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eyes turned skywards

18 December 2009 one comment

Know what this picture is?  Is it even *of* anything?  Look closely.  See that pale blue dot about halfway down, to the right?

In February of 1990, Voyager 1 reached (what we thought was) the edge of the solar system.  Carl Sagan had asked NASA to swing the spacecraft around to take a picture.  The picture to the right is one that was sent.   Although we’re lucky to have it, as the camera had to be aimed nearly at the sun at that that distance, there it is.  3.7 billion  miles away. A Pale Blue Dot.


Sagan had this to say:

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Here’s what amazes me; one day, perhaps not too long from now, scientists will point a powerful camera at a boring, medium-sized star in a comfortable, calm portion of our galaxy.  The haze of the star’s furnace will be obscured by optics and software.  The telescope will examine a blank area of space a few million miles out from the cauldron of boiling hydrogen.  For hours – days, maybe – those scientists will see nothing but the infinite number of stars and galaxies beyond, as so many views of this vast universe have provided.  Then, one day, perhaps on a morning when he or she has long since been “done” with this star (perhaps even the project), and is just waking up with a cup of coffee, a scientist will watch an image build itself, row by row, on a high-definition screen.  This educated primate will then run algorithms and filtering routines to clean up the image, account for anomalies, and subtract known NGC and Messier objects.  Then, it will be clear.  A Pale Blue Dot.  No anomalies.  No misinterpretation.  No question.  There it is.  A phone call will be placed to his or her supervisor.  That person and a few more scientists will gather, look at the data, and agree that all the necessary exclusionary bases have been covered.  The supervisor will then say, “this is it.”  And they will look at the screen, and then each other, in silence.

One Comment »

  • Deb Seaton said:

    Well, where do I start? This post appeals on an infinite number of levels. From invoking my favouritest man EVAH — Carl Sagan — to the fantastic unearthing of one of the most amazing photographs ever taken in the history of mankind, to the damn near poetic imagining of how discovering another possible “Us” might unfold.

    I asked you recently if you could contextually grasp yourself in the greater architecture of this kind of view, this “picture frame” across time and space, and you said yes, that it made you aware of your tininess, that you’d still be “the size of an atom” in comparison to Out There. That really wasn’t what I meant, although your statement is true prima facie. That’s a literal interpretation, certainly. But I meant something deeper, something that Sagan himself alludes to in his soliloquy. He called astronomy “humbling *and* character-building.” Those are two separate concepts, although they do frequently make joint appearances. Character evolves, just like all of nature does. It evolves, again much like nature, through the press of heat, light, struggle, failure, success, through a cycle of trial and error. Sagan says “building” not “assassination.” It’s an image of rising to meeting, not falling back.

    Sure, it’s humbling — easily so — to stare at the sprawl of the heavens and feel dwarfed. But it should also be inspiring; Sagan certainly found it thus. In the flash of inspiration, character fires white-hot. It rises to meet challenges, to grow beyond its limitations — to see what could not be seen before, to contemplate in new ways, to evolve. Along with the heavens. Still see yourself clearly in that context? I hope you do.