Our Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot, the image recorded by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of c. 40 AU, or 6 billion (109) kilometres from Earth. You are on the tiny, blueish pixel, centre right.

Above is the image that has been come to be known as the Pale Blue Dot. It was taken by the Voyager 1 probe in 1990 as the spacecraft was leaving the Solar System on it’s indefinite journey into interstellar space . At over 40 Astronomical Units (AU), or 6 billion kilometres (that’s 6 109) from Earth, the image returned is incredible in its portrayal of our tiny world against the vastness of the cosmos.

This image was the inspiration for Pale Blue Dot, a book written in 1994 by the distinguished American astronomer Carl Sagan. I have only recently had the privilege of reading this book, mainly due to the its near criminal scarcity in bookshops and on the internet. Rarely has a work of non-fiction elicited such a powerful emotional response as Pale Blue Dot. Sagan was clearly a master wordsmith, as well as respected scientist and his prose and delivery is beautiful, fluent and elegant. In particular, the introduction and opening chapter, entitled Wanderers and You Are Here respectively, are perhaps some of the finest examples of science writing I have ever had the pleasure of absorbing. Sagan’s interpretation of the significance of the above image is so powerful and moving that nothing I can say here to paraphrase will do his eloquent delivery justice. I’ll reproduce one of my favourite passages from the book to illustrate my point, but I hasten to add that there were many contenders for this accolade.

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

 I think the reason that these words are so emotionally striking is that, for me, they represent the the ability of science to amaze and humble us, to provide sensible solutions to difficult questions and to reconcile our differences in opinion, nationality and ideology. It is often said that a life in science can make you cold, removed and unattached. Absorbed in grey objectivity and burdened by the realisation of the insignificance and futility of our fleeting existence. This book, and in particular these words, prove otherwise. These words are true, not metaphors or conjecture, but statements of fact based on a distant image of our little globe. Our Earth, our tiny watery home, is a very small planet in an otherwise uninteresting star system, in a remote corner of a common barrel-spiral galaxy. It is the only home we’ve ever known and we have a responsibility to care for it and each other, because on the scale of the universe, our differences are minuscule and unidentifiable, our existence brief and uneventful and our impact on the rest of the vastness of space, practically nil. No religion was required to reach this conclusion, no scripture needed, no proverbs recited or prayers offered. These words were penned by the careful and balanced hand of science, yet they dispel our fundamentally flawed sense of self-importance, reveal our basic evolutionary solidarity with each other, and with all other organisms that we have the privilege to share our planet with. They serve to focus our priorities when attempting to preserve the balance of our delicate world.
I would urge every single person on our planet to read this book. It has inspired and humbled me, but also made me proud to be a member of a species that has ventured out into the cosmos, landed on other planets and sent speculative messages to the stars. We have great potential, but there is a chance we will waste what opportunities we have if we remain focussed on our differences in race, religion and culture. These differences are human constructions, inconsequential on the grand scale of the stars, that will stunt our growth as a species and keep us perpetually rooted in the superstitions and anachronistic philosophies of the past. I try to keep these words fresh in my mind, floating gently through my subconscious, quietly reminding me to maintain perspective and to dispel ignorance and presumption, and I would urge you to do the same.

Some amazing videos featuring excerpts from Carl’s book can be found online, my favourites are here and here. I challenge you not to be moved.

2 comments on “Our Pale Blue Dot

  1. Andrew, wow, that piece was eloquent but you yourself are becoming a master of words. But your words are so true, if only people can be less selfish and narrow-minded. You must write a book, i'll be one of the first to buy it, i love writing but i can tell there lies talent in your thoughts. Keep well. Amy

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