Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

By Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Carl Sagan left us a precious legacy. The Cosmos. And also a poignant reminder of the fragility of our own "pale blue dot", the fleeting ephemeral nature of all that is beautiful and worthwhile.

When Carl, if I may be so familiar, warned us about greenhouse effects and global warming, we listened. And not just because the beautiful Pachelbel's canon in D major played so persistently beautiful in the soundtrack. Sagan illuminated our world all too briefly and briefer still when measured against the cosmological eons about which he spoke so movingly.

We could do far worse than "getting caught up" in his vision. In retrospect, it seems mundane to say that he made of science an adventure. Rather, he made of evolution a symphony, of astronomy a sonnet. With his signature phrase "billions and billions", Sagan evoked for me my own childhood amid the vast expanses of West Texas where one could look up into a velvety black sky far from city lights where "God" had flung "billions and billions" of sparkling diamonds.

It is because the air is so crystal clear and so far removed from city lights that UT's famous McDonald Observatiory (pictured above) is located in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, just north of Big Bend. The Milky Way, our own spiral galaxy, is not cloud-like at night. It is as if Carl Sagan's "billions and billions" of stars could be seen individually in one panoramic sweep from Guadeloupe Peak to Santa Helena. It is no cliche that the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. Science was no longer study, it was the merging of one's own life and being with a cosmos vaster than could be imagined. That is my childhood recollection of our own cosmos. It is also Carl's legacy.

Watch and enjoy.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan's phrase "Pale Blue Dot" is now a part of the language. Not just a handy description of a tiny planet in a vast cosmos, it has changed the way we think about our precious and fragile vessel - Earth.

Obviously, Ted Turner's questions were posed before George W. Bush would attack and invade Iraq, perhaps destablizing a volatile Middle East in the process. Sagan referenced Mikhail Gorbachev. Surely it is remembered that it was Gorbachev who put total nuclear disarmament on the table at Reykjavik. It was Ronald Reagan who blinked. It is the Ronald Reagan legacy that George W. Bush keeps alive at our peril. Clearly, the most powerful people on earth had not listened to Sagan. And they are not listening now.

The following excerpts are Carl at his best - debunking superstition even as he celebrates the precious fragility of the home planet.
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 ... lived there on a node of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot


jack shit said...

Sagan said in his last book which was entitled Billions and Billions that he never used that phrase because it was too imprecise. He said it was the Sagan like character bit that Johnny Carson did that said Billions and Billions.

Len Hart said...

Is that inconvenient truth so hard to accept? We are shitting in our mess kit, at our own peril. Even the suits should be able to understand that.

The "suits" are only interested in the bottom line on the here and now.

Making the planet out to be some fragile eggshell while hiding the fact that all we are doing is making it inhospitable for humans is not doing us any favors.

The planet is fragile and the truth of it must out.

Sagan said in his last book which was entitled Billions and Billions that he never used that phrase because it was too imprecise.

I tried to watch every episode. Sagan used the word "billions" a lot. "Billions and Billions" is, perhaps, the one popular Sagan book that I have not read.

Sagan wrote Cosmos, Dragons,et al for popular audiences. Strictly, "scientific papers" for peers uses scientific notation, also called power-of-10 notation, a method of writing extremely large and small numbers. One can avoid the word "billions" entirely. But, for my purposes here, I like it. I have never met anyone who has not associated "billions" or "billions and billions" with Carl Sagan.

Anonymous said...

I was in my early teens when Cosmos first aired. I remember watching it in awe. Sagans optimism and sense of wonder were contagious. It gave me hope. His voice is missed now more than ever.

Len Hart said...

The recent findings at the Mexico geological symposium proposing a comet causing the end to Clovis Culture is evidence of past catastrophes. It has happened before, it will happen again.

I grew up among lots of Clovis findings and found quite a few "Clovis points" myself. I am also aware of various catastrophes of varying magnitudes. Near my birthplace is the nation's second largest meteorite crater. It must have been one helluva a "catatrosphe", of the magnitude perhaps of the Tunguska event - or worse.

the planet has seen far worse than mankind has ever thrown at it..

Maybe. Maybe not. The essential difference and what is important is that what man has "thrown" at the earth has, in fact, been thrown at Earth by man!

Just as I would not dump in my neighbors yard, I oppose big corporations despoiling OUR environment. It was the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon who said "You can't expect another man to carry your shit!" I am, likewise, not prepared to let him take his dump in my yard.

As for natural catastrophes: in theory, we might divert a meteorite or even a small asteroid. I cannot imagine our technology ever enabling our prevention of the sun going supernova.

Couching the argument as "Poor, poor pitiful helpless planet" demeans the planet and has less punch than the vengefull "Vital planetary organism (the Earth itself) is rejecting its dominant life form". And as you know, Americans in particular respond quite well to this dog whistle cant.

I don't respond well to "dog whistle cants". I leave "dog whistle cants" to Bush and his fundie base which likes to communicate deliberately via code words, in ways "not heard" or perceived by the rest of us.

But there is never any valid reason for not pursuing the truth unless you are prepared to embrace lies. I am not.

Secondly, I never used the term "poor helpless planet". On the contrary, I think the earth has been remarkably resilient. I am also not sure that our ability to destroy the planet justifies your characterization of mankind as the "dominant life" form. I see behind that an unscientific bias.

Anonymous said...

I was in my early teens when Cosmos first aired. I remember watching it in awe.

That was my reaction as well. What I especially appreciated was Sagan's ability to make science accessible without condescension and without compromising the content.

Marc McDonald said...

I consider the 1940s, 50s, and 60s to have been the peak of American power and global influence. We've been going downhill ever since.

We've turned from being a famously "can do" nation into a nation that simply can't do anything.

Back in the 1950s, the Kyoto Protocol would have been the "New York Protocol," and the U.S. would have been the guiding force behind it. Our scientists would have been in the forefront of researching global warming and we as a nation would have rallied the world to fix the problem.

Today, we as a nation simply sit on the sidelines, while the rest of the world takes action on this, the most important crisis of our generation.

Marc McDonald

Len Hart said...

Marc McDonald said...

We've turned from being a famously "can do" nation into a nation that simply can't do anything.

Certainly Viet Nam had a lot to do with that. It certainly shattered American's myth of our own invincibilty. A quagmire has that effect. Unfortunately, people will see in that result what they want to see i.e, the peace movement will cite that as proof that they had been right about Viet Nam all along. Those who had suppported our involvement in Viet Nam will blame the peace movement for our loss there.

Back in the 1950s, the Kyoto Protocol would have been the "New York Protocol," and the U.S. would have been the guiding force behind it.

I would like to think that you are correct about that. I still believe that despite Ike's warning the Military/Industrial complex was not nearly as as virulent then as it is today. The opposition to Kyoto today clearly does not care what happens to our planet and seem to care nothing about whether another generation will continue to find this planet livable.

Anonymous said...

Fuzzflash chimes in...

"Galaxy Song
Composers: Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Author: Eric Idle
Singer: Eric Idle
From the Movie 'The Meaning of Life'

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth."

You shoot a great game of cosmic pool, Cowboy.

Len Hart said...

Anonymous said...

And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth."

Fuzzflash, you are the epitome of discernment. And may I thank the cockney's (or whomever it was) who gave us that immortal and essential phrase "bugger all"?

You guys honor this fourm. Thanks.

You shoot a great game of cosmic pool, Cowboy.

Well, that honor should have belonged to Ronnie O'Sullivan. A repeat from him would have been nice.

Manifesto Joe said...

Hi, Fuzzflash:

Ouch, but touche. (Re: earlier exchange on the Fox News post, several days ago.) Sorry I can't put the accent on the e. I'll correct the spelling of Labyrinth on my site, if you will guide me to where I can read your review of the film, Pan's Labyrinth. I was somehow unable to navigate to it with the coordinates you provided. I'm sorry I didn't respond to this sooner. I was taking evasive action. And, thanks for coming around to check out my own "typos." You also seem to be a "regular guy." And my poet friend Jon Gregory noticed your earlier compliment. He says thanks, and hello.

To the Cowboy: I don't know your age, but I'm just past 50, and can remember a time in rural Texas when I saw a dazzling array of stars, constellations, etc., as a kid in the '60s. You could see all this then, nightly when the sky was clear. Now it has to be certain "clear" nights, with the planet apparently enshrouded with something.

Len Hart said...

I will admit, it's been a few years since I lay on the campsite ground somewhere inside the Davis Mt range looking up in awe. I suspect that inside that Mt Range even today there is almost no light pullution. The faintest stars are visible. In Houston, one is lucky to see even a few stars at night. I looked up Palomar Observatory on Google maps recently. I find it hard to believe that LA lights have not adversely affected the observation there. But, I am sure, that's the slack that was taken up by Hubble.

marain said...

oppressive summer sun and heat
but ocean
white breakers in the distance
white caps in the growing wind
the flame trees shining
while the lizards sing
night deepens to their chirruping
and the stars
the dark heat of the stars always
across the heavens always blazing
whited out by day but always
the suns of other worlds
always always the stars
the stars the stars
always at the edge
on the brink of feeling
of knowing
the stars

Anonymous said...


USOFA IS DIEÏNG, you'll kill yourselves in the end, plenty of weaponry around (200.000.000 firearms) I'll hope you kill yourselves before you kill the rest of the WORLD!

Please, Please, and again, Please, DONT KILL US!

LanceThruster said...

.. star stuff contemplating star stuff ...
-- Carl Sagan, on humankind

Len, I am glad my star stuff has a chance to contemplate your star stuff. Keep up the great work!

Len Hart said...

Thanks, Lance. Don't be a stranger; there is always a front porch at the "Cowboy".