“Pale blue dot”: Writing that changed the world

“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.” ~Carl Sagan

1990 photo of Earth, a tiny dot in the vastness of space, taken from Voyageur 1 spacecraft, at the request of Carl Sagan.
1990 photo of Earth taken from Voyageur 1 spacecraft, at the suggestion of Carl Sagan.

In a recent post, I marvelled at how astronauts on the ISS are using new technologies to communicate more directly with people on Earth. I think the great astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan would have approved.

In his own right, Sagan had a gift for communication that changed the world: a talented writer (and some would say poet), he translated complicated concepts into some of the most inspiring and thought-provoking ideas of our time.

In 1994, Sagan wrote A Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of Human Future in Space. It was his call to action to preserve life on planet Earth, our “pale blue dot” in the vastness of space. The book is based on the 1990 photograph of Earth taken from the Voyageur 1. The photograph was Sagan’s idea–he wanted us to see our place in the cosmos. Our small home, our only home–a fragile planet that we take for granted at our own peril.

Here is the now infamous passage written by Sagan, so beautiful I feel like crying when I read it:

“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.”

Sagan reads the passage in this 3-minute video:

Carl Sagan died in 1996–just two years after his revolutionary words were published.

Twenty-years later, have we heeded his call? Are we taking better care of our precious planet? That is debatable. But his brilliant work and words have stuck in our minds, forever changing how we see ourselves. And they keep coming back, perhaps to haunt us.

Maybe one day they will stick for good.

Cover of "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the ...

A bit more:

A lovely tribute piece by Phil Plait, writer of the Bad Astronomy blog (Discover magazine) on Carl Sagan’s birthday (November 9):

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/11/09/repost-carl-sagan-day/#.UO7naKXrTHg

5 comments

  1. Perspective is everything. The image of our tiny dot of a planet in the vastness of space is indeed humbling. We are kind of like the Whos on the tiny speck of dust in Horton Hears a Who….but does anybody hear us or is our chatter only heard by those of us privileged enough to inhabit this unique, fragile and beautiful world nestled in the cosmos?

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