Today is Earth Day and I wanted to post something.  This blog is seriously lacking in terms of posts, and I suppose with three jobs and a baby, it’s easy (and understandable) to devise reasons to dedicate my time elsewhere.  But I could make the time as I am today, so no excuses here.

Some Background: “The Pale Blue Dot” is a photograph of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  It was none other than Carl Sagan, science popularizer himself, who requested that NASA turn Voyager’s camera around as it left our solar system after it’s primary mission had been completed.  The photograph of Earth was taken from 3.77 billion miles away – a distance hardly comprehensible to our human minds, yet explicit in its profoundness.  This unique perspective of our tiny world demands poetic reflection.  One such reflection was provided by Carl Sagan and provides a fitting Earth Day tribute.

So here it is.  One of my all-time favorite YouTube videos: Carl Sagan’s reflections on “The Pale Blue Dot,” set to the ambient musical stylings of Scottish post-rockers, Mogwai, and clips of recognizable hollywood-favorites and modern history.

The text if read silently on its own struggles to live up to the profoundness of the photograph.  But this is less a comment on Sagan’s talent with the pen, and more a recognition that perhaps in this case, a picture really is worth more than a thousand words.  Sagan’s voice and cadence makes up for some of this by providing a professorial yet fatherly tone – something between a soft, intimate conversation around a campfire and the on-edge dialog of The Matrix’s Agent Smith.

Mogwai provides the background canvass for Sagan’s vocal air-brush with their song: “Stop Coming To My House.”  It would be difficult to select a more fitting piece of music to go with Sagan’s reading.  The song seems to bring the epicness of the photo into almost conceivable expressions.  Whatever it was that Sagan lacked in word and voice, it is somehow made up by the textured echoes and slow arpeggiated riffs.  Through the song we begin to feel in a deeper sense the meaning for the photograph.  This complimentary nature between word and melody obviously isn’t new, but it is here that we have a prime example of why poetry is supposed to be heard out loud and how music (if it fits the poem!) can enhance the experience.

While the pastiche of movie clips often feels contrived and is at times distracting, for the most part I think it captures the poetry and meaning of the work as a whole.  In many of the clips, having seen the movie and recalling the emotions invoked from them assists in the overall experience.

In regards to the text, I absolutely love the raw, awe-inspired emotion.  However I think he gets it wrong when he says things like “On a scale of worlds, humans are inconsequential” and “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.”  I don’t necessarily think he gets it wrong, it’s the logic behind it that I have a problem with.

I disagree with the notion that simply because we are so small and are in no way physically “central” to the Universe that we are “inconsequential” or “not important”.  Maybe we are those things, but it seems irrational to use size and centrality to make that argument.  There are plenty of things in this Universe that are incomprehensibly small, like electrons, but as it turns out, are quite important and meaningful indeed.

I think the photograph does make us ponder those things and perhaps it does challenge those notions, I just think it’s a mistake to equate size and position with importance and significance.  I have the same sort of problem with an argument on the other side: I have major problems with those who espouse the anthropocentric worldview simply because we are smarter and otherwise more capable of control than all other species on the planet.  Intelligence isn’t a justifiable argument for the view that we are the most important beings on this planet.  And size (all jokes regarding the male anatomy aside) isn’t a justifiable argument for significance.

Everything else I completely agree with.  I can think of no clearer way to put what the photograph means to me than by Sagan’s final lines: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known: the pale blue dot.”

Happy Earth Day, 2011

From Carl Sagan’s book: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space [Unabridged]:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. 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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