Last week, the NPR program All Things Considered ran a segment on sounds derived from the electromagnetic radiation of sources in outer space.  During the segment, they interviewed Jill Tarter, one of the co-founders of the SETI Institute.  The segment ended with the follow quote from her:

As Carl Sagan said, we are all made out of stardust.  You are actually made out of the remnants of that star that blew up billions of years ago, and the connectedness of life to the Cosmos and the idea of thinking about, maybe, life somewhere else, I think has the opportunity to trivialize the differences among humans on this planet that we find so troublesome.

The bolded portion struck me as a rather strange aspiration, but not one that is altogether uncommon.  Indeed, in the quote, she references the late Carl Sagan, who often expressed similar sentiments.

Sagan’s Vision

One of Carl Sagan’s most famous pieces was his meditation on the meaning of a photograph taken of the Earth by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as part of a solar system mosaic it took a few months after passing beyond the orbit of the gas giant Neptune:

Sagan recorded a narration of this prose, which has been posted to YouTube in many videos such as this one which vary the imagery used to illustrate Sagan’s narration.  Here is the text:

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

If there’s a branch of science that’s particularly susceptible to spiritualization, it’s astronomy.  The images of the Earth and moon that you can see juxtaposed to the to the right of Sagan’s writing are a to scale representation of the distance between the two objects.  That scale is incredibly counterintuitive and unimaginably vast, and yet it is the shortest distance to a natural celestial orb.  The distance to the Sun is about 400 times further and even that is dwarfed by the chasm between us an the nearest star, which is about 267,000 times the distance to the Sun.  Even the most basic, concrete concept in astronomy, like the distance between two objects, is beyond human comprehension.

Sagan’s quote is masterful in its use of cosmic grandeur to illustrate a rather mundane ideological point.  Sagan’s ideological point is echoed less eloquently in Tarter’s hope, but the sentiment is essentially the same.  It is that there is a triviality in human endeavor and that we should give up conflict.  There is actually a contradiction of sentiments in Sagan’s message.  At once he declares Earth to be a trivial element of a much wider universe and something unspeakably precious.  While this may seem like a profound observation, it really serves as a rhetorical device to argue his position.  In the first three paragraphs, he uses the scale of the universe to point to the insignificance of humanity which he uses to denigrate humanity’s many feuds, while he pivots to the uniqueness of the Earth to argue for preservation.

Astronomy is a poor source of religious insight, even with it’s great power to provoke religious awe.  This can be seen by flipping Sagan’s argument on its head and arguing for its exact opposite.

Look at the small dot that is our planet in the photo.  On that dot rests the sum total of humanity and all that supports us.  It is photos like these that  reveal how small each and every one of us truly is and it reminds us of the necessity to bind ourselves to a greater purpose.  For in the Earth’s smallness, we can see how trifling the demands of our daily lives and personal ambitions truly are, and at a time when our country and values face great peril, we must be willing to fight and sacrifice to protect it against the amassing threats from abroad.

For, though it is insignificant when compared to the cosmic background, the Earth is unique, to our knowledge, in its ability to support life.  As far as we know, there is possibly one chance for life to be steered rightly.  The vision for humanity laid forth in American ideals is one that but one chance to succeed and if we fail to take it, it may perish from existence forever, buried by the raging hoards of our enemies.  As such we must press onward and fight to bring the rest of the world to see as we see.

This may not be a pleasant or persuasive viewpoint, but it is just as supported by the two elements of Earth’s cosmic triviality and of its uniqueness.  Sagan’s point is compelling not because the grandeur of the Universe calls for the position he advocates, but rather because the grandeur of the Universe creates a sense of awe and Sagan’s ideological argument is one that people generally find agreeable.  Generally, putting aside our differences and working toward a brighter future while preserving what we have  is a positive view.  However, as I’ll show in my next post, it’s one that we should be wary of accepting in its entirety.