The Pale Blue Dot: How a Photo Can Change Your Perspective on Life
On September 5, 1977, a space probe was launched by NASA with the explicit aim of studying the outer solar system. The objectives of the mission were to flyby the planets Jupiter and Saturn, as well as passing by Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
At that point in time, our understanding of the solar system was not as advanced as it is today. The launch of the space probe, Voyager I, offered scientists a chance to explore planets that we had known about for centuries, yet knew little about.
The beauty of humanity is our curiosity and fascination with discovering what we do not know. No other animal looks up at the night sky to ponder what is out there. Yet when peer at the sky, we are enchanted by what we see and what we might discover.
This is what pushed NASA’s scientists to go ahead with their ambitious programme. Before Voyager I, no such mission had been commissioned. The space race had begun in earnest with the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Twenty years later, the mission was pushing the boundaries of what was possible and what we knew about life in our solar system.
As incredible as the findings from Voyager I, and its sister probe, Voyager II were, one part of the mission is more pertinent to us back here on Earth than any other. That was when Carl Sagan requested the camera on the probe be turned around, to take one last shot of Earth as it was leaving the Solar System, some 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) from home.
We like to think that what happens on this planet and our daily lives is of the utmost importance. That the decisions we make, and the paths we lead will echo through the ages. That we might be able to leave our mark on history for generations to come.
In one act, the scientists at NASA demonstrated the reality of our existence, not just on Earth, but in the cosmos in general. That one photo exemplifies our existence more than any other. It puts our hopes, dreams and fears into the humbling perspective that they have always belonged.
That photo, the Pale Blue Dot, is arguably the most important in humanity’s short history. At one stroke, we are faced with the remoteness of our existence and its uniqueness. It’s enough to make you question the way we conduct our lives and whether we’re too hung up on things that don’t matter.
It’s only one photo, but the importance of the Pale Blue Dot runs much deeper than that.
One speck in a sea of stars
It doesn’t look like much does it? A small dot on a fuzzy image, a tiny glimmer in a sea of darkness. Yet that small dot is where we live and where almost all of us will remain for the duration of our lives.
It doesn’t look like much, but to us, it’s everything. It takes a while for it to sink in but what you’re looking at is the place we call home. The place that we thought was the centre of the solar system, and by extension, the universe, until Copernicus realised it wasn’t in the 16th century.
Most of us don’t think about this as we go about our daily business. Thoughts about our place in the universe are pushed to the back of our mind while we squabble over who said what, or rage at the driver that cut us up as we speed down the highway.
We’re too caught up in the minutiae of daily life to ponder our place in the universe. To wonder whether our worries and anxieties our as important as we think they are. It’s no coincidence we think our lives are the centre of attention, much like our planet is the centre of the universe, when the reality is different.
The brutal truth is that we are a collection of atoms bonded together into flesh and blood, stuck on a rock hurtling through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour. We’re not that important.
The irony of our lives is that we agonise over the smallest of decisions, when even the big ones are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It cuts to the core when you realise this. We all know it to be true but we don’t like to contemplate this reality. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unnerving. If our lives are doomed to irrelevance once we’re gone, what’s the point?
It’s a valid question, one that stops you in your tracks. The answer isn’t too live like a nihilist, without a purpose. It’s purpose that gives life meaning. It’s purpose that makes our lives worthwhile.
When you look at the photo above, it’s easy to become fatalistic, but that’s the wrong way to look at the photo. Instead, we should use the image of the pale blue dot to reframe our perspective on life. To lead a better life, and remain humble as we navigate through life.
A Better World
While looking at the image of Earth as a speck on an image can be unnerving, it’s not if you change the frame of reference. What you see is our true place in the universe. One link in the chain. We’re not as important as we might think, but that’s not as bad as it sounds.
A lot of the problems in the world are due to an inability to zoom out. To see the bigger picture. The Pale Blue Dot is an extreme example of this, but it’s a useful one. What we see is our tiny planet, almost lost amongst the vastness of the universe we inhabit.
From that distance, all the squabbles, problems and fights which occur every day melt away. They might seem big to those involved, but the further you zoom out, the less important they become.
Last week, the world was gripped by the Presidential election in the United States. It was billed as a battle to save democracy itself in a country considered to the leader of the free world. While it was an important election, and the result a vital one for Americans and many around the world, if you zoom out, it’s just another moment in time.
Despite the differences between the two candidates and their followers, there is more that connects them than that which separates. We all get wrapped in the narrative of events, but it’s these connections that allowed us to progress to the point where we could send a probe into space to capture this image.
Ideologies and petty squabbles may divide us, but when you look at this image, you can’t help but realise we are all in it together. What divides us is not as strong as what binds us together.
We too often get wrapped up in the events of the world, or are our own lives, and struggle to see the wood for the trees. The importance we place on our lives is diminished by the reality of our existence. We might think it’s an existential crisis if we don’t have enough Instagram followers, or if our favoured candidate doesn’t win the election. But in more cases than not, the reality is not as bad as the one we imagine.
As far as we know, the Earth is the only place that is home to life in the universe. We have found other planets that could be habitable, but the prospect of ever settling one is remote. When you see that pale dot, you see the one place we can call home in this universe.
It’s the only place we can live, the only place that we know, and the place that we will remain for the foreseeable future. Our folly is in thinking that we are so special we can circumvent these conditions. That the issues we fight over are significant, forgetting that they become insignificant over time. That we can damage the one place we inhabit in the cosmos with large amounts of pollution.
When you look at this image, you are faced with the stark reality that no one is coming to save us from ourselves. The problems we face, the issues we obsess over, are either so irrelevant as not to be noteworthy, or a failure to realise that we are stronger together, rather than divided.
The power of the image is not that we are alone in a cold and dark universe, it’s that we are united by this reality.
Our perspective on life is shaped by the world around us. But what we see is a small piece of the reality that we inhabit. We are ants atop a small mound, in comparison to our place in the universe.
The worries that occupy our thoughts are nowhere near as urgent or important as we think they are. You can always find someone with bigger problems than yourself. When you factor in how small and insignificant our impact on the universe is, none of it matters too much in the end anyway.
This can be a disconcerting way to look at life, but it’s a humbling one. It stops your ego from inflating like a balloon and prevents you from overegging your self-importance. It also helps to put life into perspective. That no matter what we do, what we accomplish, we are all on the same journey through on a rock hurtling through the void of space, so why not make the most of it while it lasts?
I’ll leave the final words to Carl Sagan, without whom, the image of the pale blue dot, our home, may never have come to fruition.
“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.