A Humbling Vision of the Earth
A single photograph of the Earth, taken from a vast distance, gave a new view of the planet and its place in the Cosmos.
In 1990, the astronomer and populariser of science Carl Sagan was working as part of a team on the Voyager 1 interplanetary mission. His idea for the mission would permanently alter the notion that the Earth is an unwavering and timeless stage for human affairs.
Launched on September 5th 1977, the Voyager probe was designed to photograph and investigate the outer planets. This was made significantly easier by a planetary alignment, an event that would not be repeated for another 176 years. The plan was dubbed ‘the Grand tour’.
Onboard the craft was placed the Voyager ‘Golden Record’. Sagan headed a team to choose the contents of the record, and they finally decided upon an eclectic mixture of music (including Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, and Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’), along with various sound clips and images.
After the probe had completed its mission, Sagan asked for permission to turn the spacecraft around, and to take a photograph of the inner solar system. Bemused, his colleagues rightly stated that no useful scientific data would be gained by such a manoeuvre, as Voyager was at a distance of over 3.5 billion miles from the Earth.
Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot Speech
Sagan, for this one picture, wasn’t interested in data. He wanted to capture an image of the Earth that revealed its stark fragility against the cosmic background. The captured view showed the Earth as a speck of light against a vast, black void. He called it the Pale Blue Dot, and for it he crafted a short speech. The following is an extract,
“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”
A Great Thinker
Sagan was a great scientist, but an even greater promoter of science and reason. He believed that if Humanity is to survive the 21st century, it must mature and come to fully appreciate the truth about its place in the Universe. He believed science was not only a useful way to understand the world, but an awe-inspiring and almost spiritual way of thinking.
He had a passion for knowledge, understanding, and the future of our species. His death, 7 months after delivering this speech, removed a voice of true compassion and reason from the world. Perhaps one-day, his message and warning will be heeded by all,
“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”
– Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996)