That’s simply a Pale Blue Dot!

Seen from about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), Earth appears as a tiny dot within deep space: the blueish-white speck almost halfway up the brown band on the right. Source: Wikipedia

How easy was to pinpoint that Pale Blue Dot?

That’s us. That’s our Earth!

This photo is a gift to us from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, author, and researcher. The popular 1980 television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” made him a household name. He is the author of books like Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot and has made numerous other contributions to astronomy and related fields.

When I read Cosmos and then later Pale Blue Dot, the massive perspective shift I got was related to our relevance on the planet Earth. Carl Sagan is an astronomer, he is an astrophysicist, he has his views about extraterrestrial life, his way of seeing things was different. His narrative takes you beyond our planet Earth.

While reading Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot, I closed my eyes and found myself flying in the dark Universe, staring at this Pale Blue Dot, we call home and wondering what are we in this vast Cosmos?

India’s attempt to land on the moon and the fact that many of you saw the event live, might bring you closer to the perspective I wish to share.

The Cosmos has roughly a hundred billion, or 10¹¹, galaxies. And within each galaxy, there are roughly 10¹¹ stars and 10¹¹ planets.

Now try some basic math. That converts to 10²² planets in the Cosmos and we are just one of them. That’s 22 zeroes!!!


Terrifyingly insignificant! And, we are just one of them.

What makes us so special? Why do we think that we are the only one here? Why are countries so eager to touch base with the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and go beyond the Solar System?

Though Carl Sagan’s writing helps you fly across the Universe and witness all these planets and stars firsthand, I was especially intrigued by one of the chapters in the Pale Blue Dot.

In order to explain how our Earth looks from far away in the sky, in Chapter 5-Is there intelligent life on Earth? of Pale Blue Dot, Carl narrates the point of view of an alien civilization on their first visit to the planet Earth. Through his storytelling like narrative, he connects various scientific facts and our own discovery of ourselves on this Planet and presents it in a palatable style. The interesting thing about this book is the simplicity with which the science of the Universe is presented.

It’s easy to get bogged down by a complicated daily life and it’s far more challenging to put efforts into understanding our own planet Earth and appreciate the manner in which we see it in its current form. People like Carl Sagan and their efforts make this journey easier for us.

After going through his work, I see my Planet in a new perspective. The science which I read during school days makes lots of sense now. The whole idea of telling the Earth story from an alien’s perspective was unique and interesting. I am just trying to retell this story my way. In now way the below retelling is a copy of Carl’s work. I have added my bit of excitement to it too.

Imagine yourself as this alien explorer wandering around the solar system in search of other civilizations. You are an interstellar space traveler and you are intrigued with each such discovery or possibility of life elsewhere. One day, your instruments catch the radio signals from a blue looking planet. You are excited. You steer your spacecraft towards this planet.

Your highly advanced instruments are now working full throttle. Trying to understand as much about this new planet as possible.

Welcome to Planet Earth!

You are now approaching this planet more closely.

So what're your first impressions?

Your first impression of this planet is white clouds around the entire planet, white polar caps, the brownish color of the continents with a bluish substance covering most of this planet.

You steer your space-craft further down and hover much closer to this blue looking planet.

Everyone on board is excited!

There is something unique about this planet which is pulling your excitement towards it. You wish to know more about it.

Discovery of water

Your instruments are now telling you that this bluish substance is an unusual kind of liquid and is present in enormous quantity all over this planet. Kilometers deep of liquid! Is this water?

But surface oceans of water are not common elsewhere in the Universe? In fact on your planet too, you have to rely on underground water to sustain life. So how can this humble planet hold so much water? So at this stage, this is just a hypothesis that this bluish liquid is water.

So out come your special instruments to analyze the chemical composition of this planet.

The instruments are indicating that there is a lot of water ice in the polar caps and there are water vapors in the environment and also in the clouds.

This surely means that the oceans are nothing but a vast reservoir of water and that too in abundance. You have proven a big hypothesis about this planet!

This planet is surely different from the other ones you are trying to visit or has already seen in recent times. It seems plausible that you might have company in this vast Cosmos!

Why so much O2?

The next you are observing is the composition of gases on this planet. Approximately 1/5th of the composition is oxygen, O2. But you have never seen any other planet with such an abundance of O2. So what’s the source?

With experience on your planet, you are clear that the ultra-violet light from the Sun is helping water i.e. H2O, break-down into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is the lightest gas and hence it quickly escapes from the Earth’s environment and that leaves an abundance of oxygen in the environment. But how come in such large volume? Because that’s not what happens on your planet. You have to produce your own oxygen there. Surely, there must be some other source of this oxygen abundance than water.

The detection of water and oxygen has made you and your team nervous about the possibilities on this planet.

You are now guiding your spacecraft to analyze the vast green belt all over this planet.

These are trees, plants, bushes, forests……astonishingly this shape of life form is contributing to this vast oxygen pool. Trees are taking carbon dioxide in and throwing out oxygen! That’s a huge development.

This seems like a brilliant self-sustainable model to ensure that life keeps growing on this planet without any need of creating oxygen artificially.

The abundance of O2 also seems to be the cause of an ozone (O3) layer above this planet. This layer is protecting this planet from the dangerous ultra-violet radiation from the Sun. The protective layer above your planet was so difficult to make. It took you centuries to find the right method of protecting yourself from the harmful rays from your Sun.

Does this mean, the life on this planet is somehow trying to protect itself through intelligent means and sustain too? Does this mean you are about to interact with high-level of intelligence on this planet? You are thrilled!

So, the Earth is revealed to possess three properties unique at least in this solar system — oceans of water, oxygen, and life.

Geometrical shapes

You are steering much closer to this planet and are camouflaged. Suddenly, your instruments start receiving a range of radio signals and it looks like this planet knows some technology. But what are these signals? How to interpret them?

You move closer, take out the telescopes and the cameras. You are getting some interesting photographs. There are geometrical shapes. These shapes are very close to water-bodies. These look like planned cities around these waters. This looks like a civilization!

At last! you've detected the source of all the technology, the dominant life-forms on the planet. The streets of the cities and the roadways of the countryside are evidently built for their benefit. You might believe that you were really beginning to understand life on the Earth. And perhaps you’d be right. (Excerpt from page 63 of Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan)

A puzzling story

As you are studying this planet more deeply, you realize that all over the Earth, the chimneys are releasing carbon dioxide and other toxic chemicals into the air. Strangely, these gases are greenhouse gases and if this release steadily increases, it’s going to increase the temperature of this planet. The fires in the rain forest are further adding to the problem. The rivers in some section of this world are flowing brown. It looks like the topsoil is getting washed out in the sea.

You were surprised by the ratio of all the right ingredients on this planet to sustain life and intelligence but now you are equally perplexed about the kind of trouble which this species is creating for itself. You are now imagining the future of this planet if this is the rate at which the oxygen levels go down and temperature increases.

The way this species is functioning is making you ask questions like what will they breathe in some time? how will they cope with the changing environment? loose topsoil means no agriculture. In another century, what will they eat?

Is intelligent life causing their own trouble?

You camouflage your spacecraft somewhere on this planet and are now watching this planet year by year. The pace of development surprises you.

Having noticed what’s happening. Are they oblivious to their fate?

Are they unable to work together on behalf of the environment to sustain them all?

.. Perhaps you think its time to reassess the conjecture that there is intelligent life on Earth. You fly away!

Before we end, watch and hear Carl Sagan’s most important narrative of the Pale Blue Dot.

If this three-minute view can’t intrigue you, can’t challenge your current perspective. Nothing will!

Further reads:


Thanks for reading.

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Nishith Goyal

Nishith Goyal

Author — Be Better Bit-By-Bit, Long-distance runner, Diarist, Self Transformation Coach. Podcast-"Be Better Bit-By-Bit" & “10 Bullets- 100 Words” Book Summary