In February 1990, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft captured the first-ever "portrait" of our solar system as seen from the outside. From a distance of 3.7 billion miles, our physical world in its entirety was revealed as a tiny dot suspended in the vast darkness of the universe. It was this iconic image that inspired the astronomer, cosmologist, astrobiologist, astrophysicist, author, science communicator, and science popularizer Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 - December 20, 1996) to write the revolutionary sequel to CosmosPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

As we prepare to navigate another trip around the sun on our rapidly changing planet, it feels right and necessary to recall the words of Sagan, the astronomer of the people, and to add a few more: might ocean exploration offer the same "humbling and character-building experience" as astronomy? Perhaps in the blue universe within the depths of this planet—in the discovery of alien landscapes and life forms of Deep Space—we will once again find ourselves. Only this time we won't have to leave the planet for an existential awakening. 

 Image: 'Pale Blue Dot', NASA/JPL from Voyager 1, 1990

Image: 'Pale Blue Dot', NASA/JPL from Voyager 1, 1990


Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

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.

 Images by  Helen Brierley

Images by Helen Brierley

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.

 

 


 

 

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