Carl Sagan's commentary on the "pale blue dot" is one of the more remarkable observations of the individual's relationship with his place in time and space. The "pale blue dot" of course is the planet Earth and the vantage point is that of NASA's Voyager One, a little over 25 years ago. Just after it passed Saturn, the antiquated space robot turned it's cameras around and instead of looking forward to its exploratory mission, looked back at its roots. Mr. Sagan described the importance of the resulting image with artistic perfection in his book: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again 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."
Consider your place on this "mote of dust." How many times do you find yourself wrapped up in the drama of your life's unfolding story? Events come and go with the passing of time. Some seem overwhelmingly impossible to get passed and plague us through sleepless nights and days of distraction. How many times have you brought yourself to the point of frustration because something didn't work out the way you planned it? How often have you laid in bed contemplating your place in the world, in life and maybe even in history? One of the most profound realizations I had in my life occurred while studying the Roman Empire back in college. We were discussing Pompeii and I remember looking at a photograph of a public street with its uneven cobblestones, rudimentary crosswalks, and abandoned storefronts. Something struck me about the mundane nature of this picture which at one time bustled with activity for nearly 800 years (more than 3 times longer than America has existed) around 2,500 years ago. Simply put, people walked these streets to and from work; to and from the market; to and from the homes of friends and family. They had their own problems which robbed them of sleep and distracted them from their days. They lived, loved, lost and died as quickly and quietly as the ticking of a second hand around a clock. The overwhelming majority of these folks were forgotten by time. These individuals looked like us, laughed like us, cried like us and existed in every way like us. This made me reconsider the value and meaning of my life. A quick scroll through social media reveals people who feel their lives have to be filled with fireworks, rainbows, and unicorns! That they have to write a great novel, star in a blockbuster film or record a gold record. Our 80 or so years of existence on this planet is but a grain of sand on the shores of human history with a negligible impact on anything beyond friends and family. And as Mr. Sagan eloquently describes, even the greatest and most powerful characters in history are but "momentary masters of a fraction of a dot." This perspective is reassuring and somewhat cathartic. The majority of humans that lived on this planet were at most, important to only a handful of others. And the few who broke the mold and touched thousands or even millions of other lives, were still only important to a handful of souls, relatively speaking. If you are worrying about your place in the world or your place in history, be comforted that in only matters to the few close and special group of humans you are lucky enough to share a bond with at this place and this time. So rejoice in the mathematical impossibility of existence and worry only about those people around you that you're lucky enough to love because history's second hand is ticking away.
Mr. Sagan closes his thoughts on the Pale Blue Dot masterfully and beautifully.
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.
Stay tuned to Episode #35 with Tom Bell, an archaeology student who discovered the small pendant which turned out to be the oldest Mesolithic art in Great Britain. To hold this pendant in his hands tens of thousands of years after it's previous owner wore it is a lesson itself in our place in time.
Sagan, Carl (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House
Sagan, Carl (September 9, 1990). "The Earth from the frontiers of the Solar system - The Pale, Blue Dot". PARADE Magazine.
Pale Blue Dot Image from NASA: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=52392
Pompeii Street By Alago - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3130379