Friday, September 19, 2008

Pale blue dot

In 1990 Carl Sagan had the NASA engineers turn Voyager 1 around to take a photo of Earth. At the time Voyager was beyond the orbit of Pluto; 6.4 billion kilometers. Having traveled past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune the spacecraft was, as it is now, on its way to the stars. From this distance Earth is distant pinprick of light very close to the sun almost invisible in the sunlight reflecting from the spacecraft. The stripes are a flare artifact in the lens. The Earth is the little dot, slightly less than half way up on the right, in this picture it resolves to something smaller than a single pixel. Earth is just one of 7 other planets orbiting a very average star in a very average galaxy composed of around 4 billion other stars.

From this distant vantage point the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us it's different. Consider again 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.
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994


Fusion said...

He was a very wise man.

I ponder this quite often myself, and have a saying on my blog that is nowhere near as eloquent as Dr. Sagan was.

It's something we all need reminding of once in a while.

But I still can't wait to finger's take on this...

Mike Bogle said...

I love that quote. I remember watching a video clip of him saying this back when I still wrote poetry and songs I was inspired to write this:

Pale Blue Dot

floating amidst a sea of velvet
pierced weakly by scattered light
a pale blue dot exists in silence
surrounded by the black of night
whose calls upon the earless fall
in the pulseless depths of space
is there no one there to hear us now?
are we stranded in this place?

amongst the cold and floating crypts
beside the crimson flame
not a single other being dwells
the lands too dry to tame
the vacuum of the space outside
has walls too thick to pierce
left to drift amidst the gas and dust
and pray that life appears

the pale blue dot lay wounded
slowly limping through the sky
with breathing growing shallow
and skin becoming dry
holding on to life in darkness
as it rotates to and fro
if the pale blue dot fades lifeless
where will our people go?

Jen said...

So, somewhere on that dot is me.

Eostre said...

Never before has humility left me in so much awe.

fingers said...

I could listen to Carl Sagan say 'millions' or 'billions' all day...but that's not the point.
It's all a question of relevance and perspective, isn't it ?? The pale blue dot is our only forseeable home for now, so we should cherish it. Then again, in the context of the universe it's a trivial speck, so does it really matter if we abuse or destroy it ??
We'll do whatever we're destined to do with it, I guess. And even if we look after it, it'll be gone in 10 billion years or so. It's hard to get excited about investing in the place when it's such an impermanent proposition...

unique_stephen said...

As a kid I had always intended to become an astronomer, either that or a marine biologist. Carl is in no small way responsible for me knuckling down at school to get the marks to get into the physics school I wanted. He even answered a handwritten letter I sent him as a teenager (we all have or heroes :-)

He was a gifted and passionate orator. He reads this quote from his book Pale Blue Dot in spine tingling understated soliloquy. There are various version on Youtube; I like this one with Vangelis in support.

Fingers > There are a few possible end postulated - but I'm saving that for another post.

fingers said...

I saw Sagan give a series of lectures at Sydney Uni in the early 80s which coincided with his then current series 'Cosmos'.

Bo Bo said...

So this is what Fingers looks like in a serious conversation. Hmmm
Are there more layers to the onion that is Fingers?

Nice post Stephen.

unique_stephen said...

Yeah, just like an onion: every layer thin, shallow and stinks just like the last. He can bring you to tears but when you get to the middle - nothing....

Friday said...

I seriously dont need another thing to ponder... That might just tip me over the edge.
Doing my head in......

unique_stephen said...

The thing about the size of the universe that gets me is that it is understandable.

The universe is thought to be 93 billion light years across.

That's only about 1 million times the diameter of our galaxy. Just 1 million!! - I have more than that many cents in the bank. The really vast number is the size of the earth or of the solar system to the size of the galaxy. The galaxy is 105,401,666 times the diameter of our solar system (taking it as the diameter of Neptune's orbit - 60AU).
that's a hundred million and a bit.

Our galaxy - a very average galaxy is 1 millionth the diameter of the universe - pretty big actually considering it is the universe we are talking about. If it were the size of a dinner plate, Andromeda - our nearest neighbor galaxy would be less than 2 meters away but within our galaxy our whole solar system would be smaller than a mote of dust. And within that mote our little fragile rock would be so insignificantly small as using numbers to describe it would meaningless.

fingers said...

See, now I have more than 105,401,666 cents in my bank account, so I guess that makes me the most brilliant astronomical mind on this blog.
How do you like them onions, Hubble...

unique_stephen said...

most brillient something.

With a few snags we could probably do a fairly decent barbie.

(I was going to wright something nice about you - fav blogger and gush like that but it was for Bo Bo and it just seemed wrong somehow)

fingers said...

Are you talking to the aliens again...

Cat said...

I still like watching old Carl Sagan reruns when I see him on.