December 20, 2012

...on a mote of dust

It was 1990. Carl Sagan had argued mightily to get NASA to turn the Voyager I spacecraft around as it departed planetary confines for the vastness of space. Sagan wanted the camera pointed sunward just long enough to capture an image of our planet from the edge of our solar system.  

Voyager was 3.7 million miles from home. The photo, later titled "The Pale Blue Dot," depicts Earth as a small speck of light suspended in a sunbeam. Sagan wrote about it for a presentation given shortly after the photo was taken... speaking with words that fill the human mind with wonder and with perspective... in typical Sagan fashion. 

"We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here... That's home... That's us... 

On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us. 

It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." 

Four years later, the title of the photograph would be used by Sagan as the main title of his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, and would be used as he traveled the country and the world promoting understanding through the lens of science. The following is an excellent animated video clip in which Sagan's voice can be heard.


Two years after the book was published he would succumb to the ravages of pneumonia. Sagan had long suffered from the effects of myelodysplasia, and his death came as no surprise. He died with his beloved wife, Ann Druyan, by his side. 

Sagan's final book, The Demon Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, was nearing completion at the time of his death. Ann had been by his side helping put his final words to paper. Sagan died before the final chapter was completed. Ann Druyan finished it for  him. Sagan's final tome serves as just another reminder of the massive contributions this man has given humankind. Sagan's remains were buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.

-- Carl Sagan, November 9,1934 - December 20, 1996