Thirty years ago, his electrifying Pale Blue Dot photo and accompanying quote changed the way we see the world. Can he do it again?
It was February 14, 1990, and the Voyager 1 was hurtling towards the outer solar system like a teenager in a Ferrari, at the face-melting speed of 11 MPS, that’s 11 miles per second!
As the Voyager began its journey into deep space, the equivalent of driving through an endlessly plain Nevada desert, NASA was planning on turning Voyager’s camera off to save energy. But before they did, legendary astronomer Carl Sagan had a simple request — turn Voyager 1 around for a moment and snap a photo of planet earth.
So, as it maintained speed, Voyager turned around to take one last look at home, pointed the camera, and snapped the pic you see below, from the mind-blowing distance of 3.7 Billion miles away, and it altered our perspective for eternities to come.
In the photo, you see earth in the top portion as the pale dot caught in a sunbeam. While many stared at it in contemplative silence, Carl Sagan was able to distill those feelings of awe in some incredibly sobering words. Below you’ll see a memorable excerpt from Sagan’s book by the same name:
“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 that 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.”
I hope you read this excerpt intently, breathed it in deeply, and exhaled it slowly. Then I hope you take a moment to reflect on those words and how they relate to the current moment we’re in. More on this later.
This was a profoundly transcendent moment that drove Sagan to write these poignant words. It’s as if he’s experiencing an extreme case of the Overview Effect from the comfort of his planet. It’s the transformative phenomenon that many astronauts experienced at the first glance of the earth hundreds of miles up in space and suddenly realizing human kind’s smallness and relative irrelevance.
But why does this particular earth photo evoke such visceral emotion from Sagan as well the millions of others? The simple answer is — no earth photo was ever taken at such distance as 3.7 Billion miles away.
From this elevation, suddenly, the supposed masters of the universe were staring at their home planet, which amounts to nothing more than a faint dot measuring 0.12 pixel in size, swimming in an infinite sea of black. So this is all there is to us? A spec of dust in an infinite space? A sand pebble at the bottom of a vast cosmic ocean?
It revealed us. It humbled us. It reminded us of our smallness in the scheme of an ever-expanding universe. This sudden feeling of fragility also reminded us of the need to band together as a race. We’re more vulnerable than we think, and less superior than we were told.
And Now a New Humbling Moment
Now 30 years later, a new inflection point, much like The Pale Blue Dot, in the way that it forces us to stop and reflect on how we live, what we value, and how we discern the consequential from the trivial.
The daily reports of mounting global infections and deaths clarify the limits of our resilience in the face of a mega pandemic. We then look for ways to mask the fear and anxiety with hours of maniacally scrolling through our social media feeds, Tiktoking, Netflix binging, and hoarding toilet paper. But beneath it all, we’re all scared.
But our fear is entirely justified. Everything that is happening to us now from the fear of being infected, to being locked down, to the uncertainty of what happens next; it all flies in the face of our natural human frame.
You see, we’re genetically predisposed to be infinitely free, the extent to which we roam is only limited by our imagination. We’re earning, we’re healthy, our calendars are dotted with plans for as far as the eye can see, our spring break reservations were locked, NBA Playoffs are just around the corner, wedding venues fully booked for flowery spring nuptials, graduation gowns are being ordered, the world is our oyster. And then, it’s all snatched away from us in the blink of an eye.
The Power of Perspective
So what does the Pale Blue Dot photo and the COVID-19 experience have in common, you ask? It emphasizes the vital importance of keeping a clear-eyed sober perspective on one’s life. We must continuously recalibrate the lens through which we see our lives and live it accordingly.
Through this lens, Our field of vision grew wider the farther Voyager 1 pulled away from the universe. Suddenly, our planet that once looked larger than life now seems small and insignificant.
It’s the same lens through which we view our daily anxieties, our seemingly insurmountable problems, and deepest fears — the further we step away from them, the more we see them for their true size and scope.
Only a month ago, many of us were fretting over the love interest who wouldn’t call us back, the flashy car we can’t afford, the ivy league college we couldn’t get our kid into. Then suddenly, a devastating tidal wave named COVID-19 smashes into our world with the force of a thousand suns and washes over all those issues swallowing them whole. One would hope that once these surging waters recede, hopefully, we’ll find that all that seemed fatal, perhaps now looks relatively benign and easily solvable. That’s perspective.
So while this crisis has wiped out our sense of security and freedom, tragically cost us hundreds of thousands of lives, and decimated our finances, we were, nonetheless, left with lots to be thankful for — The shelter of a home to isolate in, a healthy immune system that held back the invading virus at the gate, a caring family to help us stay hopeful, a golden age of technology that enabled us to explore ways to continue working (and binge on Netflix). And that’s adding gratefulness to perspective.
An inspiring line jumped out in a recent blog post from the brilliant Seth Godin that “As we move through time, we’re often presented with opportunities that are carefully disguised as problems”. How did he arrive at this conclusion? It’s an example of continuously recalibrating one’s perspective.
So let’s use this extra time on our hands to make this a useful learning moment. Let’s change our internal narrative to view this as an opportunity to readjust our perspective, be grateful for what we have, love the ones we’re with, contribute to the happiness of others, and be kinder to this delicate Pale Blue Dot; it’s all we have.
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