I am not posting this because I have anything negative to say about it. I am posting it because everyone deserves a moment, every once in a while, whence their imagination is overwhelmed. Everyone has the right, now and then, to involuntarily drop their jaw in amazement. I am posting this because when I saw it, that happened to me. I hope you feel the same.
|Click on the photo for the 2766×1364 original.|
That is a picture of Saturn, taken by the Cassini probe. The probe was launched in October of 1997, got there in July of 2004, and has been orbiting around Saturn taking pictures ever since. This particular picture was taken in 2006, and shows Saturn backlit by the sun. Keep in mind that the probe is, at this point, eleven times farther from the sun than we are, so it’s a long exposure. Now let’s zoom in on that photo.
At this zoom level, you can just barely see what I’m talking about, but you don’t know it yet. It’s literally a single pixel in this photo. Zoom in again.
Now you can see what I’m talking about. Again, barely. Some of you might have guessed where this is going. Zoom in one last time.
Do you know what that is? It’s our home. That’s the Earth, seen from the better part of a billion miles away. That is only the second farthest picture we have of our humble blue rock, and I know you want to see the first. Here you go.
See it? It’s the tiny bluish speck about halfway down that bold band on the right (the streaks are artifacts of the camera lens). That photo was taken from a staggering 3,781,782,502 miles away by the Voyager probe, which was launched in 1977 and, thirteen years later when it had finished its mission, turned around from well outside the orbit of Pluto and snapped that shot. Here’s one more.
It was Carl Sagan’s idea to have the Voyager probe turn around and take that photo of its origins, and when he saw the result he wrote this:
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 are those who say that science ruins the childlike wonder of the universe. They say that rational explanation destroys beauty. There are those who say that one who understands the refraction of light cannot appreciate the magic of a rainbow. That a snowfall is less sublime if one understands the condensation and crystallization of water. That a river is somehow less stunning, a forest fire less terrifying, or a shooting star less breathtaking once the mechanisms for their existence are revealed.
Those people are wrong. Science offers us a view of the cosmos that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, and to comprehend what we see only serves to fascinate us even further.
After all, without understanding, that’s just a grainy picture of a little blue speck.