The Pale Blue Dot

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I’m a sucker for docu-series of any kind, but especially when it comes to science…I’m instantly hooked.  For the last few weeks National Geographic has been running Season # 2 of “Cosmos,” inspired by the lifelong research, writing and original 1980s PBS series (of the same name) by Carl Sagan.

To quickly summarize if you don’t know much about him, Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and in later life fiction and non-fiction author.  And as I just learned in the latest episode of Cosmos 2.0, Sagan was a vital bridge between the study of these sciences throughout all of human history before him…to all of us.  Before Carl Sagan, scientific research and much of the knowledge gained by the global scientific community was held by the intellectual and economic elite.  But from early childhood, Carl Sagan was determined to democratize this knowledge and transfer it to the masses of humanity.

So beyond being a brilliant scientist, he was also an empathetic communicator and a pioneering scientific populist.  Both his research and communications efforts make him, in my opinion, one of the most visionary and important people of the 20th century.

He’s the author of the novel that inspired one of my favorite science-fiction films, 1997’s Contact.  The film, released about 18 months after his death has the high concept blockbuster hook that’s a must to market a movie released in mid-July (especially back in the 90s).  It’s the story of a brilliant but combative scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) who’s lifelong quest to connect with extra-terrestrial life comes to fruition when she makes the biggest discovery in the history of humanity.  And eye-popping CGI adventure ensues…right?

Well, sort of…but not exactly.  Carl Sagan’s a little too sophisticated to go down the pure “popcorn flick” road.  Instead, he uses the bigtime concept to draw us in and explore the deeper and more fragile aspects of our humanity.  Orphaned at an early age, Ellie turns her back on spirituality and only trusts her scientific pursuits.  And when she makes the great discovery, she finds herself in the middle of forces beyond her control – political, economic, and even spiritual.  Without spoiling the story (if you haven’t seen it), Contact is much less about this humanity-changing discovery and much more about challenging us to ask ourselves — what would we do with this?  At it’s core the film deals with questions Sagan was often asking us to consider, such as who we are and how we are treating each other while sharing the only home that any of us — has ever known.  Before we search the stars for an alternative, we have a lot of things that need fixing right here and right now.  It’s a repair job of which none of us…is immune.

At the same time, Sagan reminds us that while we are far from perfect — we are rare, and precious — just like the tiny blue dot.  A beautiful pearl floating in an infinite sea of darkness, the life raft we all share and must keep afloat.  They’re messages that were certainly resonant and timely in the late 20th century.  But twenty years into our current century, I’d argue that they’re just as important now.  In the midst of this current moment — they’re relevance is maybe the greatest it’s ever been.

I’ve looked at or listened to Carl Sagan’s reflection on us…all of us…and the home we all share.  He calls it, “The Pale Blue Dot…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  Each time I’ve read or listened to his words these last few weeks, I’m moved, inspired, and most importantly…humbled.

Here are those words…

“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 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.”

I hope this article finds you doing the best you can right now upon the tiny corner of this speck of dust.  In my opinion, these words are not meant to make us feel small or insignificant – but instead the opposite.  We are unique, and we are lucky.  Our entire planet and our struggling species (especially right now) is a constantly evolving work in progress.  Never perfect, rarely great, sometimes good, and often — far from it.

But out in the darkness, suspended together on this life-giving blue pearl we have each other.  And we always have the opportunity to do, and be…better.

~ by Dan Fabrizio on March 29, 2020.

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