Carl Sagan, the wonderful American Astronomer, wrote a book called ‘Pale Blue Dot’ in which he penned his postulations on the importance of space travel and its implications for the planet and our future.
In chapter 1 he discusses an episode that occurred when voyager 1, an exploratory space probe, reached the outer edges of our galaxy in 1990 and turned around to take one final photo of earth from 6 billion miles away. This is the photo I have included at the top of this post; you can see Earth at the top-right of the image, a glowing dot that sits in the band of brown light. Sagan, a central figure in the NASA team responsible for the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 programmes, considered this photo to be of central importance in our unquenchable quest for meaning and understanding of our existence in this universe. In what is arguably one of the most humbling and exquisite pieces of writing I have ever encountered Sagan penned his thoughts on this image at the start of his book. Below is an edited version of the passage as well as a link to a 3.5 minute reading by Sagan himself. If you have the time I couldn’t encourage you more to sit down for a moment and listen to this passage, as it will, undoubtedly, move you.
(Hear the master read it himself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K05xxeCdhSo)
Take a look at that picture, encouraged Sagan:
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on 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. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”