Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Yes, we are really small, BUT...

In 1990, the Voyager spacecraft took a photo of the universe 6.1 billion km from earth. As it happened, the earth was captured as a tiny blue dot, amid beams of galactical light.

Dr Carl Sagan, a self-confessed agnostic, was an astronomer/astrophysicist at the time. He made the following remarks about the incredible photo (I have highlighted the important bits):

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again 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.

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.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

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.

Despite having a completely opposing worldview to Dr Sagan, I agree with him on one point: Yes, we are small. When you take even a passing interest in stars, planets and the enormity of the universe, there is no doubt about this.

However, to describe our planet as "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam", "a small stage in a vast cosmic arena", "a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark", and simply leave it at that strikes me as bleak, cynical and depressing.

Where is the hope, meaning, significance or joy in holding a godless worldview like that? The idea that we have a privileged position in the Universe is not a delusion. When Jesus was crucified and resurrected for the sins of humanity, he did not do it for the mountains, the canyons, the birds, the trees, the oceans, the stars or planets, as magnificent as those things are. He did it for US! I think that makes us pretty privileged.

Oh, Dr Sagan, if you only knew. As small as we are, the good news is that God, the Creator of the universe is really, really BIG!

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