Monday, February 14, 2011

Tiny Wonderful

Tonight I was all prepared to go on a tirade about a silly bumper sticker I saw today. You may have seen it. It reads:

If you're reading this, thank a teacher. If you're reading this in English, thank a soldier.

Hmmm... Shouldn't I be thanking a slave owner...? (That'll be another post!)

However, before I could step onto my soapbox I happened upon the facebook profile picture of one of my high school homies, Johnne Smith. This is it:

The picture is called "The Pale Blue Dot." It's a photograph taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles away, on the edge of the solar system. Earth is the TINY dot in the yellowish-orange streak of light in the top of the photo; a bit to the right of center. That's right. That's us. ALL of us.

The photo was taken by NASA at the request of astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author Carl Sagan. Subsequently, Sagan used the photo as his inspiration to write his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. I have yet to read it (It's on the list, right after Slaughterhouse-Five and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) but from what I've been able to gather, the book contextualizes our place in the universe and offers insight into how to protect and preserve our home.

Here an excerpt:

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.


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