Right now, I am feeling incredibly overcome with this sense of overwhelming, stupendous, inexplicable feeling of utter insignificance, that numbing feeling of nothingness that makes you question the core your very existence and it’s validity on an astronomical and philosophical scale. What are we? Why do we think of us as “Masters of the Universe?” We are nothing, man! And we do not know shit about the Universe and how it works. We are just some uncivilized bipedal Carbon based life forms sitting on a rock hurtling through space, a Pale Blue Dot lost in the void of the vast empty nothingness of space. Yes, this is the reason for my philosophical quest.
The Pale Blue Dot
Below is a real photo which was taken in 1990 by the NASA space probe Voyager I. The picture was taken from over Six Billion kilometers away, far away from everything, even Pluto, at the frontiers of the Solar System. The picture shows the Earth against the backdrop of the vast expanse of emptiness that is space, with poetic looking beams of light cutting across the image. The pale whitish-blue dot in the golden-brown beam on the right hand side, that is our Earth, all of it, home to the human race and all of their “achievements” and all their mastery, as seen from the outer edges of our star system. Our home, the only one we have and have ever known, a fraction of a pixel which can be easily missed, a speck of nothingness suspended in a sunbeam.
(Left: The original Pale Blue Dot photo. Right: Same photo overlaid with Carl Sagan’s famous quote)
The Voyager I is a probe launched by NASA in 1977 to investigate the big planets of our Solar System. When the little spacecraft outlived it’s estimated lifespan, it was decided to let it go into the unknown reaches of space for as long and as far as it could go. It traveled past Neptune and the orbit of Pluto, and as it reached the edges of the Solar System, NASA commanded it to turn it’s cameras around and take pictures of the Earth and Solar System as it looked from there, 6 billion kilometers away. Voyager I has since left the Solar System and is on it’s eternal journey through the vast, empty, unknown interstellar space.
Each time I look at this picture, the sheer smallness of the dot in comparison to the vastness of space leaves a lump in my throat. And to think that this is just the Solar System, which itself is just an inconsequential medium sized star system of an immaterial below-average sized star, one among a billion stars, hanging somewhere in the forgotten outer edges of a regular spiral galaxy, which is again one among billions in the observable Universe. We might as well as not exist as far as the Universe is concerned. Still, we do not realize how much a whole lot of nothing we are, and we wallow in our own self-importance believing we have won mastery over nature. Nature? What nature? “Nature” as we understand, extends far far beyond this blue dot. That is all we are.
Renowned American Astrophysics superman Carl Sagan requested NASA to take this photo, because he rightly pointed out that “such a picture might be useful as a perspective on our place in the cosmos.” He has written a book on this, named “The Pale Blue Dot“, from which comes his very famous quote (given in the picture above), and he elaborates on it:
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.
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.
Trilobites ruled the earth for 230 million years, but died out to extinction. Later, Dinosaurs thrived for 160 million years, but they too died out, making way for mammals and then humans to become the dominant species. Humans are estimated to be around only for a measly 10,000 years. And if we think that we are “ruling” the Universe with this kind of ridiculously short existence, we as a race have to be seriously delusional, considering that all it requires is a small act of nature to obliterate this small speck of dust. If it happens, no one would even notice. It would be like us swatting a fly. We, and all that we have “created” will vanish into nothingness, with no record left that we even were here.