Notes from a pale blue dot
[This is a piece I wrote a year ago and I really do like it, unlike a lot of my other writing. I want to revisit the same theme a year later in another piece of writing that I will soon publish on The Post.]
On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager I space probe was almost ten billion kilometres away from Earth, on its way out of our solar system. Once past Saturn, Voyager turned around and took a photograph that is equal parts enigmatic, compelling and humbling. The photograph displays a vast expanse of space, black and grainy, with three vertical shafts of lights and floating in one of the shafts is a tiny miniscule pixel—a bright dot no larger than a pencil point—the Earth; what Carl Sagan, the great astrophysicist, called ‘a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’.
This photograph, this portrait of our world, is beyond humbling. It is anathema to any and all human hubris. On this one tiny speck of dust, this small, small molecule in the vast infinite expanse of the universe is everything we make, everyone we love, all our wealth, all our culture, all our heroes, all our enemies, every hope, dream, wish and desire. On the shoulders of this pale blue point of light rests all of humanity. We are almost unrecognisable from anyone else. Out of an infinity of lights, we are but one. In the mosaic of space, we are but a needle-point. It is almost enough to make you lose all hope, to wail and howl like King Lear at a universe that is, at best, indifferent to our existence. What then does anything matter?
And yet, there is something conflicting about this photograph, a complex amalgam of emotions that is both depressing and uplifting. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, that we do not matter but at the same time, it screams out loud, “I am here.” Voyager I is now the farthest man-made object in history, about to exit the solar system any day, billions of miles away from our pale blue dot. On board the spacecraft is a Golden Record, a collection of sounds and words from Earth. Among the 55 languages on the record is a greeting in Nepali, wishing peace to anyone out there from us, the citizens of Earth.
The Golden Record is a symbolic gesture more than an actual attempt to reach an extraterrestrial species. It is humanity’s attempt to carve out its name in space, to say I was here once. It is testament to human ingenuity, to our resourcefulness and our existence as homo faber, man the maker. It is our ultimate expression, our refusal to go gentle into that good night, our rage against the dying of the light. It is our challenge to the universe, our spit in its eye: this little, tiny, miniscule dot refuses to resign itself to its own insignificance. We refuse to be nothing. We will strive, always, to be more than what we are. This is what makes us human. We, who are never content with ourselves, who are always attempting to transcend our limits, who are always striving to create something bigger, something better, something that allows us to escape our skins and confront the world head-on. We, who create, who make, who bring into existence things, structures, ideas, worlds and life itself. We thumb our noses at the universe and say, destroy us if you will but until then, we shall never stop building and we shall do everything in our power to be remembered.
But of course, this is hubris. Shelley told us as much with Ozymandias: “Look upon my works, ye Mighty and despair!” What chance do we stand against this vast, incomprehensible darkness? What do wars mean when a single errant comet could wipe out our planet in a fraction of a second? We divide ourselves into nations, religions, castes and creed when it is really us against infinity. We build factories that spew forth toxic smoke that blankets this fragile world in a poisonous cocoon, we spill oil into the very oceans that water and feed us, we kill wantonly and brazenly as if life were common and pedestrian, we forget our place time and again. Our rage, that same emotion that screams out loud for recognition, is channeled differently into destruction and division, into hatred and oppression. What makes us significant is the things we do to prolong life, to create new things that sustain life on this little rock floating through space just a little more, to make cohabitation not a chore but a pleasure, to go forth into the good night as denizens of a world, not of a country, not of an ethnic group, a race, a religion but as wired individuals, hurtling through space on a mote of dust, sharing what little we have. Because like Sagan told us time and again, this is the only home we’ve ever known.
published on The Kathmandu Post, June 23, 2012
[Also, please read this fantastic Zen Pencils comic about Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. It is one of my favorite things on the web: http://zenpencils.com/comic/100-carl-sagan-pale-blue-dot/]