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Pale Blue Dot

MetaFilter (www.metafilter.com) is an interesting web site I visit every day. It is described as a “community blog” meaning it’s a place where the community posts stories instead of an individual. The neat thing about it is that the subjects are ones I might not intentionally seek out myself (arts, music, history, etc).

A title caught my attention recently: “The most Epic Photo Ever Taken?”. It linked to a Quora (another web-based service I use which asks and answers “big” questions) thread with possible answers to the question.

I recognised most of the photos suggested as “most epic” and a few are worth commenting on here, I think…

The photo with the most votes was “pale blue dot”, a dark grey grainy photo with some streaks of light and a single blue dot to the right of center. That blue dot is the critical part: it is the Earth, photographed in 1990 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers by the Voyager 1 spacecraft after travelling outwards from the Sun (and Earth) for 13 years.

The greatest science communicator of all time, Carl Sagan, wrote about the deeper meaning of the photo in a book he wrote in 1994. Here’s what he wrote…

“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.”

Yes, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Good old Carl could be quite poetic when he put his mind to it. But it’s a good point isn’t it? It really shows how pathetically trivial most human endeavour really is.

Looking at this how could anyone take the ridiculous claims of religions seriously? How could they begin to accept the self-important nonsense espoused by the world’s political and military organisations? And who would take the slightest notice of the frivolous tripe we hear from business and corporate leaders?

None of these things have the slightest importance to the universe as a whole. But does anything we do? I guess in the vastness of the cosmos nothing really does, but I would like to think that the higher human activities: art, philosophy, science, do have some significance.

But maybe I’m just fooling myself. The photo in second place is described by the submitter to Quora like this…

“This image was taken in Sudan during the 1993 famine. That’s a little girl, crawling slowly and painfully across the ground toward a food distribution center, while a vulture watches her and follows, waiting for her to die so it can eat her.

The photographer, Kevin Carter, chased the bird away and then sat sobbing uncontrollably after taking the photo. In April of 1994, Carter was informed he’d be winning the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, and he was presented with the prize on May 23rd of that year. Two months later, he killed himself out of grief and desperation over all of the things he’d seen and his depression at the things humanity does to one another.”

So this is the sort of result we get from the short-term thinking, the self important political posturing, the failure to accept reality, and the greed and corruption which is rampant in the world today.

I think those are two of the most powerful photos there but there are others as well. There is the famous photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 crew as they orbited the Moon. The Apollo missions seem to be an achievement worth celebrating but even those were motivated by petty politics.

Another (which has always been one of my personal favourites and I have mentioned on this blog several times) is the Hubble Deep Field photo. It was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1975 and covers an area of sky the size of a coin viewed from 75 feet away. In that image are thousands of galaxies. Each of those galaxies have hundreds of billions of stars. If the Pale Blue Dot made you feel small this should multiply that thought a trillion times over!

A lot of what I see on Quora is quite intelligent and this thread is no exception. If you want to have a look at the photos, this is the link.

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