Carl Sagan was a man of extraordinary vision — and what is more, a man who helped others to see more clearly. Here’s Sagan’s meditation on that little speck seen in this image taken from a distance of 6.4 billion kms from earth, the place we call home. The image was taken by Voyager 1 (launched 1977) in 1990 on its way out of the solar system. It shows earth as if it were a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Sagan had persuaded NASA to command the spacecraft to capture this image. He explained the significance of that picture in his 1994 book, The Pale Blue Dot. See below for a reading of that bit by Sagan.
A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam!
Listen to what the man said. (He did not say “billions and billions”, though.)
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of 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.
There I hear echoes of what Marcus Aurelius Antonius (121–180), the Roman stoic emperor, wrote, “Short therefore is man’s life, and narrow is the corner wherein he dwells.”
We need to hoard these thoughts in our memories. Listening to Sagan, I am reminded of the words of a song by The Moody Blues from their album “In Search of the Lost Chord.” That was published an amazing 42 years ago in 1968!
. . . to fly to the sun
Without burning a wing
To lie in a meadow
And hear the grass sing
To have all these things
In our memories hoard
And to use them
To help us
Take a listen.
The Moody Blues drew extensively from Hindu philosophy. The observer and the observed are the same. Here’s how they stated it in the song “The Actor”:
The curtain rises on the scene
With someone chanting to be free
The play unfolds before my eyes
There stands the actor who is me
I am That. That is I. “Tat Tvam Asi” is the greatest of all realizations. That’s the universe observing itself. That’s how the universe comes into being, as the ancient Indian sages explained.
The last song of that album is “OM”. The introduction to that song goes:
This garden universe vibrates complete
Some, we get a sound so sweet
Vibrations reach on up to become light
And then through gamma, out of sight
Between the eyes and ears there lie
The sounds of colour and the light of a sigh
And to hear the sun, what a thing to believe
But it’s all around if we could but perceive
To know ultraviolet, infrared and X-rays
Beauty to find in so many ways
Two notes of the chord, that’s our full scope
But to reach the chord is our life’s hope
And to name the chord is important to some
So they give it a word, and the word is… AUM
1. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus’s “Meditations” is a must-read for any sane human being. Go get it for free here. When you hear the words “philosopher king”, think of this man.
2. All the lyrics to In Search of the Lost Chord can be found here.
3. Carl Sagan is a favorite of mine. He appears in many of my blog posts. Check them out.