Little Blue Dot

Earth from Space
Earth from beyond Saturn

On keeping things in perspective, I’m sharing this piece of wisdom which came to me via a daily newsletter from Mr. Hubbell. I don’t think he would mind if I share his comments along with Carl Sagan’s.

In 1977, the US launched the interplanetary probe, Voyager I. By 1980, Voyager I had passed Saturn and was heading to the outer reaches of our solar system. The great science communicator, Carl Sagan, proposed that NASA/JPL swivel Voyager I to look back at Earth to take one last photo of our home planet. After initial resistance from NASA, Sagan got his wish. Voyager I took one of the most important photographs in human history: A picture of Earth from a vantage 3.7 billion (can that be correct, 3.7 billion?) miles away. The resulting photograph shows Earth as a tiny dot suspended in a sunbeam. (The “sunbeam” is a band of sunlight reflected in the camera lens.) Carl Sagan published a book about the photo, “Pale Blue Dot.” In his introduction, Sagan wrote movingly about seeing Earth from interplanetary space. It is a beautiful reflection on our place in the cosmos.

Sagan wrote:

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 (for human existence and the lives of so many species), the only home we’ve ever known.