Consider Again that Dot

These reflections of mine will not be new, but they are new for me. I recently showed my kids one my favorite movies, “Contact“, based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, about a potential first contact on Earth with extraterrestrial life. We had a great discussion about it, and since then I’ve been looking up again the many “Pale Blue Dot” montages on YouTube. You may be familiar with some; these are montages of historical and cinematic images, accompanied by an audio track of a famous speech from another of Carl Sagan’s books, “Pale Blue Dot“. It’s the speech that begins: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” You can hear the rest in, for example, this montage:

A fuller explanation of the Voyager photograph is here:

And here is the text, from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”:

From this distance the planets seem only points of light, smeared or unsmeared—even through the high-resolution telescope aboard Voyager. They are like the planets seen with the naked eye from the surface of the Earth—luminous dots, brighter than most of the stars. Over a period of months the Earth, like the other planets, would seem to move among the stars. You cannot tell merely by looking at one of these dots what it’s like, what’s on it, what its past has been, and whether, in this particular epoch, anyone lives there…..

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any 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.

I have always loved that speech for its grandeur and its call to humility, its eloquence and its warmth. The first time I heard it, it broke me down, and I cried.

The pale blue dot has been a theme on this blog, ever since I read “Don Quixote” and found Sancho Panza, of all people, prefiguring Carl’s words with this statement:

I looked down at the earth, and it seemed to me that it was no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts, so you can see how high we must have been flying then. … After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth.

“Don Quixote,” Vol. II, chs. 41-42, Edith Grossman translation

But some months ago, I did have one new feeling while watching these montages: I felt that Sagan’s lofty sentiments, intended only to affirm human life, loses something in lines like, “the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner (of the Earth).” I knew that Carl himself harbored no disrespect for people’s cultures, but it was unclear to me whose perspective this line was intended to express. It’s obviously not the perspective of those who can see the Earth only as a dot, because they cannot see individual human beings on it, or even guess that life exists there. I wondered then if it was intended as the perspective of those who do violence, but those who start wars on foreigners or in foreign lands are generally obsessed with the differences they can see, like speech patterns and skin color, as well as invisible things like beliefs and ideologies, etc., which are in no sense indistinguishable, even if they, every last one, could be shown to be limited, flawed or false.

The line must be read in the general context of the speech, which argues that we are all, from a universal perspective, much smaller than we think. That is inarguable, but to say that our differences are scarcely distinguishable lacks something that I feel is needed when looking at our differences. There are surely many differences, like skin color, that mean nothing. But there are distinguishable, crucial differences between, say, peace-abiding cultures and war-mongering ones; those who have technology and those who don’t; those who respect technology and science, and those who don’t; those who believe in God and those who don’t; and so on. Differences in languages, like many other differences, may ultimately be down to random mutations of history and chance, but even in those there is beauty, and no lack of distinctiveness.

After watching “Contact” with my family, I landed on a new insight (new for me) about the Pale Blue Dot. Carl is right that our planet is a dot, and should be embraced in all humility. But space is so large that even a galaxy appears as a dot, if you’re far enough away. Countless points of light in our eyes are actually galaxies, some of great size.

What this means to me is that, though we are all radically smaller than we can imagine, and all life in the universe is indeed small in that sense, it is so only because of the great distances that space provides. If you come in close, into intimacy, the picture changes. And what you find there is not all illusion. Or if it is, we must say too that it’s an illusion for someone at Voyager’s distance to conclude that Earth has no life — or to conclude anything detailed about it. The distant vantage point holds no privileged position of truth, either.

Nor is size a neutral value. Atomic scientists tell us that the invisibly small is just as wondrous, and just as important to study, as the galactically large.

Would we be of more intrinsic value if somehow the universe were small enough that no one in it would ever see Earth as a pale blue dot and would always see detail on it?

Even in such a case, what would then be of value? Only what could be seen? That would make mountain ranges of more value than the little people scurrying around like ants.

It does not seem to me that we are of less intrinsic value due to the rapid expansion of the universe into its current great size. That expansion renders us invisible almost from almost any other point in the universe, but that’s all it does.

The value for us in such a large universe, I think — and this should not be far from what Carl himself has in mind — is to make us sit back and radically question ourselves. That applies to all those who, like most of humanity, have placed too much value on power, strength, visibility — all those “thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines” that have not questioned the role of power in their values, or who have, dangerously, stopped doing those reflections. The way that humans have handled power, we can safely say that these reflections are necessary for all of us, and that, in particular, those who have power or seek it will have a never-ceasing responsibility to resist and correct its corrupting influence.

But I don’t think that such questioning necessarily leads in the end to a rejection of our inherent value, especially if we are theists. Even according to the Pale Blue Dot ethos itself, the great size of the universe makes life all the more rare and precious, at least to us. Great size (like great distance), if it means anything, cuts two ways.

You don’t even need to be a theist to find intrinsic value in Earth’s human beings, because Carl himself has said elsewhere that life is a way for the Universe to know itself. In a now-famous metaphor, he refers to our first forays into space as our first steps at the shores of the cosmic ocean, and he adds:

“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the Cosmos is also within us; we’re made of starstuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

From episode 1 of the miniseries “Cosmos,” which quotes in part a passage from the book “Cosmos”

Of course this was poetry and he was not literally declaring that the Universe was a conscious being with a purpose. But Carl did not make poetic words for their own sake, or to adorn things he knew with certainty to be false. He offered a metaphor, and it clearly implies that life has some importance that goes beyond our local values, our local benefit, our local welfare.

After these recent reflections, I decided to read Carl’s book, “Pale Blue Dot,” in full. And I got some clarification about the famous passage, when in another chapter Carl talks about how two warring parties on Earth typically appear to a third party: “to an outside observer they are virtually indistinguishable.”

This probably tells us what Carl meant earlier when he referred to “the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner (of Earth).” He wasn’t saying that people are intrinsically indistinguishable. He was talking about how senseless violence looks to an outside observer, who is better-placed to see objectively when people are fighting over virtually nothing real. Think of how often the warring parties themselves look back later on their conflict and can’t explain or even remember why it was fought. They only know that for ill-defined things they have paid dearly in things that turn out to have been real and vital to our lives.

That point is actually clear if you’re just reading the text and not hearing it as part of a video: “Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.” A video is expected to provide an image for every phrase, and when you hear the words, “scarcely distinguishable inhabitants,” you strongly resist the idea of putting any human face or image there as an illustration.

And maybe that’s because we know from experience that when any of us first encounter a new culture, all its individuals tend to look the same. We know, hopefully, that this is an illusion — an illusion of distance. The only way we get past that illusion is by approaching, by staying a while, and by starting true friendly relationships, in which we learn who the people are and what their culture is. And then we invariably see that what appeared to be a monolith is anything but. That must be the way to compassion and tolerance, and ultimately to love – by an up-close perspective. It’s from there that not only love is possible, but also the ability to recall for two warring friends what is real for them and what they are senselessly destroying.

One more reflection for now. Christianity has without question been corrupted by power, and I have no sympathy for a form of Christianity that merely backs up the powerful and the rich. Jesus proclaimed that the poor shall have good news, that the sick and crippled would be healed, that the last shall be first. All this was, in great part, why he was killed. When they have followed his words and example, Christians have reached out to and accepted those who were small and invisible, not despite their insignificance but because God said that significance in human eyes is radically different from what it is in God’s eyes. God, said Jesus, cares for every sparrow and for every hair on your head (Matt 10:29-31). God declares at length in the Book of Job that undomesticated animal species and wild spaces far from human sight are in God’s care to a degree that Job has not imagined, and that the universe is not human-centered (Job 38-41).

That form of faith/belief holds some common ground with Carl’s vision, in at least one sense: both visions humble, and they both affirm. For Carl Sagan, earth’s life is both tiny-and-insignificant and rare-and-precious. In the Bible, human beings come from dust and will return to dust, and are both nothing before God’s power and everything in God’s eyes.

Our pale blue home as seen by Voyager in 1990, in this image remastered by NASA in 2020

Leave a Reply