For some of us the Earth is not enough. Some of our fellow humans look beyond the windows of our earth, and try to look far away into the horizon. The vastness of space calls out to them, “There is much to discover and know”. One of the foremost among them was Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Astrophysicist, Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies, professor of astronomy and space sciences, NASA consultant and experimenter. His areas of study included planetary atmospheres, planetary surfaces, the history of the Earth, and exobiology (search of life beyond Earth).
Carl was born to parents who were never involved with science. Carl’s mother never realised her academic and professional ambitions thanks to extreme poverty. His father who while being impressed with Carl’s knowledge, continued to be the indulgent father who stoked his son’s sense of wonder not really thinking anything more of it than a young boy’s curiosity. His parents shaped his vision of the world and what he thought of it. They shaped how he would think without telling him how to. He recounts his parents:
“My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”
H.G.Wells and Edward Rice Burroughs, chemistry sets, science kits and trips to science fairs all proved to be good inputs for Carl’s fertile mind to grow. He was curious about Earth’s future and therefore, it was not before long Carl came upon his lifelong love and curiosity about space.
As a student, he happily moved between the subjects of astronomy, physics and genetics. His understanding of multiple subjects helped him become a holistic thinker. Carl was one of the consultants who worked with NASA since the inception of its space program. Many of NASA’s robotic mission experiments were designed by Sagan.
In the hope that the space missions of Voyager and Pioneer would reach out to extra-terrestrials he attached a plaque on them which showed the location of the earth in the solar system and images of a man and a woman.
The other great contribution that Carl accomplished in his lifetime was to popularise science. His PBS program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage has reached out to more than five hundred million people. Cosmos was made in the backdrop of the Cold War, a weapon stockpiling by Russia and America. Most scientists were then involved with the development of nuclear weapons.
Sagan strongly believed that life existed in planets away from earth. He is one of the earliest and strongest advocates of exobiology. He, however, believed that alien life must be proved scientifically and not through exaggerated stories passed off as science.
His book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of The Human Future in Space, a sequel to his book Cosmos was published in 1994.
The book traces human history’s earth-centric approach in early times as a reflection of pride in their race and the limitations of understanding the earth’s place in the universe. He goes on to detail his own experience in exploring space through the Voyager expedition for which he was a consultant. Technology, low light are some of the problems that beset many space expeditions.
Sagan believed that space exploration was a human need for the future, not a futile money-spending exercise.In the book, he points out that a stray comet could put an end to life on Earth as we know it. It was important he argued to locate ideal planets for future colonisation, a task that must be undertaken now.
His monologue on Earth ‘The Pale Blue Dot’, highlights the insignificance of humans in this vast universe.
‘Order Productions’ has animated an excerpt:
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.
Image credit: Jody Hewgill’s illustration in Smithsonian.com