Some thirty-three years ago, the Voyager 1 spacecraft attempted to photograph all of the known planets in our solar system in a single “family portrait.” But it couldn’t see all of them. Some planets were too small, or too close to the Sun. The Earth, as is now well-known, turned up as a mere smudge of a dot, colored blue. Carl Sagan, poet laureate by day and planetary scientist by night — and the man whose idea it was to have Voyager turn around and say ‘cheese’ — spoke of the Earth as the Pale Blue Dot. The image stuck, and so did the name.
In this blog I’ve recorded several “Pale Blue Dot” moments, when I’ve stumbled on passages in classic works that have spoken of the Earth in such terms as either a small thing lost in immensity or as a world that looks transformed when seen from a great height.
Humility happens in these passages, or rather in most of them (I’ll get to the exceptions in a minute). The authors usually express a sense that seeing our world as a dot, or as a distant globe in which normal everyday features can no longer be seen, puts into perspective our petty daily concerns, and puts into place any ambition to own land and to exercise power. That was Carl Sagan’s great theme whenever he wrote or spoke about the Pale Blue Dot.
It was also Sancho Panza’s theme, after he took an imaginary flight into the high atmosphere:
Ever since I came down from heaven, and from the top of it beheld the earth, and saw how little it is, the great desire I had to be a governor has been partly cooled in me; for what is there grand in being ruler on a grain of mustard seed, or what dignity or authority in governing half a dozen men about as big as hazel nuts; for, so far as I could see, there were no more on the whole earth?“Don Quixote,” Vol. 2, ch. 42
Now for the humble exceptions.
Satan takes a long journey toward Earth, in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and as he approaches it he has several moments in which he sees what you might call pale dots, but he is never moved to humility, or to question his ambition to rule on Earth. He sees that our world is a mere dot lost in the immensity of the realms he comes from (Heaven, Hell, and Chaos), but he is nevertheless happy and determined to make it his own.
Soon after departing Hell, while still traversing an immense void and still too far to see the Earth, Satan begins to see the entirety of the created universe, appearing as no more than a star:
hanging in a golden chain
This pendent world, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
The entire created universe, “this pendent world,” is dwarfed by Heaven and Hell and the immense void that the fallen angel is now crossing. Satan like Voyager sees nothing but a dot, suspended in a golden chain, or as Carl Sagan wrote with echoes of Milton, a dot “suspended in a sunbeam”.
Satan closer now, the entirety of creation begins to take shape and size:
a globe far off
It seemed, now seems a boundless continent
Dark, waste, and wild, under the frown of Night
Drawing close to our planet:
Satan from hence now on the lower stair
That scaled by steps of gold to Heaven gate
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
Of all this world at once.
Satan here is much closer than Voyager; he is near the bottom of Jacob’s ladder, close to the Earth but not yet on it. What he sees here is more like the visions of Magellan, Balboa, even Apollo 8.
One more time the pale blue dot appears in “Paradise Lost,” but now only in the imagination of Adam, as he views the expanse above Eden and imagines how small the Earth must be:
this earth a spot, a grain,
An atom, with the firmament compared
And all her numbered stars, that seem to roll
Spaces incomprehensible (for such
Their distance argues and their swift return
Diurnal) merely to officiate light
Round this opacous earth, this punctual spot,
One day and night; in all their vast survéy
Useless besides, reasoning I oft admire,
How Nature wise and frugal could commit
Such disproportions, with superfluous hand
So many nobler bodies to create,
Greater so manifold, to this one use,
For aught appears,
Adam, with meditation alone and no photographs, no advantage of flight, and no astronomical instruments apart from his own eyes, is coming to know the Pale Blue Dot for what it is. And he is feeling, as Carl Sagan himself would appreciate, what a waste of space it is, if all is created merely for him.
A lesson in humility that never grows old.