When the Voyager 1 probe was 3.7 billion miles from Earth, Carl Sagan made a request.
He asked NASA to turn it around to snap a quick photograph. The result was a faint image of Earth surrounded by the vastness of space. The late astronomer would then use this picture to share his own reflections on what it meant and why it was important for us to capture.
“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.”1
The Scales of Perspective
There isn’t much that needs to be added to that. It beautifully captures a delicate part of reality that is neglected by the majority of us as we go about our day to day concerns.
It puts into context many of the things that we see and do and their relative importance in the scheme of things. It’s a reminder that there is a very distinct world that exists beyond the daily lens through which we impose our own agenda and centrality on our surroundings.
The human ego is a survival mechanism. If we didn’t see the world around us as if we were at its center, very soon, we’d lose the incentive to do things that would allow us to endure.
At the same time, however, this ego is also programmed to prefer conflict over cooperation.
It competes even when there is no reason to compete, it shields itself from feedback even if feedback is necessary for growth, and it closes itself off even if opening up is the answer.
There are different scales of perspective that we are all capable of applying if we are aware enough to do so. Sometimes, the scale that matters is the one that gives you confidence about your place in the world and whatever it is you need to do to get by in your daily routine.
Much of the time, however, we would all be better off if we learned how to zoom out. This may not solve every internal conflict in our mind or external battle that plagues the world, but it can give us the tools to treat ourselves and the people around us just a little bit better.
To some degree, the world adapts to the perspective you employ in seeing it. Choose wisely.
The Wealth of Connection
There is a partial melancholy in the recognition of our insignificance. To some, it reinforces feelings of inferiority. It takes away from the pride they take in their identity and sacrifices.
If the universe is so large, and if we aren’t at its center, and if nothing we do matters in some objective sense, then what is the point? Why go on concerning ourselves with small matters?
Carl Sagan would likely tell you that the shared reality we all live in with each other still matters. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters, and all that the vastness of the universe does is remind us to keep this shared reality organized in a way that makes it more bearable.
If there’s anything we have learned studying the sciences, it’s not just that everything around us is deeply connected, but it’s that these connections are why things work in the first place.
The networks and ideologies we have created are responsible for allowing us to leapfrog beyond our individual genetic potential to shape and influence the world as we have.
The underlying chemical elements that create planets, stars, and solar systems are precisely the same ones that have created our bodies, brains, and everything else that we observe.
For you to feel threatened by the size of the universe, you have to treat it as if it’s something that exists independently of yourself. As far as we know, that’s just not the case. It may be vast, uncertain, and contain parts that we may not understand, but it isn’t at all separate.
There is something fundamentally sublime about the fact that we are essentially a dance of molecules in an ever-expanding line of molecules. That there is more going on around us.
You can either choose to contribute to this process or just let it take the pressure off.
All You Need to Know
Few people have added more to the scientific education of the public than Carl Sagan.
Outside of his own research, he brought us a list of books and television series that spoke a language that we actually understood. In many ways, he was science’s very own poet.
The Pale Blue Dot was captured on February 14th in 1990. Since then, along with Sagan’s moving tribute, it’s inspired generations of people to look differently at their place in the universe. It gave an illustration of something we had all suspected, but never fully verbalized.
It was a reminder to view our seemingly large and complex planet on a scale that showed a different side of things. It gave us the courage to accept and utilize our insignificance.
While not all aspects of our lives demand that we see the world through this lens, it is critical to have it be a part of our mental toolkit. The human ego may be a mechanism to ensure survival, but it isn’t what pushes progress, and nor is it what drives prosperity.
What really makes the world move forward is interconnectedness. It’s the ability to interact with our shared reality in a way that ensures our individual efforts add rather than detract.
There is a far larger process going on out there, and we are all a part of it. The degree of responsibility we want to take in that process is up to us, but the beauty of it can’t be denied.
That faint speck of dust we live on is all we have ever known. Let’s start treating it that way.