Pale Blue Dot

I discovered over at Mike Brotherton’s blog that today, 11/7/9, is Carl Sagan Day, and Mike makes some interesting observations about Sagan and Richard Dawkins and the public’s attitude towards their atheism.  For awhile, Carl Sagan was the face of science to the general public, sort of like Stephen Hawking is today.  Any second rate pop/rock/movie/sports star is more famous than these scientists, but they have great influence on millions of Earthlings.  I think Sagan’s Cosmos book and TV documentary series introduced cosmology and science to a generation of people and it’s impossible to judge his impact.

Mike Brotherton’s blog is a favorite of mine because he and I share a similar fascination with science and constantly wonder why science isn’t more widely accepted by the public.  Read his recent essay “Smarts, Spontaneity, Science, and Science Fiction.”  It explores just how hard it is to teach science, or even just express scientific ideas.  That’s why Carl Sagan was so admired, he could communicate scientific ideas.  And I agree with Mike, Sagan wasn’t as successful as his popularity, too often Carl Sagan was ridiculed on SNL other LCD comedy shows as being a geeky guy, too overly enthusiastic about billions of stars.

The people of our planet focus too narrowly on their own personal immediate reality, and all too often they believe silly theories about ontology.  Carl Sagan tried to show people we live in a vast Cosmos and reality can’t be explained by just what we see in front of our noses.  Look at this photo:


If you look close you’ll see a little pale blue dot in the center, a bit bigger than all the other dots in this grainy photograph.  That’s Earth as seen from Voyager 1 on the way out of the solar system.  By astronomy standards, this is an extreme close-up.  We’re use to seeing high-powered electron-microscope photos of our planet in comparison. If a photograph could be taken of the universe as a whole, our galaxy wouldn’t even be visible.  It’s hard to take our silly ideas about the meaning of life seriously when we see the relative perspective of our existence in relationship to all of space and time. 

That’s why I call existence the foam of reality.  From most perspectives, whether 10 to the +25 or 10 to the -25 magnitude vantage points, reality looks like a homogenous foam or fuzzy collection of points of reflected light.  We only see details at magnitude 0

The universe is so vast in scope and dimensions, that it’s hard to imagine a deity even noticing us.  One of the major lessons that Carl Sagan taught us, is we are insignificant in relation to the rest of the universe.  That little dot is home to seven billion people, and from their perspective their lives are the center of the universe, but we must remember that’s an illusion. 

Carl Sagan is most famous for his book Cosmos, but he wrote a sequel that is less famous, based on this photograph, and also called, The Pale Blue Dot.  Any philosophy or theology that tries to explain the meaning of reality must incorporate our true position in the universe, anything less will be delusional.  Science is hard to teach because you have to get little minds to think big, and Carl Sagan could do that.

JWH – 11/7/9

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