Sunday, 29 July 2012

Pale blue dot

I've written elsewhere on this blog about Voyager 1, the probe that was launched almost exactly 35 years ago, in August 1977, and which NASA has just announced is now leaving the Heliopause, the last bit of our solar system, making it the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. It also appears in Jake Arnott’s new novel, The House of Rumour, in a scene which transports the reader from Ian Fleming arguing with his wife in their Jamaican house to Voyager 1 to show how insignificant this argument is in the great scheme of things. When Voyager 1 and 2 were launched there was much excitement about the golden disc containing birdsong, music, pictures of the Sydney Opera House and the Pyramids and messages recorded in various languages (‘Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday’) that would help us to communicate with hypothetical aliens. In fact Voyager 1 will not pass another planet for another 40,000 years and its real significance is its reminder of our own marginal place in the universe.

Writers have been reminding us of this for thousands of years. In Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’, a Roman general finds himself looking down upon Carthage ‘from a high place full of stars, shining and splendid’, and realises how small and puny it is from that perspective. Then there is (the atheist) Rupert Brooke's poem, Clouds:

They say the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

And in his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote this about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black:

'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, 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.'


  1. The only perk that I can see from going into space would be to get some real perspective. I love environments that make me feel small, because it makes the annoyances of life small too.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Absolutely amazing blog. Made me feel inconceivably humble, and makes the entire human race and their 'achievements' appear unconditionally extraneous.

    Bravo, old chap! David.