Carl Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot

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You can’t see it in this wide-angle, sun-flared photograph of 640,000 pixels—but somewhere in there is planet earth—at .12 pixels. The image is posted on the “Photojournal” site of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Photojournal link

The text gives technical details of how the photograph was taken.

This color image of the sun, Earth and Venus was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft Feb. 14, 1990, when it was approximately 32 degrees above the plane of the ecliptic and at a slant-range distance of approximately 4 billion miles. It is the first—and may be the only—time that we will ever see our solar system from such a vantage point. The image is a portion of a wide-angle image containing the sun and the region of space where the Earth and Venus were at the time with two narrow-angle pictures centered on each planet. The wide-angle was taken with the camera's darkest filter (a methane absorption band), and the shortest possible exposure (5 thousandths of a second) to avoid saturating the camera's vidicon tube with scattered sunlight.

A closer look reveals the position of earth recorded by Voyager’s camera as it retreated at 40,000 miles per hour, 12 years after its launch on September 5, 1977. When the Voyager 1 spacecraft sped beyond Saturn in 1981, its primary mission was considered completed. However, Carl Sagan proposed that the camera be turned back toward earth to record our home. There were advocates for doing this--- but there was also broad based concern among some scientists that the sun’s brightness would damage the Voyager’s delicate vidicon tube. According to a Wikipedia entry, it was then NASA administrator Richard Tully who intervened and made the decision to take the photograph.

Sagan knew that any resulting image would serve absolutely no scientific purpose, as the distance from earth was well beyond the camera’s resolution—but the poet/philosopher embedded in the scientist Sagan also suspected that this image could afford humanity a profoundly new and modest metaphoric perspective of our place in the cosmos. And indeed it did—as a closer view of the image shows.

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In the photo above, earth is seen slightly below center in the most defined (on the frame's right side) of the vertical striations. It looks to be nothing more than a dead pixel in a digital sensor.

In 1994, Sagan published his sequel to Cosmos. This book, Pale Blue Dot, is both a history and a report on the state of scientific knowledge of the universe and his ruminations of “a vision of the human future in space.”

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It is also a personal meditation on man’s grandeur as well as on man’s hubris. This historical dialectic of man and nature is the subject of countless documentaries. But the usual perspective of these films is centered on the reality of the shared fate of man and all other life on our increasingly beleaguered planet. The primacy of man as dominant animal with other species only there to serve us, or of man as the planet’s ultimate predator, is a definitively intramural affair. Sagan’s soliloquy on this speck of dust that we all inhabit is a lesson not only in metaphysics, but in humility. It should serve us well in the holiday season that, for most of us, is filled with the bright details of the celebration of daily life and its joys.

But it is  a time when we may consider as well the larger questions of our lives, of the very reason of our existence. There are numerous video renderings of Sagan’s meditation, most of which are  feel good celebrations, one, even, rife with Hollywood movie clip fantasies of life.

But there is one I found recently on YouTube, edited by Reid Gower, that while echoing other versions, achieves its own kind of transcendence: images chosen  not merely as a paean to the glories of daily life, but dramatic moments that offer us a cautionary lesson as balm--- but also as antidote to the delusions of our self-importance—and a soliloquy on the message of our greatest religious leaders, a message that reminds us of our privileged but small place in the great chain of being.

May you have the most peaceful holiday season.

Next: Raphael Dallaporta's Deadly Devices.

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