The only home we have ever known

Yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Big Picture section featured two dozen mind-blowing hi-quality pictures of our Solar System’s mysteriously beautiful jewel – our ringed neighbour Saturn, captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe which is still orbiting the gas giant. I was stunned by this pic, which shows the planet’s far north latitudes…and what seems like gazillions of storms and mega-storms. Each pixel here is 29 kilometres on the planet, which means even the smallest of the storms is about the size of New Zealand:

Makes the Earth actually look like a peaceful place, don’t you think?

All the images were captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe, still orbiting the gas giant. But they seem to have forgotten to include the best pic by Cassini, the one that shows the planet just eclipsing the Sun, parts of its rings beautifully lit. But that is not all. Just click the pic to see a bigger version. Now, above the rings, in the top left, not particularly significant, forgotten and starlike – is our tiny home. Earth. The only home we’ve ever known. A pale blue dot that in this picture is easily unnoticeable. Sometimes, it is hard to accept that we live in a mote of dust, which shrinks fearfully at this imposing, giant yellow world, which occupies a full thousand times the volume of our own:

In a similar picture (below) of the earth taken from a huge distance – near the orbit of Neptune, to be precise – earth is a tiny dot, and by all miracles of chance a bright sunbeam reflecting off the spacecraft Voyager that took the picture crosses the dot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is the best example. Carl Sagan, one of my heroes and a world renowned astronomer, once remarked thus on seeing this:

Look again at 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.

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.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. 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 with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

–Carl Sagan, May 1996


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