I had a career, I tanked it good. They’d sent me to middle of nowhere, Australia, which was, quite possibly, the most desolate place on earth. Eight hours a day listening to the North Koreans. Most tracking stations are remote for the obvious reasons of privacy and uncluttered air space, but what really matters is being within the footprint of a satellite’s broadcast range. Hence: Nowhere, Australia, under Intelsat 2 stationed over the Pacific Ocean and handling the equivalent of about a million pages of text per second. It was grueling work and peculiar for its mix of boredom and anxiety, both of which verged on the unbearable. Rumors about the global listening system called Echelon abound, so let’s just dispense with the mystery and say yes: It exists. The UK countries listen in on what Americans are doing and then pass on the information, which loopholes that nasty proscription against spying on our own.
This earth: a ball, a play-thing. The surface, in this Age—Exploration teetering into Reason—a driving spit of black ink dividing solid and liquid. This America, claimed by Spain, raided by England, inhabited by natives. This beast of Panama, neck stretched, holding to the southern continent by its teeth. These trees, a fleshy mass heaving with monkeys, weighed down with garish, jewel-soaked birds. A red flag tied with ribbons raised high and in its wake, a host of thieves, men all marching and marching still, marching to sack Porto Bello: burglary on a large scale. And in this host, our hero, William Dampier, who steps to one side of the column of men and sits on a rock. He squints up at the sun and Lionel Wafer—his friend and fellow scholar buccaneer—thinks he might be winking. At whom? At God maybe? And why not?
From the very dawn of the new technology, photographers sought to capture images of the heavens. In 1839 Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre—inventor of the daguerreotype—attempted to shoot the moon, with little success. As photographic technology developed throughout the nineteenth century, it became an important tool in many branches of scientific inquiry. James Nasmyth’s book, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, is one of the most curious examples of Victorian scientific publishing.
When someone tells me a story, even a newspaper headline, I ask, “Where was that? Where did that happen?” From the context—the who, the where, and the when—I construct meaning. I believe I’m not alone. We have a fundamental desire to understand our environments, to understand how they affect who we are and what we care about.