Carl Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot
There is no better time than Earth Day to take a big step back from the minutia of our everyday lives and look at the larger picture. Why is this blue globe we call Earth so important? What is at stake here? Few have answered these questions as beautifully, or demonstrated them as dramatically, as the late-great cosmologist Carl Sagan.
Sagan was a member of NASA’s historic Voyager 1 team, and in 1990 he suggested staging the ultimate family portrait—an image of Earth from more than 3 billion miles away (beyond Neptune’s orbit). As the Voyager 1 probe sped toward the outer boundary of our solar system, the team turned the camera back toward Earth and captured a final image of our lonely planet. The result was a tiny pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam. Although the dramatic “sunbeam” was technically a camera artifact, the image was a hit. Like no other image before or since, it showed the fragility and smallness of our cosmic home.
A few years later, Sagan explained the significance of what was now known as the “pale blue dot” image during a speech at Cornell University, “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.”
At times, it can be difficult to remember what we share as humans. We tend to focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same. Yet all of us share a home. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, and walk the same ground. Yes, our corner of the globe may have unique challenges or advantages, but even these fade away as we begin to understand the scale of the universe, and the precarious nature of our place in it. This is it. One planet is all we’ve got. We’d better make the best of it.
As always, this Earth Day will bring plenty of practical advice on how you can work to protect the pale blue dot. That’s great! But as you recycle, reduce waste and embrace sustainability—don’t forget to also embrace people. Too often our environmental ethos can include an “us against them” mentality toward humans we believe aren’t doing their part. But judgment and moral superiority isn’t the answer. Instead, perhaps we can learn to treat each other more charitably, even as we hold each other accountable for our actions on our shared planet. We are, for better or worse, in this thing together.
Sagan wrapped it up beautifully in his speech at Cornell. (To hear more of his speech and see a graphical representation of Voyager 1’s journey, watch the video below.)
“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.”
“To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”Carl Sagan, Cornell University, 1994