The fascination of the big picture

I found myself today spending quite some time looking at these interesting pictures published by NASA:

First-of-its-Kind Map Depicts Forest Heights

There are two main interesting things that I found on the maps:

  1. How few actual forest with trees we have around the world. It’s not that the world is bare as this picture makes it look like, it’s just that a lot of the green that exists out there is made of grasses and shrubs, and not that many trees. Look at central-to-southern Africa for example. It’s not that there is a lot of farming and deforestation there, it’s just that their native vegetation is not composed of trees.
  2. How interesting it is to try to find patterns in the graph and then try to explain those patterns. For example, the strange “J” that you see around Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. Those are the Carpathian Mountains, which seem quite covered with trees. I can admit that my memory of my geography classes in high school was not good enough to remember this and I had to do some researching around.

In any way, why is it that easy for me (and hopefully not only me) to be fascinated by those overview pictures of Earth? Does it actually matter?

I think that there are many reasons for it. First, it’s something that we just can’t see. We can climb mountains, but still only see a very small part of the whole. And we are immersed in this whole, so it’s good to get an idea of what it actually is. Second, it’s a demonstration of technology. How many millions of dollars and man-years of research were put into generating this picture? It took 7 years just to go all around the Earth making measurements using laser. Add to this the time to build the satellite and come up with the idea of what to put in the satellite (which much be a crazy task). That’s what long-term thinking is about!

I think it’s the third and last thing that makes me fascinates me about this: what can you do if you just let something run for a long time. That’s something that not many people have the ability to do anymore in this world of exponential growth of technology, information, and demands. We just have to keep adapting and running after the next “big thing”. Work on one single thing for 10-15 years is not possible at all (not that I’m saying that the people involved in this project were just doing this project for all this time, but I’m sure they were thinking about it, and analyzing the data for a good part of it).

Jealousy… I think that’s the word that I’m looking for.

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