156: Pale Blue Dot Today (transcript)

March 16, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek

If you’ve never heard Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, it’s something to hear. It’s a spoken essay. It’s four and a half minutes long. I’m about to play it. I recommend that even if you listen to podcasts at faster speeds to put it back to regular speed because it’s really touching. I still get chills up and down my spine. I get choked up sometimes just listening to it or thinking about it and I listen to it periodically. It speaks for itself. Briefly, it describes something he asked NASA to do which was to look back at Earth from very distant space. And if you haven’t seen the image that he refers to I put it on the podcast page so you can see it there in contrast to Earthrise which is a view of Earth from the Moon. Anyway. As I said, it’s a four and half minutes long. And after that I have very brief comments on it.

“The Voyagers were guaranteed to work only until the Saturn encounter. I thought it might be a good idea just after Saturn to have them take one last glance homeward. From Saturn I knew the Earth would appear too small for Voyager to make out any detail. Our planet would be just a point of light to lonely pixel, hardly distinguishable from the many other points of light Voyager would see, nearby planets, far off suns. But precisely because of the obscurity of our world thus revealed such a picture might be worth having. While almost everyone is taught that the Earth is a sphere with all of us somehow glued to it by gravity, the reality of our circumstance did not really begin to sink in until the famous frame-filling Apollo photograph of the whole Earth, the one taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on the last journey of humans to the Moon. It seemed to me that another picture of the Earth, this one taken from a hundred thousand times farther away might help in the continuing process of revealing to ourselves our true circumstance and condition. It had been well understood by the scientists and philosophers of classical antiquity that the Earth was a mere point in a vast encompassing cosmos. But no one had ever seen it as such.

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.”

You’ve listened to Pale Blue Dot. Now think of a plastic cup or a plastic bag. I get that it’s easier not to bring a bag with you to go to a store or to accept a cup when offered. I get the freedom of choosing to burn fossil fuels for transportation, air conditioning and so on whenever you want without thinking about its effects on others. It’s fun, it’s carefree. Still, it’s the only home we’ve ever known. It’s the only home you and I will ever know. I still find beauty worth protecting in that humble pale blue dot.

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