Pale Blue Dot

I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s inspiring book: Pale Blue Dot. In the first chapter (titled ‘You Are Here’) he discusses this phenomenal picture taken in 1990 by a NASA spacecraft Voyager that was passing through the orbit of Neptune, 3.7 billion miles away from the Earth. So far away was the spacecraft that it took more than 5 hours for each pixel to reach us! From this distance, the Earth, a luminous dot sitting in the illusionary beam of orange light, occupies a mere 1/8th of a pixel in this picture (see below).

Looking at this picture and trying to comprehend the enormity of the cosmos in which we live is a humbling, terrifying and mind-blowing experience — all at the same time! It also reminds me of this beautiful Hindi poem from the title track of Bharat Ek Khoj (an old television serial directed by Shyam Benegal):

सृष्टि से पहले सत नहीं था
असत भी नहीं
अंतरिक्ष भी नहीं
आकाश भी नहीं था
छिपा था क्या, कहाँ
किसने ढका था
उस पल तो
अगम अतल जल भी कहां था

सृष्टि का कौन है कर्ता?
कर्ता है वह अकर्ता
ऊँचे आकाश में रहता
सदा अध्यक्ष बना रहता
वही सचमुच में जानता
या नहीं भी जानता
है किसी को नही पता
नही पता
नही है पता
नही है पता

Here’s Sagan’s own reflections on this humbling illustration:

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. […]

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.

[Source: Wikipedia]

P.S. All episodes of Bharat Ek Khoj are available online here.

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13 responses to “Pale Blue Dot

  1. Vikram

    That is pretty mind-blowing picture. I faintly remember watching bharat ek khoj on Doordarshan. But the poem is nice – do you know the author?

  2. Vikram,

    This poem is inspired from the ‘creation hymn’ that’s in the Vedas (mentioned in one of my previous posts) but I don’t know — and couldn’t find out — who wrote it.

  3. Jigar Doshi

    I remember when I was in 10th standard my teacher gave the same illustration while discussing our significance in the world. We are not even a dot as compared to the whole universe yet we give so much importance to our desires, worries, expectations and conveniently expect the whole world to revolve around us . I think this is maya.

    • There’s a funny sequence in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hal where a mother takes her red-haired boy to a psychiatrist because he’s depressed and has stopped doing his homework. When the doctor asks the boy why he won’t do his homework any more, he replies “Well, the universe is expanding…. the universe is everything and if that’s expanding then someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything. So what’s the point?”

  4. Gorki

    Vishaal,

    Thank you for an uplifting and yet strangely humbling essay. I loved the way you weaved the picture and Carl Sagan book with Bharat Ek Khoj. Thanks to you, I found the you tube link and enjoyed watching clips of Mahabharta on it with my wife.
    BEK itself is a treasure trove of Indian talent and the clips were layers of genius; the best of the wisdom of the ancients (the epic itself) interpeted by a sensitive philosopher historian freedom fighter (JLN), directed into a documentary by one of the greatest Indian directors (Shyam Benegal) and acted by one of the finest actors of Indian cinema (Om Puri, playing Duryodhana).
    Indeed it was a feast for the senses once again.
    Thank you for all that.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gorki! And welcome back to this blog!

      After all these years Bharat Ek Khoj still remains one of my most favorite TV serials, and Discovery of India one of the most engaging and enlightening historical books about India. Your comment about the show’s uniqueness and greatness regarding those four maharathi’s is spot on.

      • Coming here after a looong time. 🙂 Was delighted to read this post! It’s so true, we overestimate our importance on this tiny speck and torture ourselves and each other with intangibles like prestige , power, wealth etc.

        I esp. find it very useful to go out in the night and peer hard at the stars whenever I feel overwhelmed by problems, that way it brings some sort of a perspective to my life and am able to realize that most things in life are trivial including life itself compared to that vasst cosmos.

        • Yeah, but sometimes I have to constrain myself by avoiding nihilistic thoughts that start to take over my mind when I stare at the stars and pontificate for a while trying to grasp the infinity of creation! If you’re not careful, getting a sense of proportion can be damaging as well! 😉

          • Yeah, too much of anything is bad including a sense of proportion 🙂 My grandma used to warn me not to stare too much at the stars when I was a kid
            ( I used to do that even then and for long periods of time) as it could addle your brains.

            But the eternal dreamer that I am stargazing is a favourite hobby (not the cerebral kind where you literally classify them as constellations ) but simply the meditative kind where you feel one with the universe. Its a spiritual experience and calms me deeply the way staring at an unending slient ocean does. 🙂

            Its great catching up with you after a long time!

  5. Pingback: Into the Cosmic Ocean | A Blank Slate

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