Carl Sagan Day

Today would have been the 78th birthday of Carl Sagan, astronomer and populizer of science, and one of my greatest heroes. Mr Sagan worked on the viking and voyager spacecraft from NASA, and was instrumental in launching the golden record aboard Voyager 2 that represents our first ‘snail mail’ message to the cosmos. His role in bringing science to the masses was most obvious in his long-running TV series Cosmos, which tackled astronomy and critical thinking in society, often repeating his iconic phrase ‘billions and billions’.

What inspires me most about Carl was his view of humanity, which was incredibly optimistic and inclusive. Having worked on the Voyager program, it was Carl who asked them to turn the camera around to take a photo of earth, to offer us some perspective. The result is the pale blue dot, which I maintain is the most powerful photographs ever taken in history. I’ll give Carl the honor of fully explaining the significance of the pale blue dot in his inimitable style.


From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. 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.

Amen, Carl, amen. I hope, someday, the heady vision Carl had of humanity will come to pass, because when that day comes, the inhabitants of the pale blue dot will be united under a banner of universal responsibility to take care of ourselves and our cradle of life.


~ by Andrew on November 6, 2010.

One Response to “Carl Sagan Day”

  1. We are all star stuff.

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