Saturday, November 20, 2010

Picnic in the park

Here's the photo that is the starting point of the Eames movie Powers of Ten and the Morrison book of the same title: A couple picnicking in the park opposite the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier's Field on the Chicago lake shore. Click to enlarge.

When was the photo taken?

The movie is dated 1977. It was based on an earlier 1968 film called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with Powers of Ten. Was the photo part of the earlier film, which I have never seen?

I recognize the book with the clock face by the man's hand; it is the volume called Time in the Time-Life Books Science Series, to which my new and growing family subscribed in the 1960s. This volume was published in 1966. The other book, The Voices of Time, I don't recognize, but easy to track down on Amazon. It's the book edited by J. T. Fraser and subtitled "A comprehensive survey of man's views of time as understood and described by the sciences and the humanities," also published in 1966. The date is consistent with the earlier film.

But wait. We also have copies of Science and Scientific American at the man's shoulder. The title header on Science is too modern for the 1960s. And the photograph on the cover is powerfully suggestive of the surface of Mars. The Viking 1 Lander reached the Martian surface on June 19, 1976. Viking 2 touched down on September 3 of the same year.

The picnic photo has north at the top, so from the shadows we are near mid-day. An estimate of the angle of the shadow (I used the fellow's head), together with Chicago's latitude (42 degrees), indicates the photo was taken late-August-ish. So, to the on-line archive of Science. We are looking at the issue for 22 August 1976, showing on the cover stereographic images of Mars' surface made with the two lander cameras. That issue of Science was packed with Viking science. I remember it well. It was a thrilling time.

Easy now to track down the issue of Scientific American: September 1976, a special issue on food and agriculture. The cover image is a Landstat 2 photo of the Imperial Valley on the border of California and Mexico, made from an altitude of 570 miles. The first Landstat satellite was launched in 1972. Landstat 2 was launched in January 1975 and operated until 1981. Ah, those were glory days of space science. And the glory days of Scientific American too, with Martin Gardner conducting his feature on Mathematical Games and the book reviews in the always engaging hands of Philip Morrison.

So our picnic is late August 1976. America has just celebrated its Bicentennial. Gerald Ford is President and edges out Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Jimmy Carter has been nominated by the Democrats. The Summer Olympics in Montreal are concluded. The Viking Landers are looking for life on Mars.

And I have just wasted an hour of a lovely afternoon. Thanks, Tom.

Goodbye to Brian Marsden, keeper of the skies.