I remember the first time I heard Carl Sagan. It was 1980, I was 8 years old, and I was absolutely riveted by what I was watching on the television. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was on PBS, and at the moment I decided (an idea that stuck with me through my first year or two of college), that I wanted to be an astronomer. I had always loved science, but this… this felt, even in my 8-year-old mind, as if I was somehow being given the key to understanding everything.
Since then I have followed Sagan and read his many, many books… all with that the same wide-eyed wonder of the child that used to sit, transfixed, in front of the tv. He was the first to awaken my curiosity of science (a curiosity that I have never lost), and the first to make me feel that it was okay to be skeptical (being raised Roman Catholic, that was a big deal).
He would be 77 years old today, and in honor of his birthday, I wanted to post an excerpt from a presentation he gave after seeing a photo taken by Voyager I, of our planet appearing as a small speck of light in a sunbeam. Words that, in typical Sagan fashion, fill us both with wonder and perspective. Enjoy.
Reflections on a Mote of Dust
We succeeded in taking that picture, 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 (1934-1996)
Thank you, Sky Maps, for the text reposted above.