Wednesday, January 30, 2013

125th Year Anniversary of the National Geographic Society: The Stars

The most common visual image most people have of National Geographic is the yellow border of the magazine.  This iconic trim gives me the same sort of comfort an old friend can give.  However, there is another, much lesser known icon of National Geographic.  I like this visual very much not only for its beauty but also for its message of where geography's range extends to.

The image is of the stars visible from Washington, District of Columbia on the night of January 13, 1888 when various scientists gathered and agreed to establish a geographical society.

I love the visible Milky Way.  Image created with nakshART
The astronomical pattern is used by the National Geographic Society at its Washington headquarters.  The lobby of the main building along 16th Street Northwest is capped by the stellar arrangement.  The term "meet me under the stars" means "meet me in the lobby".

"Under the stars" From National Geographic Stock image archive
National Geographic, whether one likes it or not, is the heart of geography in the public's mind.  With that true then the headquarters of National Geographic is the center of the heart.  Having astronomy at the ground zero of geography sends a strong message.  National Geographic could have placed a huge map of the world but instead it decided to tie together the place, time, and space when memorializing the society's founding.  This is an affirmation that geography is not bounded to the Earth.  What a great message.  I have long advocated for geographers to study other planets and slowly but surely others are speaking up as well.  Not to do so would cause us to lose surface/terrain/resource studies on different planets to a spin-off field of geology.

When geographers do field research at night they labor under the stars.  My great hope is that one day geographers will work under the same stars but with different constellations viewed through other skies.

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