One of the dreamier conceits of the early environmental movement was that the Earth was not merely one of the solar system’s many planets. It was, instead, a living organism.
Known as the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, the idea was that all of the uncounted quintillions of organisms, from bacteria to blue whales, that make up the Earth’s bio-mass interact with the planet in ways that weave everything together into a living, breathing, reproducing whole.
Less-romantic minds did not think much of the theory. That bio-mass is really more of a bio-film, a thin skin of biology that can reach no further than perhaps a couple dozen miles below ground and a couple dozen into the sky (airborne microbes account for the flying population). That’s a maximum biological reach of 24 miles on a planet with a diameter of 7,918 miles. The so-called living Earth is, in reality, 0.3 percent alive and 99.7 percent dead.
But the few hundred human beings who have left the planet see things differently—and we would too if we’d been where they’ve been. It’s something that’s made plain in the intoxicating new National Geographic series One Strange Rock, premiering on March 26.
Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, the 10-part series comes at the planet from very much the Gaia perspective, but takes it further, devoting each episode to one thing—organic or inorganic—that makes life on Earth possible. The first episode—straightforwardly titled Gasp—is devoted to the chemistry and complexity of the atmosphere. The second—called Storm—explores the billions-year-old bombardment of meteors and asteroids to which our planet has been subjected, and the ways it has (sometimes just barely) survived. The third episode—Shield—examines both the life-giving and planet-killing power of the sun, and how the Earth has managed to come out on the positive side of that mortal equation.
Aronofsky has approached this material before, but in a bank-shot sort of way. His 2017 thriller Mother! was an allegorical tale of the power of mother nature and the wages of incurring her wrath. This time he takes a more straightforward approach, relying on science and dazzling cinematography to tell his tale.
There’s wit in the series, much of it provided by host and narrator Will Smith. The sun, Smith says in the Shield episode, is “not this big, jolly ball of nice.” There’s wow in the series too—the flying river above the Amazon (really) that helps keep Earth hydrated, the 40 tons of space debris that pound the planet every day. But it’s the on-camera accounts of seven astronauts—Peggy Whitson, Mike Massimino, Chris Hadfield, Mae Jemison, Jerry Linenger, Jeff Hoffman and Nicole Stott—that give the film its authority.
“I remember looking back at Earth and thinking, ‘I live on a planet; I’m an Earthling,'” says Stott, who spent 104 days in space over two missions. “It looked alive—the way storms move, the nervous system of lightning. There was never a stillness.”
But a living thing—whether planet or microbe—is also a destructible thing, and the act of leaving Earth has often left astronauts both in awe of the planet and in fear for it. It was the iconic “Earthrise” picture, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, that is credited with helping to kickstart the environmental movement. The view from even the much closer-to-home 250-mile altitude at which the International Space Station orbits can have a similar effect on astronauts and on anyone who contemplates the pictures they bring home.
“From space, you see the whole of the planet, the thinness of the atmosphere,” says Whitson, who holds the NASA record for time spent in space, with 665 days over three missions—so far. “You realize how hard it is to make life happen, and you appreciate that we have to take care of it. On the station we have managed to recirculate 85 percent of our water; the Earth recirculates 100 percent. It’s not easy to build an ecosystem.”
Inevitably, One Strange Rock also raises questions not so much about the function of Earth as its place in the cosmos. Stott recalls being a young girl, opening a map of the known universe and being less drawn to the oval-shaped image itself than to the white space beyond it on the rectangular paper. “I was asking myself, ‘What’s all that white paper? Is is heaven?'” she says.
Good question. If it is, it needn’t be the heaven of scripture. It can be the heaven of order, of reason, of trillions of other living worlds scattered across billions of light years, all forming a Gaia-like web of life vastly larger than Earth alone. Whitson admits to feeling a certain intellectual push-pull after all of her time in space—the contradiction between the apparent randomness of existence and the systemic order of life.
“I’m a believer in science and proving origins,” she says. “But there are a lot of things in evolution that contradict entropy.”
Colonel Frank Borman, who just turned 90, was the commander of Apollo 8, and as such was one of the first three people in history to move far enough away from the planet to see it as an entire sphere, hanging in space. His words, captured by the cockpit voice recorder, were, “What a view.” His thoughts, as recounted in his autobiography, were: “This must be what God sees.”
Whether God sees such a thing or not is an unanswerable question. What is certain is that the great mass of humanity will never see it. A show like One Strange Rock, however, offers us all at least a bit of the view—and a lot of the wonder.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Darren Aronofsky’s role on One Strange Rock. He is the executive producer, not the director.