Friday, November 12, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

During a brief interlude between patients this afternoon, I took Maggie on a walk along the river in Cambridge. I stumbled across a podcast that made mention of Carl Sagan's book "A Pale Blue Dot." Memories that had long since been crowded deep into the storage spaces of my mind came rushing back.

When I was just a little dot I fashioned myself as a future astronomer. I remember how excited I was to watch PBS and catch each and every hour of the 13 part series Cosmos. My tiny little world got so much bigger with Dr. Sagan's deep voice delivering information about the vastness and wonder of the universe around us. I was hooked. Sadly I was not a child that was particularly gifted in math. Addition and subtraction was a stretch for me--the math I would need to be able to do this sort of work seemed out of reach. I moved on to study other things. Still, my imagination was captured by that initial curiosity about "countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time." 

Fast forward a decade. I had graduated from college when I was 19. Knowing everything there was to know any about anything, I promptly picked a sensible course of action: I moved to New York City for graduate school. After a year of study I learned two things: I wasn't ready for graduate school and I was definitely not interested in studying Industrial/Organizational psychology. My grad school and I had an amicable separation. I moved upstate to Ithaca New York. 

I spent a year living in a basement apartment figuring myself out. Spring finally arrived after a long and brutal winter that involved two snow storms that were so intensely cold I froze in my own apartment. I was walking around the campus of Cornell and nearly fainted when I heard Dr. Sagan's very distinctive voice. I searched him out and introduced myself. He was kind enough to interrupt the conversation he was having to exchange a few words with me. I told him he helped to inspire my curiosity as a young child and taught me a few things about honoring the very unique and rare life we each share. He said something kind to me. I wish I could remember but those memories are now lost. You have to remember I was practically swooning with excitement. Dr. Sagan was my own personal rock star. If every I had to pick someone who is my hero, it would be Dr. Sagan.

Though we had only met in person for a few short moments, through his work and presence in this world, he helped to inspire what I consider to be my best quality: curiosity about the world around me. From an early age, he showed me that while in the larger scheme of things I am a relatively unimportant little speck in a vast universe, the choices I make are important and the rarity of uniqueness of human life requires me to be kind and thoughtful with those choices. 

So what's with this pale blue dot? That's us. When the Voyager spacecraft turned it's camera back toward the Earth right past Saturn for one last image of Earth.

"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." -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

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