Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Usually this blog is my thoughts, but for this post, I’d like to share something from a book I read at university that made a huge impact on me, Pale Blue Dot. It was written by astronomer, skeptic and science popularizer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the novel Contact and made the TV series Cosmos. In this passage, he is talking about the picture of earth to the left, taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990, now 20 years ago. The picture was taken from 6.1 billion kilometers away, and the Earth appears as a barely visible tiny dot.

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. 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.”


  1. From the perspective of astronomy sure, earth is insignificant, and all human endeavors look to be some sort of ironic, cruel joke. But it is a human conceit to place oneself above our species and look down on it from a higher vantage point. We are human. To us, humanity, our species, is everything. Everything outside of that little dot is insignificant, unless it can be of some use to our species.

  2. Carl Sagan was a very wise man. It's great that many people will always remember him, and his words. It's unfortunate more people don't value this planet for what it is - the only one we've got, as he said. If things continue the way they're going, earth doesn't have much of a future in the long run and neither do we.

  3. "Conciousness does not lie outside the real process of history. It does not have to be introduced into the real world by philosophers; therefore to gaze down arrogantly upon the petty struggles of the world and to despise them is indefensible." -Georg Lukaks, History and Class Consciousness, 1923

    So many people, most people, do value this planet for what it is. So who/what is responsible for it's overproduction, global warming, deforestation, extinctions, biological/chemical/nuclear catastrophes, and endless wars?

  4. This time around I think I'll combine my responses into one reply instead of individual ones. Although it is difficult to get the full sweep of what Sagan had to say from one quote, this one does a fair job of conveying his views. But it is better read in context, and Pale Blue Dot is well worth reading in full.

    Sagan's point is that in Western civilization especially, we have tended to place humanity and the earth literally at the center of the universe, granting ourselves pride of place, thinking we were the pinnacle of creation. A large chuck of PBD is dedicated to showing how science has progressively debunked this human conceit.

    We get so wrapped up in things, and it is good to get outside of that sometimes and get some perspective. I'm an atheist and have seen no reason to believe anything exists beyond this life. But I remember when I first read Carl Sagan back at university, I felt for the first time that the universe as it is can be a real source of wonder enough without mythology. And despite all the things I have been through since then, that feeling has never entirely left me.