Often, we have to go away from home to understand home in new and interesting ways. This is a common experience among many who have migrated from their homes to distant lands, especially if those lands are altogether a different country. We look back at home and observe myriad things that we had not before observed or understood. Often, what we thought we had understood gets revised. We are the richer for this kind of learning. I know this was true for me when I moved to the USA and lived there for many years. Even a brief half-year stay in Honduras was powerful in its impact – I still use those learnings in my life today.
I’ll explore these matters some other time. The point here is that stepping back – or above – by a few hundred or thousand kilometers with a different kind of lens and looking at home, Earth, yields a lot of understanding.
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a federally funded agency in the USA) has been a pioneer in studying Earth and helping us understand many of its dynamics. Their space explorations – often the object of skeptical questioning such as “There are so many problems here on Earth, why do we waste money going to space?” – have revealed so much about Earth and its dynamics that we are better informed about our home planet.
Are we any the wiser for all this knowledge? It doesn’t appear so.
NASA does something else that is very significant – they share data and information with the public! Apart from anything else, it is also an important strategy to keep the public on its side, supporting federal funding for the agency. The US Congress (the equivalent of our parliament) determines how much funding NASA gets. So, public opinion is quite important for NASA.
However, the education component of NASA is greatly admirable. A quick visit to NASA’s website shows this. (All links open in a new tab/page.) I particularly draw your attention to the links: “For educators”, “For students”, “For public”, and links to their “podcasts and vodcasts.” These inform. What’s more, the “For students” link is a vital component of their effort because the future of NASA’s work depends on youngsters such as yourself becoming interested in their work and wanting to participate in it in some capacity. The Space Shuttle missions of NASA often carried student-designed science experiments on board.
(“But, but, but, … ISRO?” I hear you say. I will write about ISRO separately later.)
NASA has sent many satellites into space and amassed an enormous amount of data. Thanks to supercomputing abilities, they have also been able to process these data to build global pictures of Earth’s planetary processes.
You will have learned about global ocean currents. In a textbook, these seem difficult to understand. It is a shame that most school geography textbooks are written with hardly a thought to you, the young kid who should be utterly fascinated by geography early in your life. (I always use this analogy to describe the state of most of our geography textbooks: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”)
You can see all these things, in dynamic motion! And then, you see the beauty of the grand planetary processes that are at work. These processes make it possible for you and me to live! To dream dreams and pursue them. To be humane, benign, kind, and loving – if we choose to!
Back to the ocean currents. NASA’s satellite data have shown how the oceanic currents go about. (Just pause it, let it buffer (i.e., load fully), then play. If you have sound, it is even better because there is great music to go with it. )
Those highly generalized diagrams that you have in your textbook now come alive with a great deal of finesse. You see that the waters swirl and swirl, there are many gyres, and they all aggregate to the broad arrows that your textbook shows you. Ask yourself why these swirls and gyres occur. (Discuss among your friends, ask your teachers, … or you can write to me – email@example.com )
Another video, also based on NASA’s satellite data, teases you with all manner of questions and then shows you the answers – it is breath-taking. My favorite questions: (1) what has the Sahara desert got to do with the maintenance (‘sustenance’ is a better word) of the Amazon rainforest? You will be amazed at the answer. You can watch the video right here:
Likewise, (2) why is the Antarctic ice so important for the whole world? The answer to this is so sublimely grand that you really start worrying about global warming and ice melt! That ice, my young friend, is vital to the existence of life on this planet!
The video is almost 2 hours long. Every school should get a copy of it and show it to everyone – students, teachers, parents, and any random passersby too!
Write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell me what your answers are to the two questions I have raised above. But your answers must not be more than 200 words each. (This also gives you a chance to practise your English language writing skills!)
Watch these with friends, teachers, your parents, or anyone who is interested in knowing – the joy of learning can spread this way, geographic satsanga!
This ‘blue marble’, our home, a blue speck in the cosmos, grandly complex!
And we are part of it!
Oh, and Happy New Year to you.
(A version of this post appears in the weekly geography column of Deccan Herald Student Edition, 06 January 2014)
Updated: 18 February 2021. (Broken links fixed/deleted); Featured image added.