As someone fascinated by worlds real or fictional, I was ecstatic to hear about the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. News of the successful touchdown represents a great triumph for the downsized agency and helped to rekindle my own interest in looking to the heavens. I sometimes have trouble communicating my passion of the cosmos to others. People occasionally ask: Why is space exploration important? As an environmentalist, shouldn’t you deal with all the problems we have here on Earth before worrying about the stars?
What good is it all?
Fortunately, there are other much more capable and articulate communicators out there to address these legitimate questions – People like Carl Sagan. One of the world’s most well-known astronomer, astrophysicist, and science popularizer, Sagan’s ability to captivate millions with his Pulitzer-winning Cosmos and the subsequent TV series of the same name is no small feat. It takes an extraordinary storyteller to distill esoteric knowledge down to digestible form and transform it into meaningful and inspiring messages for people of different ages and backgrounds.
I came across Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space several years ago. Within its pages, I found the voice of a passionate spirit who understands the significance of space exploration for humanity. Pale Blue Dot is not just about one man’s call to look ever outward. It is also a thoughtful contemplation of humanity’s place on this planet, on this speck of dust we call home. The themes and connections found throughout this book make it, in my opinion, a very powerful Ekostory.
Pale Blue Dot covers various topics around the implications and the benefits of space travel. They range from historical tales that recount humanity’s unceasing wanderlust, to explaining why exploring other worlds helps us learn more about our own, to how our understanding of the universe over the centuries have forced us to reconsider our place and significance within it.
Sagan is a great writer. He effortlessly weaves difficult and abstract concepts into his narratives. At the same time, he is honest and humble as he ruminates about the nature of humanity and our place in the universe, articulating a possible path to a more optimistic future. Sagan’s work seems to find the delicate balance between practicality and appreciation, something that is very difficult to do in science education and communication. He personally attributes this approach to his upbringing:
My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method. (Spangenburg and Moser, Carl Sagan: A Biography)
Sagan is able to speak passionately and effectively about his own lifetime journey of exploring the unknown. In his words I feel the wonder, exhilaration, and joy of a scientist who is driven not by ambition for fame and prestige, but by the curiosity characteristic of a great soul, one that seeks to learn for knowledge’s sake.
So why does space exploration matter when we can’t even seem to take care of our own planet? There are several significant ideas the Pale Blue Dot that addresses this important question. They speak to how learning about other worlds can harness humanity’s innate drive for self-improvement while helping to cultivate the wisdom, humility, and perspective as we move towards an increasingly uncertain and complex future.
The Great Demotions
“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.” (Carl Sagan)
Space exploration has provided us with a much-needed cosmic perspective that serves to deflate our egos. Over the last five centuries, we have experienced moments of “Great Demotions” as we learn of our increasing insignificance in the greater scheme of things. We have discovered that our planet, our star, our galaxy are nothing special. We have learned that we share the same ancestry as the organisms we inhabit this world with. We are subject to the same laws of nature as every other living thing on Earth. Only our our cleverness renders us unique, but Sagan questions even that. He speaks from the perspective of a hypothetical alien who arrives in search of intelligent life:
From your orbital perspective, you can see that something has unmistakably gone wrong. The dominant organisms, whoever they are (who have gone to so much trouble to rework the surface) are simultaneously destroying their ozone layer and their forests, eroding their topsoil, and performing massive, uncontrolled experiments on the planet’s climate. Haven’t they noticed what’s happening? Are they oblivious to their fate? Are they unable to work together on behalf of the environment that sustains them all?
Perhaps, you think, it’s time to reassess the conjecture that there’s intelligent life on Earth (p. 77-79).
If we continue on our current thoughtless and dangerous trajectory of liquidating the planet’s natural capital and life support systems, our inventiveness, our ingenuity, and our big brains will all be for naught, for we were not smart enough to save ourselves, from ourselves. In order to have a different future, we must learn to walk a different path.
The importance of a vision
Apollo 17′s view of Earth.
Sagan believes that humanity needs a grand vision if we are to create a better and more sustainable future. Without focus, imagination, and long-term goals, human beings can only able to see things the way they are, assuming that because things have always “been like this” that “change is impossible.” Without vision and long-term goals, people, societies, and civilizations stagnate, wither, and perish.
Sagan hopes that space exploration can form an integral part of that vision. Interplanetary and interstellar travel can serve as inspiration to keep our civilization moving towards a more hopeful future. Most importantly, Sagan believes that our status quo of being will not net us that future. In order to become a space-faring species, we must first become a better and more responsible people, both towards each other and towards the only home we have ever known:
It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, a species returned to circumstances more like those for which it was originally evolved, more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent — the sorts of beings we would want to represent us in a Universe that, for all we know, is filled with species much older, much more powerful, and very different. (p. 398)
Sagan reminds us that we must learn to live together and with nature “down here” before we can become capable ambassadors “out there”. In order to journey forth to the stars, we must learn to reach for the better angels of our nature.
Beyond individualism and nationalism
In the chapter Exploring Other Worlds and Protecting This One, Sagan speaks of how space exploration can help us overcome our tendency for tribalism and narrow thinking. He draws an example from the field of planetary science, a discipline that brings practitioners with very different backgrounds to come together to think about the world in a broader scope.
Studying this world and others, by its very nature, tends to be non-local, non-nationalist, no-chauvinist. Very rarely do people go into these fields because they are internationalists. Almost always, they enter for other reasons, and then discover that splendid work, work that complements their own, is being done by researchers in other nations; or that to solve a problem, you need data or a perspective (access to the southern sky, for example) that is unavailable in your country. And once you experience such cooperation — humans from different part of the planet working in a mutually intelligible scientific language as partners on matters of common concern — it’s hard not to imagine it happening on other, nonscientific matters (p. 228).
Because planetary science necessitates cooperation from the global community, it serves to remind scientists – intelligent people who can occasionally become too focused and specialized – that their goals can only be achieved through mutual aid and solidarity. Sagan believes that this spirit of cooperation can transfer over to other facets of their life, dispelling at least temporarily, the prevailing mainstream mentality that emphasizes the advantages of competition and individualism. Space exploration, by its very nature, fosters thinking that transcends individual or national interests.
The role, ethics, and obligations of science
Stewardship by Greg Mort.
Sagan admits that irresponsible use of science and technology has created many of the current environmental problems we face today:
Many of the dangers we face indeed arise from science and technology — but more fundamentally, because we have become powerful without becoming commensurately wise. The world-altering powers that technology has delivered into our hands now require a degree of consideration and foresight that has never before been asked of us (p.384).
At the same time, he articulates that science is instrumental in helping us understand the unintended consequences of our actions. Exploring other worlds has made us aware of the deleterious impacts we have caused on Earth. Planetary research of Venus and Mars was instrumental in revealing the connection between CFCs and the destruction of the ozone layer. Studying the greenhouse effects on Venus helped us understand the significance of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations. Even being able to view the Earth from another vantage point has helped us realize the interconnected nature of our world and the global scope of environmental problems:
From Earth’s orbit, you are struck by the tender blue arc of the horizon — the Earth’s thin atmosphere seen tangentially. You can understand why there’s no longer such a thing as a local environmental problem. Molecules are stupid. Industrial poisons, greenhouse gases, and substances that attack the protective ozone layer, because of their abysmal ignorance, do not respect borders. They are oblivious of the notion of national sovereignty. And so, due to the almost mythic powers of our technology (and the prevalence of short-term thinking), we are beginning — on continental and on planetary scales — to pose a danger to ourselves (p. 218).
Looking outwards has revealed that the vast majority of worlds out there are barren and devoid of life; there are no guarantees that Earth, through our negligence and inaction, couldn’t end up like them as well. Therefore, we must learn to keep the balance that nature does of its own accord, not only for its sake, but also our own. As a force operating on a planetary scale, we must exercise proper stewardship. As the pace of scientific and technological progress continues to accelerate, we need the time to think about the consequences before application and implementation. A group of scientists developed the Slow Science manifesto to address this point:
Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done. Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection. Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time. We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.
The pale blue dot
Finally, I can’t go without referring to the image it is in reference to. Sagan tells the tale behind this iconic picture, taken as the Voyager 1 space probe raced out of the solar system, recalling that the move was a last-minute decision made by a cash-strapped NASA. This blurry picture has since become the backdrop to one of most inspirational passages about the preciousness of our world. I’ll leave it to Sagan to do it justice.
There’s nothing I can add to that. See you next week.
Next Up: Doing what you can.
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House, 1994.
Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane. Carl Sagan: A Biography. Greenwood Publication, 2004.