Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Memoriam: Carl Sagan 1934-1996

This blog is not going to be about all jihad, all the time. And so, a change of pace is in order, if but for today. Tomorrow, it will be back to the usual fare.

Ten years ago yesterday, one of my childhood idols died, killed by a rare disease, far too young. Astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan captivated me with his spellbinding Cosmos series when I was growing up, and I was hooked. I've read and/or bought every book that he's put into print. His views, to say the least, have had a profound influence on my personal world-view and what I hold to be important.

While I confess to not exactly seeing eye to eye with the man's politics, his overarching themes of rationalism, skeptical inquiry, and the need for reason to triumph over blind obediance are lessons that are timeless as they are critical to our future as a species.

Most important of Dr. Sagan's themes is this one, a choice for Humankind faces us, which is as simple as it is stark: spaceflight or extinction. Those are our choices. For humanity to survive in the medium to long term, we much reach out to other worlds, and then to the stars. Holding ourselves back, for whatever reason, whether it be ideological dogmatism (Islam, et al), or something as prosaic as timidity, laziness and procrastination in the face of the infinite, will doom our kind to fail and perish. We must not, cannot allow that to happen.

Words, however, as powerful and moving as they may be, can only take us so far in understanding our place in the cosmos. Dr. Sagan, a nonpareil communicator if there ever was one, understood this all too well. Sometimes, an illustration, or better yet, a simple photograph, is the preferable choice for conveying an important message.

On October 13, 1994, in the autumn of his life, Carl Sagan was delivering a public lecture at his own university of Cornell. During that lecture, he presented this photo:

The photo to the left was taken by Voyager 1 unmanned spacecraft in 1990 as it sailed away from Earth, more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion km) away at that time. Having completed it primary mission, Voyager was and still is on its way out of the Solar System. Ground Control issued a command for the distant space craft to turn around and, looking back, take photos of each of the planets it had visited. From Voyager's vast distance, the Earth was captured as a infinitesimal point of light (between the two white tick marks), actually smaller than a single pixel of the photo.

The image was taken with Voyager's narrow angle camera lens, with the Sun quite close to the field of view. Quite by accident, the Earth was captured in one of the scattered light rays caused by taking the image at an angle so close to the Sun. Dr. Sagan was quite moved by this image of our tiny world. Here is a memorable excerpt from the late Dr. Sagan's talk:

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us.

It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."


Infidel753 said...

Definitely a great man. I too can remember eagerly following the Cosmos series when I was younger. It must have inspired many to take an interest in science. Thank you for posting this.

Mary*Ann said...

Thank you for this post. I always admired Dr. Sagan. After my nightly reads...usually with worry or was a pleasant surprise to come away with a sense of wonder.

John Sobieski said...

Just a speck, but the only speck we can reach in our lifetime, so we have to fight for it. We've got no other place to go.