It was this week in 1990 that NASA released an historic panorama of photos from an unmanned spacecraft that changed our thinking about our place in the Universe.
At the urging of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA had its Voyager 1 robot turn around and take 60 photos of our Solar System from 4 billion miles. The mosaic showed six of the then nine planets and the Sun (Mercury and Mars were too close the Sun, and then planet Pluto too faint). The “people’s astronomer” Sagan said Earth looked like “a pale, blue dot” captured in a lens flare of sunlight.
Indeed, the paradox of the insignificance and enormity of Earth was recorded. Sagan called it “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” The philosophy of humanity was challenged by the image. There we are. So small. So alone.
Yet on the surface of the third rock from the Sun, every human is important, every person has their unique life. From birth to death, we are self-centered by design, and rarely aware of our complete insignificance in a Universe that has at least twice as many hundred-billion-star galaxies than the number of all the people who have lived on the Earth.
Recently I’ve had a global perspective presented to me. During the Great American Eclipse, many people from around the world bonded during the amazing solar event. As a result, I spent several days with a visiting Australian astronomy popularizer, Dave Reneke, and his astro friend Cliff Watson. They visited Florida’s Space Coast and the experience enrichened our global perspective. This 25,000-mile round ball of Earth separated the Australians and Americans in cultural habits, but together we were united over food, playing tourist and sharing family memories.
And then there is Hurricane Irma. Recently moving to Florida (but keeping my contacts in the East Tennessee), I never experienced a hurricane. So along comes the largest one ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. (How that ends up is for later as The Loafer deadline precedes the invasion of Irma on my home on Merritt Island.) Merging Australian visitors, a global hurricane and the eclectic blend of people living in Florida has made me think a little about this pale, blue dot of ours. My girlfriend, Anita Friend, has educated me to the global aspect of hurricanes and Floridians’ eye to Africa. Originating 5,000 miles away off the northwest coast of Africa, all local TV weather broadcasts show the continent and potential storms developing off its north coast.
The Aussie visitors were on the last leg of their four-week tour of America with the Great American Eclipse sandwiched in between. Dave Reneke is a “go-to” amateur astronomer in his home continent. His popular website, Dave Reneke’s Space and Astronomy, is daily digest of astro news. I am an editor for Dave’s website and offer my stories and photographs of stargazing adventures in the United States. That is another global angle, all the astronomy projects that encompass many countries, particularly universities around the world.
Of course, you can’t talk about being globally connected without the World Wide Web, aka, Internet. Social media has no borders, only electronic connection barriers. It was Aussie Dave who brought up the “pale, blue dot” when talking about his astronomy hero, Carl Sagan. Baby Boomers remember Sagan’s frequent visits on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” where his Brooklyn, New York accent was a moniker when he described the Universe and its “billions and billions of stars.” The 1980 PBS television series “Cosmos” made Sagan a media star, and he sadly died of leukemia in 1996.
Looking at Earth from space only became part of our human psyche in December 1968 when the three-man crew of Apollo 8 made the first traverse of the 240,000 miles to the Moon, capturing the first photos of our entire globe against the blackness of outer space. But when the Earth rose over the lunar horizon, those iconic images really changed everyone’s thinking about our home planet.
As seen close-up from outer space, Earth has no borders and no countries. Daytime gives no hint of civilization, but the night side beams a message to the cosmos that creatures have illuminated their lair.
The imagery of Earth from space is astounding, like a blue marble. The watery oceans of various blue colors dominate two-thirds of the globe, and the land masses are marked with many color shades of green and brown. Antarctica is a white cap covering much of one end of the globe, and on the opposite end is a smaller white area. But it is the swirling white cloud system wrapping the globe that tantalizes the visual senses. Never the same from one day to the next, these patterns of global weather are like a curly hairdo, yet unwittingly control the lives of the humans below. Those pretty clouds betray their purpose as storms, tornados, and hurricanes.
No one has summed up the reality of our pale, blue dot than Sagan, who’s 1994 book of that name talks of the human condition on planet Earth:
“To my knowledge, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world,” Sagan said. “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.”