Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Pale Blue Dot

And a Bright Evening Star

On Christmas Eve, 1968, Jim Anders snapped one of the most profound photographs in history. Anders was one of three men aboard Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon, and as they circled the Moon they suddenly noticed an incredible sight—the Earth was rising off the Moon’s horizon. The photograph became known as “Earthrise” and its incredible perspective of our beautiful planet sparked the rise of the environmental movement. It is in Life magazine’s list of “100 Photographs that Changed the World.”

Four years later the last manned mission to the Moon took another famous photograph of Earth, shortly after departing Earth orbit for the Moon. It may be the most widely distributed image in human history and is called “The Blue Marble” because from the perspective of the crew, the Earth was about the size of a marble.

In 1990 Voyager 1, a small NASA spacecraft, had finished its tour of the solar system and took a picture of Earth as it headed for interstellar space. Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and today is the farthest man-made object from Earth. For almost ten years leading up to the 1990 photograph, astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan had promoted the idea of Voyager 1 taking a picture of Earth as the spacecraft made its way out of the solar system. But concerns about instrument damage from the Sun’s glare delayed the photograph, and shrinking budgets and staff put it at risk altogether. Finally the NASA Administrator intervened to have the photograph taken. The photo is called “The Pale Blue Dot” for at a distance of almost 4 billion miles Earth appears as a tiny blue dot (see blue pixel right of center in the brown band). That name also served as the title of Sagan’s 1994 book about the future of space travel and much more. Sagan was a proponent of what historians call the Copernican Principle—the idea that Earth, and more generally the human race, are not special or privileged, but rather are merely a statistical result of chance evolutionary events—which was an important theme in Sagan’s book. Like the ancient Epicureans, Sagan used the inconceivable vastness of the universe, as implied by The Pale Blue Dot photograph, to advance the Copernican Principle theme (though its sixteenth century namesake astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, would not have agreed) and its underlying evolutionary ideas:

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.
[…]

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.

And if the reader did not properly infer the religious implications, Sagan made them clear:

Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?

Clearly photographs can convey, or be used to convey, ideas that go far beyond the photograph itself. That is why it just may be important that this week another profound photograph was taken of Earth.

The NASA rover Curiosity has been exploring the surface of the planet Mars. It has discovered many interesting things, but in the twilight hours after sundown on January 31, the robotic explorer turned a camera upwards to the sky, and toward home. With the Martian hills on the horizon, Curiosity photographed a bright “Evening Star” in the Martian sky called Earth. What will this photograph inspire?

11 comments:

  1. People, at least, often value things because of their rarity—especially if they sparkle in the light.

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  2. It can't help but give us pause when we look at these images and get some inkling of just how small we are and how vast is space. I remember the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I experienced almost a mystical sense of awe because it was the first movie that gave an almost visceral impression of the sheer vastness and emptiness and silence of outer space. I could imagine floating in a spacesuit with nothing beneath my feet or over my head for billions of miles. That's when you feel small and alone.

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    1. Ian

      that was a great movie but it helps if book is read first. Empties of space is not the best description. Nearly nothingness might be better. If we could put every proton in the universe next to each other i.e. touching "shoulder to shoulder", all the matter would fit in a ball smaller than the Solar system. Of course everything would collapse into black hole.

      This is a big one: Copernican principle might be in jeopardy. I have been following this for maybe 5 years but there are not too many papers on it. Astronomers noticed anomalies in distribution of CMB ansiotropies since WMAP. Recent Planck satellite data confirmed strange alignments with the solar system ecliptic. Some astronomers are reporting uneven quasar distribution also aligned with the solar system. The problem is there but nobody's sure what to say about it. Strange universe we live in : what could early radiation possibly have to do with our solar system?

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  3. Sagan: [..]. try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust.

    Why would one need to convince themselves if they are already a believer?

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  4. Oh Mr Sagan, I just don't have enough faith to be an atheist.

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    1. "Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?"

      What a classic example of an argument solely based on credulity.

      When I look at that photograph I am struck by two things. First, the unimaginable omnipotence of God, and second, the unimaginable grace of God. That a being of such overwhelming power would create and care for the creature known as man. That he made us so small in his overall creation, but yet cares for us above all of that creation to the point of dying to redeem us.

      Carl Sagan saw hopelessness and futility in this photograph. I see overwhelming grace and love. Funny how these things work.

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  5. nic February 10, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    [...]

    When I look at that photograph I am struck by two things. First, the unimaginable omnipotence of God, and second, the unimaginable grace of God. That a being of such overwhelming power would create and care for the creature known as man. That he made us so small in his overall creation, but yet cares for us above all of that creation to the point of dying to redeem us.

    Carl Sagan saw hopelessness and futility in this photograph. I see overwhelming grace and love. Funny how these things work.


    I don't think Sagan saw hopelessness and futility, I think he saw something that gave us an inkling of the vast scale of the universe and just how vanishingly small we are within it. For those that have eyes to see, it is indeed an image which can blow away the comforting but childish illusion of a cozy little universe created just for us by some benevolent father-figure of a God. But it reveals something far stranger and more awe-inspiring than the products of our feeble imaginations.

    As for God's overwhelming grace and love, we will see where that is when the Yellowstone super-volcano next erupts and lays waste to North America or when the next asteroid slams into the planet or when the next nearby star goes supernova and fries us without any warning. Judging by the lesser catastrophes already endured by mankind, both natural and self-inflicted, it will be conspicuous by its absence.

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    1. Ian,

      "For those that have eyes to see, it is indeed an image which can blow away the comforting but childish illusion of a cozy little universe created just for us by some benevolent father-figure of a God."

      Is there an argument in there somewhere which is not based on credulity? The fact you can't comprehend that the universe was created by a loving God is in no way an argument against such a concept. This is also a fine example of the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy.

      "the vast scale of the universe and just how vanishingly small we are within it."

      Please explain how relative size is evidence against the existence of God.

      "As for God's overwhelming grace and love, we will see where that is when the Yellowstone super-volcano next erupts and lays waste to North America or when the next asteroid slams into the planet or when the next nearby star goes supernova and fries us without any warning. Judging by the lesser catastrophes already endured by mankind, both natural and self-inflicted, it will be conspicuous by its absence."

      As with most atheists you make claims to knowledge of Christianity which you continually demonstrate to completely lack.

      The world as we experience it is not the world God created or intended. It is a fallen world which is dying and when it dies we are told it will die in fire, perhaps as you describe.

      Perhaps you can also explain why God's love & grace would be absent in the event of such a catastrophe?

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    2. nic February 12, 2014 at 8:28 AM
      Ian,

      "For those that have eyes to see, it is indeed an image which can blow away the comforting but childish illusion of a cozy little universe created just for us by some benevolent father-figure of a God."

      Is there an argument in there somewhere which is not based on credulity? The fact you can't comprehend that the universe was created by a loving God is in no way an argument against such a concept. This is also a fine example of the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy.


      I can comprehend why people would want to hold such a belief. It is why religion has survived and flourished and is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. What I am pointing to is the lack of evidence to support it, especially the simplistic, popular versions of the Christian faith which seem to be at variance with what are often presented as more sophisticated interpretations.

      For example, I've noticed Christians today, who have lost loved ones, consoling themselves with te belief that the dead have moved on to a better existence, that they are now in heaven with Jesus and the angels. I have no wish to deprive the bereaved of whatever small comfort they can find but I would simply note that, when I was raised as a Christian, doctrine held that the dead were truly dead until the Day of Judgment when the graves would open and the occupants summoned before God to account for their lives. Which is right now?

      "the vast scale of the universe and just how vanishingly small we are within it."

      Please explain how relative size is evidence against the existence of God.


      The size is evidence against the arrogant presumption of human exceptionalism. The evidence against a benevolent Creator is in the nature of this Universe.

      Think about it. We live in a thin film of atmosphere on this small planet, which by a apparently fortuitous combination of circumstances, is able to support life. Move beyond that and you find conditions almost everywhere that are lethal to human life: no air, intense heat or cold and deadly radiation, supernovae and black holes. The list goes on. The overwhelming majority of the observable universe is implacably hostile to human life. A strange place indeed for an omnibenevolent God to create as home for His chosen people.

      The world as we experience it is not the world God created or intended. It is a fallen world which is dying and when it dies we are told it will die in fire, perhaps as you describe.

      This is simply inconsistent with the Christian notion of God as a perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful being. A perfect and all-powerful deity does not make something that goes wrong for some unanticipated reason. He has the knowledge and the power to get it right first time, every time. That is why nothing is supposed to happen but by His will. If this world is flawed and doomed to fall then that is how God created it it and how He intended it to be. And being omniscient, He knows all of history, not just our tiny part of it but everything in our past, present and future. That is part of what being omniscient means. The question then becomes, if He knows exactly what is going to happen right from the beginning, why bother at all?

      Perhaps you can also explain why God's love & grace would be absent in the event of such a catastrophe?

      Because it has not been apparent in previous catastrophes, which is part of the lack of any persuasive evidence that He exists at all.

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  6. Ian,

    "What I am pointing to is the lack of evidence to support it,..."

    You need to learn there is a difference between what actually qualifies as evidence and what you personally are willing to accept as evidence. You may be surprised to learn there is a difference.

    "especially the simplistic, popular versions of the Christian faith which seem to be at variance with what are often presented as more sophisticated interpretations."

    I have no idea what that means.

    "For example, I've noticed Christians today, who have lost loved ones, consoling themselves with te belief that the dead have moved on to a better existence, that they are now in heaven with Jesus and the angels. I have no wish to deprive the bereaved of whatever small comfort they can find but I would simply note that, when I was raised as a Christian, doctrine held that the dead were truly dead until the Day of Judgment when the graves would open and the occupants summoned before God to account for their lives. Which is right now?"

    Because there are different views on what occurs after death, it necessarily follows that nothing occurs? I hope you see the folly in such reasoning.

    "The size is evidence against the arrogant presumption of human exceptionalism. The evidence against a benevolent Creator is in the nature of this Universe."

    This is not an answer, it is simply a reassertion of your belief that the size of the universe somehow relates to our presence and relative position in it.

    "Think about it. We live in a thin film of atmosphere on this small planet, which by a apparently fortuitous combination of circumstances, is able to support life. Move beyond that and you find conditions almost everywhere that are lethal to human life: no air, intense heat or cold and deadly radiation, supernovae and black holes. The list goes on. The overwhelming majority of the observable universe is implacably hostile to human life. A strange place indeed for an omnibenevolent God to create as home for His chosen people."

    So your argument is that you know best what a benevolent God would do? Again, this is a form of reasoning that is fraught with folly.

    "This is simply inconsistent with the Christian notion of God as a perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful being. A perfect and all-powerful deity does not make something that goes wrong for some unanticipated reason."

    It seems your only method of argument is to put yourself in a position of knowing better than an omnipotent being as to how he should construct his creation. On what basis do you claim such an occurrence was not anticipated?

    "That is why nothing is supposed to happen but by His will. If this world is flawed and doomed to fall then that is how God created it it and how He intended it to be."

    Only if you deny the concept of free will. God intended the world to be perfect, but he also intended for man to have free will. In doing so there was the possibility for man to fail.
    It is the failure of man which has resulted in the world we see today, not the failure of God.

    "And being omniscient, He knows all of history, not just our tiny part of it but everything in our past, present and future. That is part of what being omniscient means. The question then becomes, if He knows exactly what is going to happen right from the beginning, why bother at all?"

    You're right, that is the nature of omniscience. As to why bother at all, you're again presuming to know the mind and nature of God. Because our feeble little brains cannot understand is no argument against the facts.

    "Because it has not been apparent in previous catastrophes,..."

    And you know this how?

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