Book Review: You Are Here

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You Are Here, by Chris Hadfield, is a collection of 192 photographs taken from the International Space Station. The photographs are divided by continent and represent one idealised orbit of the earth. Each is accompanied by a comment from the author where he shares his observations on topography, geology and how man has shaped the land over time.

From space there is ample evidence of man, although nature paints a more varied and visually stunning landscape. The author points out where the shape of a promontory or other feature is reminiscent of an animal, an eye or the human brain. He brings humour to the pictures as well as insight.

Perspective of man’s occupation of this small planet is gained from the vastness of the areas in which there are no visible signs of his presence. The biggest cities are tiny whereas the deserts and plains stretch out to the horizon. The distance and scale of the shots are most obvious where the curvature of the earth can be seen in the distance.

Where signs of man’s activity exist they also provide sadness, such as where the gush of orange in the seas around Madagascar show the rivers carrying away topsoil due to deforestation, silting up the inlets. The night shots show lights that are brightest where man’s ambition hopes to be rewarded at whatever cost to the planet that sustains him.

I was struck by how futile are our efforts to control the whims of nature. From space the shaping of our world is shown to have been affected by meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes and the constantly changing climate over millennia. Any order which man has imposed can so easily be wiped out by any one of these events.

Naturally I was intrigued by the photographs that featured places I know personally. I was struck by the author’s comment that the only indication of real time human activity below is where there is enough plane traffic to create significant numbers of cross hatched contrails. These gave him comfort, that life as he knew it continued. Space must be a lonely place.

The book itself is of high quality, ideal for flicking through and admiring the awe inspiring prints. Read from cover to cover it provides an insight into both the vastness of the land and the arbitrary nature of the borders over which we as a species expend so much concern.

For those interested in our planet and in the view of it from afar this book is fascinating. A beautiful collection of photographs taken from a place that most of us can never hope to go.

 

Gig Review: Chris Hadfield in Bath

Thanks to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a very special literary event. Colonel Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut, is currently in the UK promoting his second book, You Are Here: Around The World In 92 Minutes. As part of this tour he stopped off in the city to give a lunchtime talk. It turned out to be inspirational.

Like a great many of his fans I first became aware of Chris when he started to tweet from the ISS in early 2013. His tweets contained links to pictures of earth unlike any I had seen before. The videos of how seemingly ordinary tasks become extraordinary in zero gravity were fascinating. His voice was that of a person in awe of their surroundings, tweeting from a slightly geeky and very accessible perspective. I was excited at the prospect of meeting my favourite Starman.

The event was held in The Forum, a converted cinema with impressive art deco fixtures and fittings. The large auditorium allowed the maximum number of people to attend and I was pleased to have been allocated a good seat in the stalls. As I waited for the talk to start I noted that there was a guitar on stage.

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Well, I assume you too have seen the video? Not the same guitar of course. Apparently the instrument on the ISS was put there at the behest of a psychiatrist and is well used by all on board.

Chris took to the stage and immediately engaged with his rapt audience. He talked of the challenges of spaceflight, the need for years of intense and meticulous preparation, the science behind space travel and the excitement of being at the cutting edge of man’s continuing exploration into the unknown.

I cannot do justice to his words; Chris is a skilled orator. He also came across as down to earth, an ironic use of that expression given his background. He made vaguely understood concepts come alive and complicated science understandable. STEM and the space industry could not ask for a better ambassador.

Having talked through his experiences with the aid of a series of pictures and a video of a launch (he has been in three), Chris then invited questions from the audience. Rather than simply answering each question he talked around the issues raised, thereby offering fresh insights into the reality of living in zero gravity with just five other people who must each be able to survive day to day in cramped quarters, do their research jobs, and react to any emergency with the limited resources available.

While much of his talk was eye opening as the work required, challenges to overcome and dangers involved came to life, Chris also managed to keep things light. He mentioned several times how uncomfortable a space suit is to wear, how difficult it is to work in, and how, after a six hour space walk, astronauts come out bloody from the chafing. Unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity they do not step out looking amazing.

The event was scheduled to last for two hours and the time flew by. However, Chris did not forget the presence of that guitar and finished with a live rendition of his version of Space Oddity. I found this surprisingly moving and hope that the lucky child who was presented with the plectrum he used will treasure it.

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This was so much more than a book promotion, but I didn’t see many in the audience who were not clutching at least one copy of Chris’s new book as they left. The queue to have them signed snaked right around the hall, out the doors into the foyer and then doubled back on itself. That is a lot of books. I shall treasure mine.


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I came away from the event feeling uplifted and with one message clearly learned. We live on the surface of a small planet, all of us. We breath the same air that exists only on a tiny layer between our earth and the vastness that is space. Let’s look after it, and each other.

Chris’s wife tells everyone she meets that his book would make a great Christmas present. I cannot help but agree.

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