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Pale Blue Dot

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

Blog Thought prompted by the film The Farthest

In rapid succession I watched this film twice and am gearing up for a third pass.

A film? A documentary of the journey of Voyager 1 and 2. Launched in 1977 these, as described, were the first “artificially intelligenced” machines sent into space; and ultimately (end spoiler?) into interstellar space. This was totally a scientific endeavour.

One aspect of this odyssey struck me deeply. As voyager 2 passed the outer planets its defined mission was concluded, and it would thenceforth continue through empty space; for eternity. Carl Sagan thought that before the cameras were shut down there was an opportunity to rotate Voyager to allow the camera to take pictures looking back towards Earth and put this to JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) and got back the response that this served no scientific purpose in the slightest and so, no.

Once you see, read and vicariously experience what Voyager was able to see, and photograph it seems impossible to not be effected and recognise more of our human existence and place as a species living in this cosmos.

Carl Sagan spoke to the head of NASA and JPL were instructed to perform the manoeuvre. Had the hard pragmatism and scientific rationale held sway we would forever be denied a unique view and perspective of our existence since such photographs held no scientific value…

Shame on science; science ever born out of art losing its perspective of what it means to be human – to be creative, to be poetic, to be expressive, to be connecting.

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of that day's Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.

In the photograph, Earth's apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera.

Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.

The Blue Dot - Carl Sagan
Seen from about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), Earth appears as a tiny dot within deep space: the blueish-white speck almost halfway up the brown band on the right

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. 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, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

However, shame on the moralisitc perceptions also. As I am sure most are aware of, the Voyager craft each carry a gold disc recording sounds and images. Of all the images put forward to be included the one to be rejected was a photograph of a naked man and pregnant woman. The woman is pregnant simply to overcome the first objection of the pornography (“sending smut into space!”) of the naked form! How fundamental to our existence and our description is our human form and difference. And this is rejected by NASA… Thus we sent into interstellar space a prejudicial and narrowed moral view of our species, … Shame of the late 1970s …Where would we be then, and now, without some ‘outrage’ minority…

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