Pale Blue Dot – Un-humanizing our view of the world: A meditation in anticipation of the new photograph of the Earth taken by the Cassini spacecraft beyond the orbit of Saturn

Earthrise - 1968
One of the important things about going away on some kind of holiday as I will be doing next week (apart from the obvious reason of rest)  is to get a new perspective on things.

This is not, of course, to go away in order to try to find some view from nowhere, the imagined perfect viewpoint from which your own life or, indeed, life itself is understood. Of course, once upon a time we thought such a view existed - it was a God's eye view and, if you believed the right things about the right kind of God then you, too, could come to share some real knowledge of this view.

But, thankfully, we live in an age when more and more people are realising that this is a false belief and that every view is always a view from somewhere. We've  slowly come to agree with Nietzsche in thinking that the most "complete" picture of the world anyone of us can have is always going to be a complex, collage-like affair - made up of multiple perspectives.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have come along a number of new perspective on the world which have impacted upon millions of people simultaneously. Not because they all went on holiday together to the same place (thank God!) but, thanks to modern technology, because we were momentarily gathered together through the viewpoint of a single lens.

My life began just three years before the first and most famous of these, namely, a photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by the crew of Apollo 8 crew which showed us for the first time the Earth as it appears from space. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders had become the first humans to leave Earth orbit and had entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. During that orbit an historic live broadcast took place in which Lovell said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." The crew then took turns reading from the book of Genesis and Borman concluded the broadcast by saying, "We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."


The photograph, now called "Earthrise", is credited with giving the whole human race a new sublime and awe inspiring perspective on our place in the universe. We were, it seemed, beginning as a whole species more fully to recognise just how beautiful, and how fragile, was our home - spaceship earth.

But one of the oddities I have long noticed about this picture is how its beauty all too quickly and easily seems to have trumped it's sublime aspect. To show you what I mean let's turn to the following words by Albert Gelpi about beauty:

'The beautiful refers to the landscape whose physical conformation and psychological affect welcomes, responds to, and nurtures the human. It is characterised by a modest scale that accommodates the human presence, regularity and symmetry of elements, smoothly curving lines, gentle gradations of height and depth, steady light and harmonious shades of colour. The cooperative participation of the human transforms the beautiful into the pastoral: sun irradiating a fertile and cultivated landscape dotted with family farms, divine beneficence manifest in reflections of the heavens above in the rivers and lakes below. Beautiful nature reveals the divine as the maternal ground, the source and sustenance and resting place of life' (From Albert Gelpi’s introduction to The Wild God of the World – An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2003, p.13).

I'm sure you have all many of you will have experienced how the "Earthrise" photo and photos of the earth in general are, today, often received in our culture as a beautiful even almost pastoral images. Visits to the moon became regular affairs until 1972 and after that there were the many Space Shuttle flights and so, in consequence, the image of the whole earth from space very quickly become to us a comprehensible and human-scaled and, perhaps, even modest. Of course in 1968 we hadn't yet accommodated ourselves to this perspective and, at the time, it could only appear to most of us as a sublime, vertiginous and awesome image. Try, for a moment to put yourself back in time to 1968 and hear these words by Gelpi about the sublime:

'By contrast, the physical conformation and psychological affect of the sublime landscape dwarfs the physical presence of the beholder so overwhelmingly that he or she feels psychologically reduced to the point of annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he or she beholds. Characteristic features of the sublime include vastness of scale that suggests infinity, jagged and broken lines, extremes of soaring heights and dizzying declivities, intense contrasts of brightness and dark, the light either blinding or obscured by cloud over a harsh and dreadful landscape in which the irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide. . . . The beholder at this pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany is at once thrilled and threatened by the erasure of his frailty in the transcendental Other' (ibid p.13).

Many of the astronauts who experienced first-hand this view of the earth have used this kind of language to describe their experiences (On this point it is well worth seeing the excellent and moving short film I've embedded below this paragraph called The Overview Effect). But the fact remains as we have become more and more used to seeing it, pictures of the earth from space have increasingly become in our culture simply beautiful, decorative images suitable for bed-sit posters or desktop images and they have become to us more beautiful than sublime.


Pale Blue Dot (click to enlarge)
But such easy accommodation to recognisably human-scales was much harder to achieve in relation to the next important photograph of our planet taken between February 14, 1990 and June 6, 1990 by Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles which showed Earth as no more than a pale blue dot. To see our home planet as something so small, so insignificant in the vastness of space made a very powerful impression upon millions of us - it called forth once again, not so much the language of beauty, but the language of the sublime. The most famous expression of this was made by the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan who had requested that the photo was taken in the first place. On October 13, 1994 he was delivering a public lecture at his own university of Cornell. He put up on the screen a photo of earth taken by the Voyager space craft at a distance of 3.7 billion miles and said the following words:

'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.'

Looking back on my first sight of that photo accompanied by Sagan's words I can see it was a pivotal moment in my life which triggered a development in my own thinking that allowed me slowly to let go of a traditional theistic conception of God and to begin to walk a path which has led to the kind of religious naturalism I hold to today.

Rothko's paintings in The Rothko Chapel
But, as with the "Earthrise" photo I have long noticed something odd about the Pale Blue Dot photo. Once again its sublime and awe inspiring quality has also proved all too easily trumped by beauty. But this time the beauty was not found (made?) by turning it into a modern "landscape", wholly accommodated to a (space-age) human scale of things, but by assimilating it as a kind of abstract art-work. The truth is when you don't know what the picture is - i.e. if you saw it first of all without any additional caption or commentary you would not look at it and say in an unprompted way, "Oh my God, look, it's the earth! And, oh my God, how small it is!" No, un-annotated, it's simply a blue dot in a sea of blacky brown crossed with some faint bands of colour - beautiful, yes, but no longer obviously sublime. Seen like this it takes on an almost Rothkoesque quality.

Computer simulation of the forthcoming Cassini photograph
Now we can move to the as yet unreleased photograph that was taken this Friday by the Cassini spacecraft somewhere just beyond Saturn. At a distance of about 898 million miles.

UPDATE 22 July 2013. Click on this link to go to the NASA site to see them.

It is interesting to try to glean from the words of the Cassini team why they wanted to take this picture. There are, as you might expect, some fairly straightforward scientific reasons in the mix. Because at the time of the photo Saturn was eclipsing the sun from Cassini's point of view this provided a special opportunity to look at the planet's rings and see some otherwise invisible structure.

But that’s not the only reason in the mix. Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California says:

'While Earth will be only about a pixel in size from Cassini's vantage point . . . the team is looking forward to giving the world a chance to see what their home looks like from Saturn.' 

Cassini's 2006 photo of earth
Actually, this is not the first photo of Earth taken by Cassini from Saturn. So why do it again? Well here is Carolyn Porco’s take on the matter. Porco is the Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado and she says:

'Ever since we caught sight of the Earth among the rings of Saturn in September 2006 in a mosaic that has become one of Cassini's most beloved images, I have wanted to do it all over again, only better. This time, I wanted to turn the entire event into an opportunity for everyone around the globe to savor the uniqueness of our planet and the preciousness of the life on it.'

(The above quotes can be found in by clicking this link)

I feel, but cannot prove of course, that these words reveal the scientists involved in this project have recognised some of what I have been talking about in this address. That this might be so is indicated by what seems to be a willingness within certain scientific circles to take seriously the importance of the beautiful and the sublime. Only two years ago Oxford University Press published a book written by a number of leading natural scientists called "Beyond the Finite - The Sublime in Art and Science."

The Cassini team seem to have realised that as a human race we aren't good at properly internalising what people like Sagan were saying about the fragility of our planet and the pressing need to look after it and each other better, much better.

They have seen that if the picture they present us with to help us to change our ways is too recognisable and human scaled (like Earthrise) or too awesomely abstract and un-humanly scaled (like the Pale Blue Dot) then we all too quickly reduce the sublime element of their message to the beautiful.

This human tendency reveals the need always to be finding a balance between, on the one hand, a human-centred and human-scaled beauty and, on the other, an un-human and utterly overwhelming, incomprehensible sublime. We need to see and deeply internalise the truth that our day to day human-centred views of the world, while important, are alone neither healthy or sustainable perspectives to live by for they encourage us into acts of destructive dominion rather than expressing a love for the preciousness of all things.

The human centred perspective always needs the balance of the sublime perspective to keep us in appropriate check. As the poet Robinson Jeffers said at the end of his poem Carmel Point:

                                                                       As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

When later this week the Cassini photo is finally published please spend some time with it, imbibing both its beautiful and sublime aspects. Please, as you do this, remember that it is only when we are prepared constantly to move between human and unhuman perspectives that there can spring forth within us the right kind of energy and spirit that will help us truly fulfil our role, not as dominators and rulers, but as gentle and wise custodians of our fragile, beautiful home - the good earth.
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