Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tribute to Carl Sagan

Today is the ten-year anniversary of Carl Sagan's death and he is being memorialized in the blogosphere. Here is my own little contribution:

Sometime in the eleventh grade, I was browsing the shelves of my local public library and came upon a copy of Pale Blue Dot. That was not my first encounter with Carl Sagan's work -- I had read The Dragons of Eden a couple of years earlier -- but it was the one that took. I read Pale Blue Dot, renewed it and reread it. Reaching the renewal limit, I brought the book back -- and checked it out again on my very next library trip. (Of course, I was reading Sagan's other books at the same time.) I eventually bought a softcover copy of Pale Blue Dot, wore it out in a couple of years and finally invested in a hardcover edition.

What about that book captured my attention so durably? It wasn't just the fascinating descriptions of the Solar System or the luminous visions of future space exploration. What touched me the most was Sagan's sense of the unity of humankind. We occupied a tiny mote of dust in a vast Cosmos, and the way we treated each other had to reflect that. Against the backdrop of space, all the subgroups of Homo sapiens are essentially one. Sagan wrote:

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.

If you have a high-bandwidth connection, please watch the YouTube video below. Quite honestly, it gave me goosebumps.


Dave said...

I'm not sure I buy the implication in the quote that size equates to significance. What if planets with biospheres were, in fact, really, really rare? Of course, I agree that deperately humanity needs to learn humility...

Dave said...

(oops. make that "humanity deperately needs")

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Jane. I too read Pale Blue Dot over a decade ago and it still resonates with me today. Sagan was a prophet.

Also, thanks for the blogroll link! I reciprocated... :)


Jane Shevtsov said...

I don't think Sagan meant to imply that our world isn't important -- in fact, I can think of several places where he explicitly states the opposite. But we are small and our place in the Universe is in no way privileged. Humility is definitely what Sagan was going after here.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for posting the video, I liked it so much I had to put it on my blog too! It gave me goosebumps too. I think I'm going to go try my copy of Pale Blue Dot and read it again. His quote really makes you think about our earth and our place here.