Regular readers will know that I am “late to the table” with regards to reading for pleasure, and also that I’m no scientist by any definition of the term. Yet, I enjoy reading the work of great scientists, particularly those who see the awe and wonder in the scientific world as additional to, as opposed to a substitute for, the aesthetic, creative and imaginative feelings and stirred emotions of the universe. To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, knowing that a rose has bright petals to attract insects for pollination does not make the petals any less vibrant in hue or beautiful in appearance to the scientist than they are to the artist.
For this month’s blog, I wanted to share with you a piece that I re-read recently by astronomer and broadcaster Carl Sagan. Growing up in the 1970s, my imagination was captivated by science fiction television series (Dr Who, Space 1999, and The Planet of the Apes being particular favourites) and great feature films such as Logan’s Run, Silent Running, and, of course, Star Wars. This percolated through to an interest in documentary series such as BBC’s “The Sky at Night”, hosted by Sir Patrick Moore, and that of his American counterpart Sagan’s “Cosmos”.
In 1994, Sagan wrote a piece entitled “the pale blue dot”, based on a photograph of the Earth taken from the Voyager 1 probe on 14th February 1990 – about 6.2 billion kilometres from its home planet, as it passed Saturn and sped towards the edges of our solar system. The photograph is reproduced here, as is the text from Sagan’s piece:
“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 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, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
For me, the power and majesty of Sagan’s message is such as to rival a Shakespearean soliloquy or The Gettysburg Address. As such, to expand upon, critique, or unpick it here would only tarnish it. However, I am brave enough to juxtapose it with another message. Sagan’s message is a humbling and even sobering one, but it is in no means an advocation of futility. It is a message that where we are matters. What we do matters. When we see large scale problems around us – climate change, social injustice – we can all play our part individually to make our “pale blue dot”, our one and only home, a better place. But that starts with our own lives. “People who don’t have their own houses in order should be very careful before they try to go about reorganising the world” was a comment made by a very forthright contributor to a televised panel debate I watched recently. I agree.
Within our Trust, we have amazing people – young and not so young – who care deeply about our world and its inhabitants, but understand that change starts with them: making the most of their talents and experience, being generous and compassionate to others, being prepared to speak and to listen, and taking personal responsibility for their growth and development. It is their individual efforts that make us collectively what we are. As we move toward the end of the academic year, those efforts have been as great as ever and have been a source of inspiration to all those around them, including me. To those of them reading this, I am in your debt.
As always, thanks for reading – and have a good summer.