Volume > Issue > Denizens of a Pale Blue Dust Mote

Denizens of a Pale Blue Dust Mote

CULTURAL COUNTERPOINT

By Jason M. Morgan | July-August 2019
Jason M. Morgan teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Japan.

“All science has at present the object of dissuading man from his former respect for himself.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

 

One of the most famous photographs ever taken does not look much like a photograph. It hardly looks like anything, really. Some faint orange, green, and magenta bands transect a grainy black background, too controlled to be a work of modern art, yet far too empty to be a traditional portrait. What is this strange image?

If you study the photograph you will notice that around the middle of the faded orange shaft, in a side third of the frame (there is no discernible up, down, left, or right), there is a very small pinprick of washed-out cerulean glow. Without the benefit of an explanation, it would be nigh impossible to guess that this little sky-colored tenth-of-a-pixel in a field of muted earth tones is none other than Earth itself. The photograph is named for its smallest — and yet, once you have noticed it, most insistent — element: Pale Blue Dot.

That this is a photograph and not a painting or drawing suggests that it was taken from very far away, and in fact, the image was taken on Valentine’s Day 1990, at a distance of four billion miles from its subject, us. This strange love letter to the human race was dashed off as the equipment used to produce it, the manmade spacecraft Voyager 1, sped away from us at a rate of approximately 38,000 miles an hour. Like Prince Genji scrawling a hasty poem as he was leaving a court lady’s chambers in the morning dew, Voyager 1 looked over its shoulder as it edged toward the interstellar medium to cast one last, longing look at the planet it would never visit again.

To be more precise, it wasn’t Voyager 1 that took the photograph; it was Carl Sagan. Anyone who was of age in the 1980s will remember this decorated astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and master publicist. Sagan is famous for his many books, but most of all for Cosmos (1980; also made into a PBS television series), in which he strove to impress upon us our overall insignificance in a universe of big planets, raging supernovae, and yawning gulfs of oil-black space.

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