Cities can make a person feel small, especially giant cities like Osaka and New York. Among the buildings and traffic, the underground walkways and warm blanket of noise, oversized advertisements, dull walls of concrete and fluorescent lights—one human is dwarfed.
But look at that same city shrinking in the window of an airplane and the tables are turned. What was once inconceivably large is now the size of a child’s toy, visible in its entirety without even moving your eye left to right.
One blink and you can flicker the whole city from existence. You are a god perhaps, vendictive or merciful. Maybe you are an angel watching and waiting for your marching orders to raze or defend.
It’s nice to be able to see your city like this from time to time. I would say that if you live in a city that allows for an easily accessible bird’s-eye view of itself, you are a lucky person. And it’s unlikely you are taking advantage of that view as much as you should be. I know that’s the case for me in Osaka where we have multiple accessible vantage points.
I haven’t seen the Earth from space yet so I can only image what a profound feeling it must be. How anyone can find the time to get science done on a space station, I do not know. There is simply too much slack-jawed staring at our blue Earth to be done.
I read somewhere that during the early stages of manned lunar exploration, there was a major clamor among certain humans for NASA to take a photo of Earth from space. The result was an image of Earth in 1972 called The Blue Marble.
The marble in question looked like this:- - - - - -
A marble is a small, round child’s toy invented before video games and the internet and iPhones, visible in its entirety without even moving your eye left to right, even at very close distances.
Imagine that: there was a time when we humans didn’t have a photo of this planet that we spend all of our time on.
For me and people my age, that era is pre-history. Even suited men in big helmets on the Moon are pre-history; thirty years ago they were already retro stock fodder for peddling music videos.
I grew up with pictures of Earth in textbooks and space shuttles re-entering the atmosphere overhead in massive fireballs.
One of those fireballs was explosive and it rained chunks of space shuttle right down on our town in East Texas. It was terrible.
We didn’t want such a disaster to happen again to our aging space shuttles and the smart people flying them. And we didn’t feel like making new space shuttles when money could be spent on intentionally destroying distant parts of the Earth’s surface and the local inhabitants. So we decided we were through with space shuttles. Thanks for the memories.
For children born in the last decade, space shuttles are pre-history. And I am an old man reminiscing about old days.
Speaking of days, I’ve spent the last few of them on planes from New York to San Jose to Tokyo to Osaka. I’ve been reminded each time how to buckle a seatbelt and how to attach an oxygen mask without panicking, sometimes in two languages. I could buckle a seatbelt in my sleep now.
But I didn’t get a lot of sleep on the planes. There was simply too much slack-jawed staring at our blue Earth to be done. My face was pressed to the window the whole time looking out over the clouds below, looking down on our Pale Blue Dot.
Here’s the thing: in 1990 there was a major clamor among certain humans named Carl Sagan for NASA to take a photo of Earth from space. This photo would be quite different from The Blue Marble. This photo would be taken from the Voyager 1 space probe at a distance of 3.7 billion miles, way out past Pluto.
Voyager 1 was launched from our marble in pre-historic 1977. As I scribble these words today, Voyager 1 approaches its 37th birthday, which will be on September 5. Voyager 1 is a Virgo.
Humans named Carl Sagan got their way: Voyager 1, way out there in the star-studded blackness, swung it’s camera around at took a shot of the Earth.
The resulting photo would not stun you if you weren’t told what it was first. In the photo, you see several fingers of light which are artifacts created by a camera lens being pointed toward the brightest thing in the Solar System, our Sun. Visible within one of those fingers is a tiny speck. That speck is Earth, and it is so small, you might need help to find it, especially if you haven’t dusted your screen in a while.
Humans named Carl Sagan called this speck the Pale Blue Dot. Here is what the Pale Blue Dot looked like:One particular human named Carl Sagan had some thoughts about this Pale Blue Dot. To share those thoughts with other humans, he wrote them down. He also repeated the words out loud with his voice sometimes.
Below is what he wrote about the Pale Blue Dot. Every word is worthy of your consideration. There is never a wrong time to go back and read this. But if you happen to take it on to an airplane and read it at some point, you are in for a treat.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again 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.
—from Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan