Communion Of Dreams


“What if we tried more power?”

Didn’t I just say that Randall Monroe is brilliant? Of course I did. That was writing about his artwork. And this morning he proved (once again) that his science is solid, as well:

Er, let me explain…

Monroe does the popular webcomic xkcd. If you don’t read it regularly, you should. Anyway, this summer he added in another feature called “What If?” which he explains with this subtitle: “Answering your hypothetical questions with physics, every Tuesday.”

And for whatever reason, today’s entry is in response to this question: “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?”

Gee … where have I heard that question before? Hmm … perhaps in Chapter 9 of Communion of Dreams?

“You know, I could design a program that would enhance the image. Everyone who looked up at that would see our Moon,instead. Wouldn’t take much. I could even paint it red.”

“Paint it red? You mean the Moon?

“Yeah, old joke. There was this artist back at the turn of the century who had this project called ‘Paint the Moon’. He wanted to get everyone in the Western Hemisphere to focus these popular little hand-held laser pointers on the Moon all at once, with the idea that enough of the laser light would cause a red spot to appear. Had it all figured: what phase of the Moon was best to do it, how people could aim their lasers, the whole bit.”

“Crazy,” said Jon. Then, after a pause, “It didn’t work, did it?”

“Nah. But that wasn’t the point. He always described the project as a ‘shared lyrical fantasy’, designed to bring people together for a single moment, all doing the same thing. The first attempt got quite a lot of attention world-wide from the media. Millions heard about it, and maybe tens of thousands participated. It is still considered a seminal art event – we studied it in school.”

“But . . . what’s the point?”

“Oh, I just always liked that grandiose sense of whimsy. There were a number of crazy things like that back then, before everything went to hell.”

Unsurprisingly, Monroe concludes that the laser pointers wouldn’t accomplish the task. But then he uses that as a jumping-off point to explore what it *would* take to accomplish the task. And then some. It’s a fun piece, and likely the image of his I posted above has just become another instant classic, not unlike this one (which is the not-xkcd-approved Official T-shirt of BBTI).

Jim Downey

PS: Thanks to the people who sent me a link to the xkcd What If? entry this morning — very much appreciated. Now, if anyone would like to pop by the xkcd forums and mention this connection, I’d greatly appreciate it. Cheers!

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