To Scale: The Solar System and Wylie Overstreet Interview
There are some people that I desperately want to be. These guys, (each and everyone of them, especially the unemployed one) are now officially at the top of my list. Yes, I want to be these guys. And one of them (Wylie) has agreed to do an interview with me about his amazing project, which was just a fantastic experience for me personally.
But wait, let me back up a second. Realizing that no one had ever really seen a true scale view of solar system – because even the best attempt at it is flawed horribly – Wylie and his crew set out for the desert in order to create the first true scale perspective of said system. He and his team literally incorporated 7 square miles of desert… let that soak in a second. They just went out and hogged up millions millions of square feet for themselves (selfish bastages!) – in order to show us what the scale of the solar system really actually looks like.
Sometimes we really need to step back and put a little perspective between us, and our chaos. Sometimes we really need to hike to the top of a mountain and see it all differently. And what would be better than to actually step back and experience the true scale of the solar system? Not a fake approximation of said scale, but a very real view of this scope. I would argue that to really understand the scope and the grandeur of the glory of all that is around us is to put everything into it’s correct perspective. Reminds me of our recent spin past Pluto, which – for some reason, has really had a very profound effect on me. To see the gorgeous de-planetized rock spinning around the sun billions of miles from the sun. Was just a really awe inspiring experience for me.
So here is the video that you may have already seen – seeing as though, since its release a week or so ago Wylie has blown up Social Media and your facebook feed with this thing. And there is really no question why it’s breaking the internet, and that is because it is the epitome of goose-bump material. It’s glorious from beginning to end. I mean, never mind my fan-crush, its awesome. Watch it. And then read Wylie’s fantastic answers to my silly questions.
Q&A with Wylie Overstreet
Taylor – “What brought you to this place in your life and your career?”
Wylie – “Depending on how far back you want to go, this could be a very long answer. I will just say that a few years ago I began to learn about our universe in a way I never had. Despite coming from a extremely privileged education–private schools, excellent college–I had always experienced science as dry, factual, stodgy, and confusing. Reading authors like Carl Sagan made me realize that science is anything but: it’s astonishing, beautiful, and deeply profound. As my understanding grew, so I began to perceive a new view of the world around me. I had been ignorant, and this experience–akin to stepping out of the trees and seeing the forest–was transformative. I felt compelled to devote myself to sharing the insights that brought me to this place.”
Taylor – “When did the realization strike you that all visualizations of the solar systems were so far off and that there might be an experiment in here? How did it come about?”
Wylie – “I had known the visualizations I’d encountered were wrong for a while; that was no mystery. One day I began to think about how amazing it would be to see our entire solar system from the outside, and how that might be accomplished with a scale model. I knew such a model would require a huge amount of space, and then I realized I knew of a location that might actually provide that. That was the epiphany.”
Taylor – “We see your video and it is amazing – but what was it like for you actually to stand on that desert floor and see it for yourself. What do we miss in watching the video that you perceived actually being there?”
Wylie – “In some ways the video does a better job capturing the scale than did the experience of being there (the timelapse, for instance). However the experience of standing next to our marble among that astonishing emptiness cannot be understated. Even more so, seeing the sun rise from the earth orbit was far more powerful in real life. The shot in the video is telephoto, so the field of view is very narrow. Not so in real life. The effect of the juxtaposition is amplified, and you “feel” the distance of the sun and the general scale of our cosmos to a much greater degree. It was a very emotional experience.”
Taylor – “I saw on your site that you are starting to develop this sort of a thing going forward, and your next one book is going to be called “Deep Time”? Can you tell us a little about what your hopes and goals are going forward and more specifically about Deep Time?”
Wylie – “To Scale: Deep Time is an attempt to comprehend the unfathomable aeons of geologic time that precede our arrival on this planet. There are many analogies that attempt this, but in my opinion they all have weaknesses. For instance, Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar relies on compressing the history of the universe into a year–but how do we experience a year? Sometimes days or weeks fly by (vacations!), sometimes they crawl. Moreover, we’re unconscious (asleep) for about a third of every year. So it’s not an ideal substrate upon which to build our understanding of time because we experience it in such an abstract manner. My goal with deep time is to portray an accurate model of geologic time visually, which has always been the best way humans comprehend things.”
Taylor – “I personally feel that the scale you play out here is very much like walking into a European cathedral. The spatial vastness is just amazing, and causes me personally to consider the creation story. I’m sure for others it causes them to ponder their place in the universe. For others I’m guessing it would be truly frightening… to ponder just how insignificant we are in the face of this enormity. Where are you in this scale of awareness? Have you seen this scale in the reactions of the public to the movie?”
Wylie – “This is a fantastic question. I have heard from many people from a variety of faiths–and from many of no faith at all. None so far have expressed fear. All of them have expressed wonder and gratitude (not for me, for the perspective). You asked where I lie along this “scale of awareness,” which I take to mean, what does this perspective of earth make me think? Well, grab a beer because this is a long one.
“I confess I am not a man of faith. I am an atheist. This word is very misunderstood so let me elaborate. An atheist is not someone who believes there is no god, it’s simply someone who holds no belief. In the same way asexual means “without sexuality,” atheism simply means “without belief.” I withhold believing in something–anything–until I have ample evidence in favor of it, evidence that withstands the harshest critical examination. For instance, when I was young I believed in Santa. The presents under the tree was evidence for his existence. He even left notes thanking me for the milk and cookies: proof in the written word. It thrilled me to think he existed and thought of me, even knew my name. Then I realized his handwriting looked an awful lot like my dad’s, and that he’d have to have some incredible form of transport to visit millions of houses in a single night. Also, no one had ever seen him. It didn’t add up. The evidence failed critical scrutiny. I realized, as all kids do, that Santa was a fiction. And like all kids, including yourself I imagine, I became an atheist in regards to Santa–I no longer held belief in him.
“So what’s the point of this preamble? Well, I see no evidence for any god–no matter the religion–that withstands scrutiny, so for me that distant view of our planet doesn’t affirm any particular set of religious beliefs. For me, that view tells a different story…
“Once upon a time on a tiny planet a single species evolved to intelligence and self-awareness, and for millennia this species tried to understand how it got here, where everything came from, and what it all means. For millennia it lacked the tools and knowledge to figure this out, so it made up stories–stories as numerous and varied and vibrant as the cultures and lands upon which this species lived and built their civilizations. Then a few hundred years ago this species figured out that instead of saying “this is how creation is!”, it decided it was better to ask creation to tell its own story. This was the invention of science. Science rejects arguments from authority and dogma, it rejects evidence that fails critical scrutiny, and it only follows where nature leads. So when I look at that tiny marble and I can’t help but think that we are not chosen, special, privileged, blessed, or favored by any divine force. We are unimaginably insignificant and alone, and for me, this is both incredibly humbling and incredibly liberating: we get to decide was is moral, right, and decent. We are the masters of our fate. We are the captains of our future. We have but one, precious life, and so it becomes all that more important in how we live it. And lastly, that sight of our distant planet fills me with an overwhelming sense of love and kinship for my fellow humans–the only humans in the universe–no matter who they are.
“I want you to know that I am not hoping to sway you from your faith. You seem like an absolutely stand-up guy who lives the principles of compassion, forgiveness, and love that Christianity so elegantly presents. All I want to do is give you my honest answer.”
Taylor – That is fantastic. Rarely have I had an opportunity to hear a lucid argument for atheism that was as well structured and well thought out as that. To be clear, not because atheists don’t have well structured thoughts about their beliefs, but because I just don’t rub shoulders with atheists, ever. So thanks a ton Wylie for taking the time to spell it out for me and for walking me through how you see the universe from your vantage. From my seat, I personally believe that there is a God, who created everything, and that he is telling of himself in the glory of the universe. And not only that, but mind blowingly enough, I believe that he is using you Wylie to tell us even more of himself! Hahaha. But I understand where you are coming from and that makes me respect your perspective all the more after hearing from you personally about it. Thanks a ton for taking time out and sharing your just mind-blowing video with us. I’ve been changed by it.
Come on, that’s about as legit as it gets right there. Two people couldn’t think more differently about life, the universe, and everything… and yet get along so well. To be frank, I wish I could be Wylie’s friend. To learn from him, and to continue seeing things from his perspective. I would say that we have extremely similar perspectives on the the glory and majesty of the universe, and yet think so very differently about it all. I respect Wylie in that he has considered the larger questions of it all and has come to his own conclusions. So many people blithely go about their days not really considering what the meaning of life really is. And if this video, from this amazing bloke, (and coincidentally, atheist), Wylie Overstreet, doesn’t do it for you… nothing will.
To watch these infinitesimally small balls circling this vast expanse of desert is a real eye opener as to the scale of this little place we call home. I am now a life long fan of Wylie’s work. Which reminds me, as he mentioned, he is working on a follow on book entitled To Scale: Deep Time and I can’t wait to pick it up after it’s published. I’m sure I’ll be yelling about it here once it’s done. Good luck to you Wylie.