135. agley

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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 (1994). Pale blue dot: A vision of the human future in space.


 

I don’t know that I really have much to add to Sagan’s words. They were written in response to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had just completed its mission to the planet Saturn. Its camera was going to be turned off in order to conserve energy for the remainder of its journey out of our solar system. Its other instruments would still be active as it continued to send back its findings, but Sagan convinced the NASA scientists to turn Voyager around and take one last picture of Earth before it headed out towards what we’d later learn is the heliopause—the beginning of the edge of interstellar space.

With this image, for the first time, we saw ourselves in relation to the whole solar system, and it in relation to the universe as a whole. It’s one thing to know the size of the universe we live in. It’s another thing to actually see it. This world that feels uncomprehendingly huge is indeed a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot. The image was captured at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth. The dot is a mere .12 pixels wide, set against the blackness of space. That’s home. That’s here. That’s us.

Given that scale, it’s truly mind-boggling how utterly insignificant we are, and if more people truly understood that and how lucky we are to even be here, things like politics and land wars would end completely. Maybe that’s a bit idealistic, but I’d like to think that hot button topics like gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights wouldn’t even be an issue, because what does it matter? Religion taught us that we’re special snowflakes made in the image of our Creator; and we’re admittedly probably something of a phenomenon in the universe. Sentient life is likely a relatively rare occurrence. Yet here we are.

In this tiny space of time we call a “lifetime,” we are given the improbable opportunity to think, give, feel, love, imagine, enjoy and marvel. It will be another 40,000 years before Voyager 1 comes within 1.6 light years of the star Gliese 445. By that time you and I will be long gone and forgotten, and the human race may have already made its way out into the heavens. By that point we may have even made the next leap in our evolution as a species. By that point it’ll have been nearly 100,000 years since homo sapiens appeared on the scene. We’re rather overdue for an upgrade as it is. Still… it’s awesome to think about.

Due to the nature of the brains we developed by virtue of the rock and the chemicals we stewed in, we are always learning, always processing new information. Yet some of us insist on living in fear. Life is far too short and too grand to be lived in a tiny box, in a straight jacket, with blinders on and earplugs in. We are explorers, adventurers, and it’s a crime not to take full advantage of every minute we’re lucky enough to enjoy on this pale blue dot.

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