On February 14, 1990 the Voyager 1 interplanetary probe had passed Saturn on a journey that would eventually take it beyond the solar system. When it was nearly four billion miles from Earth Carl Sagan, astronomer and astrophysicist who was part of the Voyager program, convinced his colleagues to point the voyager camera back towards Earth and take a picture. The spacecraft was so far from Earth the picture revealed only a tiny point of blue light against the vast background of empty space. Sagan was so moved by the picture he wrote the following and included it in his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot.

“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.

Dr. Sagan was one of a few scientists with not only a keen scientific mind and dedication to his profession, but also with the ability to share his passion with regular folks and without the technical jargon. Sagan ‘preached’ the power and principles of science as a great unifier of humanity, perhaps the only way in which the darkened walls that separate people, i.e. religious, cultural, political, economic, and social differences; could be dissolved in the light of education, compassion, and reason.

But alas Sagan’s vision of the gradual unification of humanity under a common umbrella seems ever more distant from reality. Instead of striving for the common good for all, humanity is falling into the abyss of fractionalization and self-interest.  There are many doctrines, religions, and philosophies that preach ‘the way’, but that usually extends to only those who choose to become indoctrinated into a particular point of view. Others remain ‘others’ and outsiders, often condemned and vilified. What Sagan was saying in his passionate plea was that despite the popular idea of settling Mars and beyond, these ideas do not solve the problems we as a species face, which are ‘human’ problems, and do not “save us from ourselves”. If we cannot peacefully resolve our differences on earth, which arise out of our own character, and strive to be Nature’s partner rather than adversary, then our flaws and the damage they cause will merely follow us wherever we go.  

Wishing all my readers, friends, family, and that Other Old Guy, an enlightened and rewarding holiday season. In the spirit of the season, make your gift this year, to yourself and others, the gift of education and enlightenment.

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