Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved see­ing Grav­i­ty. In my opin­ion, the Plan­et Earth should be nom­i­nat­ed for a sup­port­ing-play­er Oscar. I drank in the mas­sive, stun­ning views of the earth in the back­ground of so many scenes—completely con­vinc­ing, thanks to high-lev­el CGI effects. At those screen-fill­ing dis­tances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmos­phere, the del­i­cate out­er mem­brane that makes life on earth pos­si­ble. There they were: the bios­phere and the atmos­phere, as seen from space for real by just a few hun­dred peo­ple so far.

That soft shell of atmos­phere offers a visu­al ana­logue to oth­er, unseen lay­ers, both actu­al and imag­ined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of real­i­ty that’s tied to phys­i­cal things like com­put­ers, servers, satel­lites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain dig­i­tal, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem far­fetched to think of this quick­ly fill­ing-in world­wide web as anoth­er, invis­i­ble shell sur­round­ing the earth’s sur­face.

And then there’s the noos­phere, an idea put for­ward by the the­olo­gian Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Ver­dan­sky, a Russ­ian sci­en­tist who him­self gets cred­it for com­ing up with the term “bios­phere.” With the noos­phere (the pre­fix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teil­hard invites us into a kind of thought exper­i­ment: imag­ine that all of human thought sur­rounds the earth in an invis­i­ble shell. As our men­tal out­pour­ings grow and inten­si­fy, this “think­ing lay­er” fills in and comes into its own. Teil­hard sug­gest­ed that the noos­phere would emerge out of tech­nolo­gies “extend­ing a close­ly inter­de­pen­dent net­work” around the world. At that time he was refer­ring to radio, tele­type and television—but his descrip­tion seems to eeri­ly antic­i­pate the Inter­net and our cur­rent web of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

This promise of the noos­phere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libret­to for Vio­let Fire about Niko­la Tesla’s vision of the earth becom­ing “a sin­gle brain” through his planned World Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem. In Leav­ing Alexan­dria, the nov­el I’m work­ing on, it has helped me envi­sion the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge, from ancient libraries to our expand­ing dig­i­tal cyber­sphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translu­cent enve­lope of our atmos­phere, but that doesn’t stop us from expe­ri­enc­ing them around us.


17 thoughts on “Gravity and the Noosphere”

  1. The noos­phere — a won­der­ful mys­ti­cal notion, though I doubt that most humans would access it even if they knew how. But I can’t wait to see LEAVING ALEXANDRIA in print.

  2. It’s nice to hear Teilhard’s name come into con­ver­sa­tion again. Thanks for stretch­ing our imag­i­na­tions, Miri­am.

  3. Thank you for a won­der­ful review. I enjoyed the movie Grav­i­ty immense­ly also. I also agree with you that Teil­hard de Chardin was ahead of his time but his vision of the Noos­phere cer­tain­ly seems to be evolv­ing (pun intend­ed 🙂 accord­ing to his vision. I am a huge fan of Teil­hard de Chardin and have start­ed a blog devot­ed to his thoughts. For those inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about Teilhard’s vision of the Noos­phere, here is a three-part intro­duc­to­ry series I wrote in Teilhard’s thoughts (which is relat­ed to but not iden­ti­cal with Verdansky’s).

    Also, there is a doc­u­men­tary on Teil­hard de Chardin that will be released in April 2015, the 60th anniver­sary of his death. I am not direct­ly involved with this endeav­or (oth­er than being an enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­er). Hope­ful­ly this project will help intro­duce Teil­hard and his ideas to a new gen­er­a­tion.

    W. Ock­ham

    1. Thanks for your response! I had found your blog, and real­ly appre­ci­at­ed your thought­ful treat­ment of Teil­hard de Chardin — very hap­py to have this link to it. And that’s great to hear about the doc­u­men­tary in the works, to help a new audi­ence dis­cov­er him and his com­pelling ideas.

  4. The ideas you’re express­ing are enchant­i­ng, and I love the essay. For me, the whole con­cept of mes­sages fly­ing across some­thing called “cyper­space” instan­ta­neous­ly is mag­i­cal and unre­al — yet here we are, using it in mun­dane ways. Not impos­si­ble to imag­ine thoughts and dreams float­ing out there too. Poet­ry or sci­ence? Thank you for stir­ring the ques­tions.

  5. Love the thought of the noos­phere and the anal­o­gy with the bios­phere. Yes, def­i­nite­ly like cyber­space. But on a small­er scale, it reminds me of that inef­fa­ble – but pal­pa­ble – sense of shared con­scious­ness that per­me­ates some kinds of group expe­ri­ence – espe­cial­ly those inspired by music and danc­ing – cre­at­ing the feel­ing that every­one there is encir­cled by swirls of com­mu­nal feel­ing. Invis­i­ble, but unde­ni­ably present…

    1. Great con­nec­tion! That was my favorite thing about going to base­ball games — the feel­ing of shar­ing an expe­ri­ence with thou­sands of peo­ple in the same place. Mar­shall McLuhan called this “dar­shan,” which he lift­ed from the Hin­du word that I think means a sacred con­nec­tion com­ing out of face-to-face encounter — some­body help here if I’ve got this wrong. Any­way, that’s the word I use for this now. Maybe the clos­est in Eng­lish would be com­mu­nion?

      1. Com­mu­nion,” with its Chris­t­ian con­no­ta­tion, reminds me that I’ve felt this kind of con­nec­tion in church some­times, sit­ting there with fam­i­ly mem­bers who belonged to the con­gre­ga­tion, even though I’m not reli­gious and was only a vis­i­tor. The con­nec­tion extend­ed, for those few min­utes, to the entire assem­blage of peo­ple I didn’t know, even dur­ing the bor­ing ser­mon. The music of such a church ser­vice cer­tain­ly helps, as Susan not­ed. So does the sit­ting in rows, in more or less the same pos­ture. So does the recital of com­mon texts and com­mu­nal singing of old hymns, what­ev­er their con­tent.

      2. @mirseidel, @sam: “Com­mu­nion” is a great descrip­tion of the Noos­phere. I am a huge foot­ball fan and I have the same feel­ing of deep con­nect­ed­ness at foot­ball games. 

        In reli­gious con­texts, the Catholic Eucharist is a cel­e­bra­tion of the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of the Noos­phere and the cen­tral com­po­nent of the Catholic Mass. As Pope Bene­dict said in his book “Spir­it of the Litur­gy”, ref­er­enc­ing Teil­hard de Chardin: 

        And so we can now say that the goal of wor­ship and the goal of cre­ation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of free­dom and love… Teil­hard looks on Christ as the ener­gy that strives toward the Noos­phere and final­ly incor­po­rates every­thing in its “full­ness’. From here Teil­hard went on to give a new mean­ing to Chris­t­ian wor­ship: the tran­sub­stan­ti­at­ed Host is the antic­i­pa­tion of the trans­for­ma­tion and diviniza­tion of mat­ter in the chris­to­log­i­cal “full­ness”. In his view, the Eucharist pro­vides the move­ment of the cos­mos with its direc­tion; it antic­i­pates its goal and at the same time urges it on.” 

        Oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions have sim­i­lar con­cepts but my expe­ri­ence is that the con­cept of the Noos­phere is more pro­nounced in Chris­tian­i­ty due to a belief in a very per­son­al God.

        W. Ock­ham

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