Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Pale Blue Dot

Perhaps because I've been studying all week, buried at almost atomic level in cellular processes from "mitochondrial failure" and "remote ischaemic preconditioning" (it's ok - only I have to know about these things seeing that I'm just over a month from my final specialist exam... eish!) that my mind is urgently wanting to pan out, as far as possible, from inner space to outer space. And what I'm left with is a sense of smallness.

Consider the incredibly moving picture of Earth, taken at a distance of 6.1 billion kilometres by the Voyager 1 probe as it reached the edge of the Solar System in 1990. It's become famous as the "Pale Blue Dot", and that great man, Carl Sagan, campaigned tirelessly for it to be taken. Before entering interstellar space, Voyager turned its cameras back one last time and snapped this astonishing image of the tiny world it was sent from. We really are just a pale blue dot in the vast seething mass of the galaxy. As Sagan put it:

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.

... 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...[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.

Perhaps for some, this evokes angst and loneliness; for me, however, our utter insignificance in the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way instills a great slow wave of awe. I am moved that we are placed, by evolution or a great deity (or, as I believe, both) on this Goldilocks planet, blanketed by a Universe that is ever expanding, while we hold the power to destroy or nurture our little bastion in the infinite. No-one can look at the stars and not wonder the primal, protean why in their marrow. I would go as far as to posit that this very thought unites atheist and believer, man and woman, scientist and proselyte, bunny-hugger and banker-wanker.

If we gaze deeper and deeper into the inky void, perhaps we could find comfort in E.M. Forster's words... "at the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes." And even if the Universe gives us no clear answer, we will realise more and more that until, say, Kal-El crash-lands from Krypton there is nothing but ourselves. More humbling is that even without us, the Universe is not empty: physics has discovered that energy lurks, phantasm-like, in the very vacuum of space.

Could I go as far as to say that evil exists only because potential goodness never craned its head up and saw that vast silence? Or that, frightened and obstinate, it resolved to gaze at its feet instead? We will never know. But we can swallow our pride and yield our fear, and, one night, perhaps lie back on the grass and let the stars move us.


chez said...

True genius! You captured that dichotomous moment of realising that we are completely insignificant but simultaneously incredibly complex, brilliant and miraculous. Awesome!

VIVA TIVA said...

Brilliant .... may you baffle them with your brilliance during the exams ...

Troy said...

Nice one Adals :) Yeah everything is relative... in fact a nice comparison is the insignificance of a certain little blue diamond shaped tablet - that is of course unless you're the person who really needs it.