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The most beautiful picture of the world.


What? You don’t see it? That pixel just right of center, the one that looks like someone made by an accidental click with the erase tool in mspaint, that’s us. That’s the Earth. Gaia. In 1990, the voyager 1 made it to the outskirts of the solar system. As the craft passed the furthest point that any man made device had ever traveled, it turned away from the cosmos and pointed its camera back within. Carl Sagan requested this from NASA, and so it was that on the precipice of the infinite, the spacecraft took one last look at its home planet.

The Voyager 1 was 40 astronomical units from the Earth. That’s 3.8 billion miles (I’m aware of that). That’s over 6 billion kilometers (doh!). There’s so much that’s amazing about those statistics. We could send something that far out,  have it still work and communicate back to us sending pictures back to us. It would take the pictures, at the very least, 2 hours to get back to us once they were taken. Even though I’m using a similar method right now to wirelessly post this on the internet, it’s amazing to think of that data stream hurtling from an irretrievable hunk of metal down to us, where it could be decoded in to a picture so haunting and beautiful.

Though he meant it to describe ancient gods and demons that we could hardly fathom, I can’t help but think of an H.P. Lovecraft quote when seeing this picture. It’s the opening paragraph from “Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

It’s hard to look at that picture and not be a little frightened. We, who are fragile creatures to begin with, are shown to be even more fragile. To the universe, we, and our actions, are of no consequence. Carl Sagan is much more eloquent than I could ever be, so I’ll just leave you in his hands.

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.

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