Planet Earth

Planet Earth

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Originally published last year in Germany, this breath-taking collection of photographs reveals Earth in ways most have never seen. Unlike the first (and most famous) images of our planet from space-the blue sphere floating in blackness that became a symbol of growing global and ecological consciousness-these aerial pictures are strange and unfamiliar; many, at first, are almost unidentifiable as portraits of Earth. Among this high-gloss, coffee-table collection of color satellite images amassed by the German Aerospace Center in collaboration with NASA, brightly colored abstractions become decipherable, on closer inspection (or after a peek at the captions in the back), as agricultural patchworks, capillary water systems or mottled land formations. The photographs are sometimes beautiful and always striking, generally rendered in a synthetic, digitized cast-but are they art? They often look like it, and yet they're science, too. Images such as these are used to gauge water temperatures, monitor shrinking rain forests, track cyclones and modify shipping routes. In his brief introduction, art critic Hughes notes that though a particular image looks like a Paul Klee painting, it is, in fact, rural Kansas, and the lovely pattern of circles are irrigated land patches in an over-farmed region. These pictures might be intriguing or even dazzling, but they are ultimately just optic arrangements of data, ""sometimes ominous and sometimes lyrical,"" but all crucial to understanding our world.