Some Dot!

Our pal Kevin Kim, in a recent post, linked to a video clip featuring Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” monologue. On Valentine’s Day of 1991, at Sagan’s request, the spacecraft Voyager 1 was turned toward the Earth to capture an image of its faraway home. The doughty little doohickey was, by then, about four billion miles away, and in the photo (which you can see here), the Earth appears as nothing more than, well, a pale blue dot. Sagan, who during his too-short life created a body of work that should stand as case-closing evidence that atheists can nevertheless have a deeply reverential sense of the numinous, used this photo to illustrate, in poignantly poetic terms, how small we really are, and how fragile and precious the beauty of our remarkable little world.

In yesterday’s Times, though, was an Op-Ed article that made rather a different point. The Earth is really not so fragile as all that, argues author Oliver Morton. It is very ancient indeed — older than a great many stars — and impressively robust. We read:

In its duration, as opposed to its diameter, the Earth demands to be measured on a cosmic scale. At more than four billion years old, it stretches a third of the way across the history of the universe, a third of the way back to the Big Bang itself. Many of the stars you can see on a clear winter’s night are younger than the planet beneath your feet.

Mere persistence is not, in itself, that great a feat. The barren rocks of the Moon have persisted almost as long. But the Earth has not merely endured; it has lived. For almost 90 percent of its history the planet has been inhabited, and shaped by life. The biological mechanisms that first operated in the dawn of life animate the creatures of the Earth to this day, forming an unbroken chain at least 3.8 billion years long.

This unfailing, uninterrupted life demonstrates that the planet is far from fragile. The living Earth is tough on scales it is hard to credit. Life has watched continents crash together and tear themselves apart; skies glowing like bright coals; tropical seas frozen into stillness: it has endured. Slaked in radiation from nearby supernovae, pummeled by asteroids, it has barely faltered and never stopped. Our civilization may be — is — out of balance with its environment; current human ways of life are frighteningly precarious. But to read the fragility of our way of life onto life itself is foolish.

This essay is a fine piece of writing. Read it for yourself here.

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  1. Four billion miles away?! But the moon itself is only about 270,000 miles away. Did our moonshot overshoot so badly? Probably not. I think that you misread “four billion years old” as four billion miles away.

    But playing with numbers for comical effect is fun, e.g., “Although the moon is 270,000 miles from the earth, it is only one-fiftieth as large.”

    That’ll have them scratching their heads lots longer than an error.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted December 26, 2008 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I hardly know where to begin to address that comment, Jeffery. Easier not to do so at all, I think!

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    I doubt Sagan would have disagreed with the sentiment that life, taken almost in the abstract to encompass all its forms, was and remains a robust phenomenon. Not having read The Pale Blue Dot, I neverthless assume that his point was to put the earth and its life in cosmic perspective, to allow us to see how small we really are — just “a thin film of life” — in the grand scheme.

    I also think that, if we move from an abstract consideration of life in general to a more intimate consideration of specific forms of life, we can see that each particular form is, in fact, completely dependent on everything around it for its existence and flourishing — delicate and ephemeral.


    Posted December 26, 2008 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    And this points up another tension between the religious and scientific worldviews: the former sees life as far more important, in the grand scheme, than just a “thin film”, and regards such a description as demeaning to human dignity.

    It is, at the very least, a pretty nifty film that can take a picture of itself from four billion miles away!

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says


    I wonder to what degree it’s a tension between those two worldviews. The scientific community, taken as a whole, often seems of two minds about humanity’s place and significance in the cosmos: sometimes they celebrate human genius, and at other times they focus on our humbling, Copernican non-centrality.

    Religious folks, too, are the same way: at times we are admonished to approach all creation with humility and to be grateful for each breath we take in the context of such vastness; at others, we are told to rejoice in our specialness, for despite the enormity of the universe, God cares about us; his chosen people. Even in the Buddhist way of thinking, humans are special among sentient beings for their greater freedom, i.e., their greater ability to generate karma relative to animals, hungry ghosts, fighting spirits, deities, and all the rest.

    Anyway, I agree: we are a nifty film. I and I agree with where Morton takes his sentiments:

    For this flow to work, the energy must get out as well as get in. If Major Anders had had a camera working in the infrared, that departing energy would have shown up as a warm glow on the night side of the planet. Forty years on, that glow has dimmed a little; less energy is getting out. By thickening the skies with carbon dioxide, we are blocking the energy’s flow, and allowing a buildup of heat here at the surface of the Earth. This greenhouse warming is small beer in any cosmic sense. It poses no threat to the continuation of life on Earth, but it does pose a threat to tens of millions of people, and will do so for generations to come.

    That’s exactly the basis for my view of environmentalism. It isn’t about saving the planet, which doesn’t need saving: it’s about us being engaged in an essentially selfish project — saving ourselves.


    Posted December 26, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Heh… sorry about the “I and I.” I went Jamaican for a second.


    Posted December 26, 2008 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm, my error. I had already read the article that you’ve linked to, and I thought that you were referring to the photo taken from the moon (which shows that I didn’t read your own words closely enough).

    Wow, so Voyager took a photo from 4 billion miles away? I had no idea.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted December 26, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink