Pale Blue Dot

In my surfing this week, I checked Micah‘s blog, and came across the expression “pale blue dot”, in the description of a photo that he linked to. Its used in reference to Earth. Its a pretty compelling term, because it reduces this complex world to a single color and small shape.

A day or so later, I did a search for that term, and came across an excerpt from the late Dr. Carl Sagan’s book of the same name.

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.

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.

Wow. That’s powerful. Yeah, what he said.

For what its worth, you really need to see the photo, its also fantastic. The Cassini space probe captured an image of Saturn eclipsing the Sun.

4 replies on “Pale Blue Dot”

  1. That’s interesting, I didn’t realize Carl Sagan had semi-popularized that phrase. I can’t say I agree with the implicit principle he’s appealing to, though. C.S. Lewis somewhere mentions the fallacy of being impressed with mere physical magnitude as though there’s some cutoff point beyond which it generates qualitative difference. Sagan seems to go in for that a lot, in this and other snippets of his stuff I’ve read. After all, it’s not as though if the extent of the universe were a rotating dome a hundred miles or so from the surface of Earth, in which the sun, moon and stars were embedded, that, in and of itself, would show that we and our planet were significant. For if, as Sagan thinks, “the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” no matter what its physical extent or our size compared to it turns out ot be, surely there’s no question of anything being “important.”

  2. I’ve been thinking about your response all week. I have to admit that I am in awe of the sheer magnitude of our universe, which is brought into focus in Sagan’s quote. I recognize the wisdom in Lewis’ words, but it really is impressive to think that the farthest thing I can imagine on this planet is only a fraction of the distance to the moon and yet the moon is close.

    I do like this facet of the Sagan quote above, but that’s not the compelling part. The part I REALLY like is that within his science he finds reason to consider that whatever reason we have for being angry with our neighbor is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  3. Yeah, I should have rephrased what I had to say: While quantity doesn’t make for quality, of course it’s impressive how vast the universe is compared to us–I wouldn’t want to begin to deny that! And I also couldn’t deny that Sagan’s atheism is loads preferable to militant terrorist Islam, for reasons you suggest.

  4. PALE-BLUE-DOT Astronomers:

    Although Ptolemy thought the Sun revolved around the Earth, he also concluded that the Earth should be treated as a mathematical point in the Universe. Now, since a mathematical point is infinitely smaller than a “pale blue dot,” do we conclude that Ptolemy must be humbler, wiser, and “cooler” than modern astronomers? Well, maybe I’m being nasty and objective, when I should be misty-eyed and subjective. I might be a candidate for sensitivity training.

    Unlike Pale-Blue-Dot astronomers, I don’t try to feel-the-pain of the robbed (nor do I try to feel-the-pleasure of the robbers). To pretend to know the pain of others is to belittle the pain of others.

    From a comfortable armchair or a speaker’s podium, all human trials (pains, pleasures, joys, loves, ete.) can only be reduced to a “pale blue dot” by exceptional Pride – not insightful thinking. Trying to synthesize people with their planet is called Pantheism – not Astronomy.

    Best Regards,

    Frank Hatch
    Initial Mass Displacements

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