«You mean that bright red one?» his daughter asks in return
«Yes, it might not be there anymore. It might be gone by now, exploded or something. Its light is still crossing space, just reaching our eyes now. But we don’t see it as it is, we see it as it was.»
Many people experience a stirring sense of wonder when they first confront this simple truth. Why? why should it be so compelling. The immense distances to the stars and the galaxies means we see everything in the space in the past. Some as they were before the earth came to be. Telescopes are time machines.
Long ago, when an early galaxy began to pour light out in to the surrounding darkness no witness could have known that billions of years later some remote clumps of rock and metal, ice and organic molecules would fall together to make a place that we call earth. And surely nobody could have imagined that life would arise, and thinking beings evolve who would one day capture a fraction of that light and would try to puzzle out what sent it on its way.
We can recognize here a shortcoming, in some circumstances serious, in our ability to understand the world. Characteristically, willie-nilly we seem compelled to project our own nature onto nature. Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity. Darwin wrote in his notebook, more humble, and I think truer to consider himself created from animals.
We’re johnny-come-latelys; we live in the cosmic boondocks; we emerged from microbes in muck; Apes are our cousins; our thoughts are not entirely our own, and on top of that we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness and there is nobody to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we are inclined to shut our eyes and pretend that we are safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?
We long to be here for a purpose. Even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for parents to care for us, to forgive us of our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge of preferable to ignorance. Better, by far, to embrace the harsh reality than a reassuring fable.
Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.
I met a traveler from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider 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.