A pale blue dot

a beautiful space

A beautiful space

I did a university paper in astronomy way back when, more because of an affinity for the vastness and mystery of our night-sky than a liking of physics—or for that matter anything else remotely mathematical. Of course I got far more of the latter than the former: the mundane practicalities of "matter", and it's arcane but definitely not mystical workings. And the passage of light through space, and its refraction and reflection, some of which "rationally unsound" people have the temerity to call beautiful.

It was anything but what you might call magical. A subject which the artistically inclined write best forgotten, angst-ridden poems about during their formative years—I didn't actually, but I'm sure you know the stereotype—except with every single drop of the poetry, and angst, removed.

The very first point of order in my first astronomy class, right after the professor introduced himself, was to confirm that for the next semester this class would be on the subject of astronomy, not astrology, and were anyone interested in the latter, now might be a good time to head for the door...

I was almost shown the door a little later on when, after closely querying the rules regarding the meeting of 'terms', or the minimum course requirements for continued enrollment—a different matter from actually passing, but an essential prerequisite—noted that handing in lab assignments was essential, but not their completion. Following the academic law to it's actual letter got me a small measure of infamy, when my named, titled but otherwise blank lab paper was displayed, to the lecturer's very public scorn and derision, and announcement that the rules would be amended hence-forth to require completion.

Carl Sagan

Astronomer Carl Sagan

Nevertheless, I am somewhat proud of the fact that I passed the course without learning a single equation, taking a single practical lab or even doing one experiment! Like standing outside during the midwinter dusk, recording the setting time of the sun in a log, where knowledge of the fact that the sun sets at a time four minutes different every day enabled me to complete the assignment, and terms as well, in the greater comfort and warmth of inside. Budding astronomers will know that the accuracy of this figure is determined by the precise longitude of your location, the axial tilt of Earth and it's movement around the sun, but my heart really wasn't in the details.

Likewise in my major subject, Theatre and Film, where I never read the plays, and am proof that you can have enough of an informed opinion on plays and their authors to pass without actually reading them!

At this point, you might question what I was actually doing at university, and quite correctly, for I certainly was at the time. In all honesty, I really had no idea what else to do with myself, and my just initiated meditation practise had yet to show me the heavenly door I was really searching for.

The Earth, a pale blue dot

Earth viewed from Voyager

The real reason I did astronomy, my love for the mystery, beauty and sheer vastness of the infinite black that surrounds us, a form of aspiration that would in time become an all-engulfing quest for the infinite within us, is touched upon in a talk by one of the discipline's pre-eminent minds—the late astronomer and humanist Carl Sagan. Perhaps best known to the general public as the writer/presenter of the tv series Cosmos and author of the best selling novel (and later film) Contact, a fictional book with a conclusion so fantastic my twelve year old self fervently wished it be true, Sagan delivered the following lecture on the subject of a photo taken of the Earth from the Voyager I space probe, four billion miles distant in space, and at exactly the time my student self was not recording the setting of the evening sun...

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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 is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

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