May 4, 2014
By Kevin Tracey
In 1939, a four-year old boy would travel from his family apartment in Brooklyn to the World’s Fair in Queens. One day, he would help take us all to the stars.
Perhaps as a boy, contemplating a time capsule buried at the World’s Fair in the shadow of Manhattan, he first got the idea to create a time capsule of his own. A time capsule that would travel far beyond the solar system, whose contents would contain not memories of a specific time or place, but that spoke for all of Earth.
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Carl Sagan was already a distinguished scientist, and well regarded science communicator, when he was appointed as chairman of the Voyager Golden Record committee, a project that would allow him to realize his boyhood dream of building an interstellar time capsule. As the committee chair, he worked with others, including his future wife Ann Druyan, to develop messages to be fixed to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes. After an initial reconnaissance of our Solar System, the Voyager spacecraft would venture out into interstellar space, wandering for billions of years—essentially an eternity, waiting to be discovered.
Attached to each Voyager spacecraft is a gold-plated record, containing the memories, songs, photographs, greetings, and other cultural triumphs of humanity. Though space is endless, and the distances between the stars vast, Carl Sagan and his colleagues hoped that one day the Voyagers may be intercepted by an extraterrestrial species. Like the time capsules of old, the spacecraft could bear the memories of a forgotten and distant world. Sagan found it impolite not to say hello.
In 1990, nearly 13 years after its initial launch, Voyager 1 had already traveled 6 billion kilometers away from Earth, approaching the boundary that separates our Solar System from the stars. From such a distance, Sagan wondered what Earth might look like. Could Earth even be discernable?
Similar to the photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts of Earth from afar, Sagan believed that a photo taken from the boundary of our solar system, would be of exceptional value—scientific or not.
Carl Sagan was not just a scientist. Carl Sagan, through his writings, was an author, poet, and artist. He was instrumental in convincing NASA leadership of the value such a photograph might have—and he was right. He argued that from this distance “Our planet…would be just a point of light, a lonely pixel hardly distinguishable from the other points of light Voyager would see: nearby planets, far off suns.” He continued that, “But precisely because of the obscurity of our world thus revealed, such a picture might be worth having.”
The photograph itself, while both stunning and humbling, may not have been as appreciated by the masses if not for the literary skill of perhaps the greatest science communicator in human history. Not bad, for a boy from Brooklyn.
It had been well understood by the scientists and philosophers of classical antiquity that the Earth was a mere point in a vast, encompassing cosmos—but no one had ever seen it as such. Here was our first chance, and perhaps also our last for decades to come.
Sagan was a professor, scientist, and explorer. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning author, who spoke at many conferences, and lectured at many events. He speculated on humanity’s origins and its ultimate place in the universe, made key contributions to our understandings of planetary astronomy, pioneered efforts in the search for extraterrestrial life, and actively advocated for nuclear disarmament. He co-wrote and hosted one of the most popular television shows of all-time. These are just a few of his many accomplishments. The last few paragraphs of the first chapter of Pale Blue Dot is perhaps his magnum opus. It changed my life.
I hope you enjoy it, too.
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.