Carl Sagan, Storytelling, and the Pale Blue Dot
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of the earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 Spacecraft from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) from earth. In the photograph, earth is shown as a tiny dot (0.12 pixels in size) against the vastness of space.
Carl Sagan’s famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ monologue should be required listening for all, as a reminder of the beauty and fragility of our home planet and the often misplaced egos of its dominant inhabitants. World leaders should heed Sagan, and eat a little of the humble pie on offer.
It is the ultimate lesson in perspective.
On the one hand it casts all the seemingly overwhelming personal, political, social and environmental problems we have into a parochial light and reflects no better on how we deal with them.
On the other it elevates the importance of dealing effectively with our largely human-made problems and ensure we are in a position to look outwards, beyond ourselves.
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any 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 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. 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.
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.”
Sagan’s signature clarity reminds me of his captivating Cosmos TV documentary and of course his 1980 Cosmos book. A story, a guidebook, and galactic history all in one. I remember reading Cosmos in my early teens, and being transported by its pages warm and joyful way of describing its cold, spectacular, and largely empty subject matter.
Listening to Sagan it is hard not to be transported on his words outwards into space. He was a rare creature – a gifted storyteller and scientist, unravelling the tale of how we have come to understand much of the universe we live in.
In many ways it is and always has been the storytellers that make the greatest difference in society. They command people’s attention and move us towards collective action. Barrack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Al Gore on climate change, Churchill’s spirit in wartime England being examples of messages that carried the emotional impact to effect huge change.
It is about the message, but also the note its deliverance strikes. The tone in Sagan’s words rings true.
“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
As I get older my finite capacity to understand a little more of that great vastness grows. That knowledge hasn’t changed my fascination with it one little bit.
The Cosmos As Comfort
That great vast emptiness above us has often been a source of comfort to me. A kind of cosmic ying to my internal yang. Staring up into the night sky, away from the city lights and sound, it is difficult not participate in a peace and contentment borne of such circumstance.
An expanding kaleidoscopic hue at once vast and existent and incomprehensible. Snapshots of its brilliance remain all we can process, yet snapshots are all we need to experience.
Experience may be the key word here too. We possess so much knowledge, yet that doesn’t always work to our favour. Our abundance of knowledge has accelerated us toward the current dilemma of an overpopulated planet being eagerly stripped of its resources, of which we leave little but mounting rubbish and rubble behind.
Knowledge gained through experience is a different breed than that gained from books or opinion, and there is a lot of the latter floating about.
Yet how do we experience the meaning of something like the night sky, the pale blue dot, the universe, something vast and so external to ourselves? The first link to it is often through the storyteller, they are responsible for placing that first seed of inspiration within us. They link stored knowledge and experience to us through our emotions.
Once that seed is planted, it is fundamental to the human condition to be able to comprehend and experience something beyond ourselves. The meaning of experiencing something outside of ourselves is personal, subtle, and in my opinion is something to aim to grow in joy and wonder with age.
Perspective and joy and wonder can lead us to respect for one another. Rather than focusing on differences of race, creed, colour, or belief, we can look outward from our shared inheritance as individuals and as a collective.
History is full of lessons. History’s greatest lesson is that we should learn the lessons of history. That we do so very slowly is a fact. This is the time to learn the past’s lessons and not reject the evidence of what is happening in front of us today.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozled has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” – Carl Sagan.
I hope that as the right storytellers step up to the plate to be heard, we will have the wisdom to listen and be moved by their narrative, and leave the charlatans behind.