.

But Earth – the planet and the book — remains a recurring challenge because none of our representations do it justice. The planetary nature of this rock in space spurs a core human imaginative desire that this book finds in the works of classical geographers, poets, scientists, and even NATO’s upcoming voyage to Pysche, Venus’s metal moon, the primary investigator of which is Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Humans want to see the earth whole. We crave escape upwards into space and want to look back upon our global home. Earth‘s gorgeous cover, and the flip-book series of illustrations in chapter 4 (pp 37-57) tease with repeated versions of this global fantasy. So many earths: blue marble, T-O map, mappa mundi, Ptolmaic and Copernican models, from the sixth century BCE to 1972.

3: Ground (why Earth?)

To my surprise and pleasure, much of the first substantial chapter takes up a pet issue of mine, the physical and symbolic nature of water, the substance that makes our blue marble blue. Lindy Elkins-Tanton starts off this conversation by talking about a controversy in planetary science between an old theory that the our planet’s water arrived from comets sometime after the formation of the earth, and a newer model, to which she subscribes, in which water was contained in the rock that formed into a planet, and over time it was forced out onto the planet’s surface. In her understanding of the process, water is not alien and might in fact be somewhat common among planets of similar chemical composition to ours:

I’m now an evangelist for planets getting their water through their common formation process, and not by later chance, and so rocky planet throughout the whole universe have a chance at water oceans, and therefore life (19).

Jeffrey Cohen, with typical wit, suggests that rather than calling our planet Ocean (as people from Arthur C. Clarke to, well, me, have suggested) we might choose “the more humble Puddle” (24).

When I think about Earth-as-Ocean, I conjure the vastness of the planet’s surface (70% salt water) and the biosphere (something like 90% water, and the rest of it, like human bodies, pretty wet). What I love about the Puddle reformulation is how its shift in scale away from the biotic environment (the planet’s surfaces, wet and dry) and down into its rocky volume allows for a reinterpretation of what water means. Water is an alien and threatening environment for the premodern sailors and poets about whom I write. Water, to a physical geologist, is life:

Two planets on my table

We’re surviving and swimming in a puddle-thin layer of wetness painted over the surface of a dry, hot rock, and shielded from the tearing solar wind by very little indeed. (23)

The shift from one perspective to the next, from one scholarly voice to the next, founders or soars on the challenge of scale, which to me always seems the greatest challenge of cross-disciplinary thinking between the humanities and the sciences. What to do with a problem like scale? That, of course, is the question of Earth‘s next chapter.

4: Scale (barriers to understanding)

Where to start. What is a billion, really? (36).

I’m a humanist by training and practice, though I dabbled in math and chemistry in my undergraduate years. It’s hard for humanists to think with numbers rather than stories, and on some level I always want stories to contain and contextualize the numbers. But the truth about scale is that it’s bigger than human story-capacities. The shocking vastness and precision of geological time – so many years, and each of them as endless and indefinite as each now, now, very now! – unsettles us. From the “discovery” of deep time in eighteenth-century geology to the computations of paleoclimatologists today, humans founder on large temporal scales.

So: what to do with scale? Earth‘s answer: have a conversation about it!

Scale seems to me the hardest problem this book tackles, and the one that seems least obviously susceptible to the imagine-and-converse method that the two authors brilliantly employ. Like earth, perhaps, scale is a limit and a challenge, though it feels the opposite of a home. (Or maybe that’s wrong too; maybe shifting scales are a home, the only home we have, no matter how occasionally inhospitable?) The sudden expansion or contraction of scale dislocates and disorients, as we see – which we can only just bear seeing – the puny size of the human in the cosmos.

But along with scale’s terror comes a literary pleasure that writers both classical and Romantic term sublime – and that Jeffrey Cohen discusses in a lovely phrase: “the cognitive gravity of beautiful things” (59).

5: Radiance (Earth’s beauty)

Beauty makes her appearance via Instant Messages across an office at the School of Earth and Space Exploration  room in Arizona. The shift in media re-marks the conversational intimacy, and interestingly the dialogue soon turns to risk, including the risks of cross-disciplinary conversation, and to the sublime.

And maybe the sublime is a risk in another way: that if it opens us to human insignificance in the cosmos (that question of scale again!) then we forget that feeling overwhelmed is a recurrent and maybe even transhistorical emotion (69).

The play between human and planetary, self and Earth, creates something like beauty, but this earthly beauty is always under construction and destruction, sometimes morphing into the sublime’s terror at human tiny-ness, other times solidifying into claims about beauty in scientific research. Beauty for scientists is, Lindy Elkins-Tanton explains, “the reason we all do what we do…because lava is beautiful and the notion of interrogating the untouchable heart of the planet through incandescent molten eruptions appeals to our unconscious understandings of human relations and our place in them” (72).

From Lyell’s Principles of Geology to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, humans want to soar above earth and look down and back into its past. Beauty comes from wanting to escape what we can’t escape, unless we are, like Scott Parazynski who blurbed this book, astronauts.

I kept thinking about this dream and its backward glance throughout the remaining chapters of Earth.

6: Gravity (Earth’s pull)

After the instant messages comes a conversation in Tempe.

I’m wondering today about Earth’s gravity. Is gravity merely a physical force or is it also a pull that we can think about as an

emotional draw as well? (82)

What if scientific phenomena such as gravity all have emotional affective forces that latch onto us as we encounter them? Surely this must be true — all physical forces also make stories and churn emotions. Gravity, scale, and the earth itself foster imaginations as well as physical forces.

7: Interlude: A hike around Piestewa Peak

Next comes a conversation recorded on an iphone that starts with descriptions of a flash flood in the desert and ends with James Tanton’s voice:

Welcome to mathematics! (102)

I think a lot about mathematics when I’m reading poetry, not because I’m especially skilled at prosodic numerology but because my introduction to the serious study of literature came as a by-product of my falling out of the world of intensive math, which was my first choice of college major. Somewhere in the abstraction of a course named “Real Analysis” I discovered that I cared more about Paradise Lost than number theory. By coincidence, the same year in the late ’80s when I defected from math to English was also the year James Tanton arrived from Australia to do his PhD in math at my alma mater. Near misses everywhere —

8: Imagination

Returning to DC, Jeffrey’s next to last missive to Lindy cherishes having been “a member of your household for a while” (105). That’s the way I think about this book — an invitation to house-holding, to shared conversations about unaswerable questions, and to imagining homes capacious enough to contain scientific data, mathematical elegance, poetic vision, and the messiness of historical contingency.

The final collective imperative of the book arrived via email on Christmas Day, and then morphed into a Facebook update, a blog post, and two versions of the closing chapter. The repeated closing mantra perfectly captures the achievement and promise of the book: “Let’s start” (117, 121).

* * *

Thinking about it all together, Earth responds to dreams of communication by casting word-ladders across the abyss. They may not reach all the way. Remembering that scales are always ascending or descending, it’s hard to imagine any ladder that could reach across the gaps, though a word-ladder is perhaps more flexible than any other kind.

I’m also reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story told by (or about?) Richard Feynman, in which a student asked the great physicist if he could explain turbulence in plain language, without complex mathematical models. Feynman asked for a night to think about it. The next day he regretfully told the student that he could not explain turbulence in plain language – and he added that he believed that meant he did not fully understand the process. He’d need to keep working on it. “Let’s start,” he almost said.

Will Lindy and Jeffrey’s Earth help us solve the problem that is global thinking in the Anthropocene? It’s not clear what “solve” would mean in this context, though I suspect the answer must be, “yes, a little bit.”

It’s clear enough what each of these brilliant thinkers will continue to do in their own separate disiciplines. Lindy Elkins-Tanton will be the Principal Investigator in a NASA mission to Psyche, a Venetian moon made almost entirely of metal. (The project’s long application process punctuates the book, and its success in the hyper-competitive world of interstellar research funding was announced just as Earth appeared in print.) Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s writing will continue to argue for a deeply historicized Anthropocene which writes on our bodies, histories, and cultures in languages of flood, stone, earth, air, water, and fire.

Thr Earth these two have made together touches tangentially on each of these larger projects. Two copies — the one Bloomsbury sent me, and the one I had pre-ordered some months earlier — sit on my desk now. They invite me to imagine scale as possibility rather than obstacle. Their pages testify to a hope that sees the violent disruptions of our history and our present, but in the face of that devastation chooses to toss word-ladders across chasms.

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