A Distant Pale Blue Dot

I mentioned in a previous blog that I would devote some of my lockdown time to rereading a collection of my favourite books. Subjects on science, philosophy and biographies are amongst those at the top of the list. But spread through the selection are works of fiction, which, I might add, are meant to lighten the mood, when called upon. Although, many of them are usually based on factual incidents.

Two such examples, which might be referred to as semi-fiction are: John Grisham’s Camino Island, a story based on the five priceless manuscripts of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, held by Princetown University. The fiction is that they have been stolen. The other one is Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, which takes place in the Edinburgh of the 1840s. This is the fascinating story of medical science, dead bodies, surgery and the discovery of chloroform. The story and its colourful characters are based on real people and historical events.

However, my interest in the cosmos, space/time, the moon, the planets, the galaxies, aviation, NASA and all the countless other elements that make up mankind’s desire to explore the universe – and possibly the multiverse – have all been written about in fact and fiction. And, for me, one of the greatest authors of them all, Carl Sagan, explored both genres throughout his astonishing career.

He wrote a wide range books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, as well as bestsellers such as Cosmos, which became one of the bestselling science books ever published in the English language. A scientist trained in astronomy and biology, he received over twenty honorary degrees from American colleges and universities for his contributions to science and literature.

I’d read about the early rocket pioneers, such as Robert H. Goddard and Wernher Von Braun, when Sagan came to my attention years ago. He played a major role in the early NASA space programme as an adviser to the astronauts, before they embarked on their Apollo journeys to the moon. The extraordinary number of science awards he received during his lifetime are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, that his work in this field and planetary studies are legendary.

During a trip to New York, my wife and I visited the marvellous Hayden Planetarium beside Central Park. It was there that I picked up his last book Billion & Billions and was saddened to learn of his death from a rare blood disease, myelodysplasia, in December 1996.

Although, a non-religious person, thousands of people of different faiths from around the world prayed for him, such was his fame. He appreciated their support, but maintained his position on science and reason against the supernatural, until the end.

Knowing of my interest in Sagan’s work, my son sent me a framed edition of his famous Pale Blue Dot, inspired by the image taken of the Earth 4 billion miles away, by Voyager 1 on February 14 1990 as it left our solar system to continue a journey into the depths of distant space.

Taken from his book 1994, the following is an abbreviated version of his famous words about the Voyager 1’s image:

Look at that dot. That’s home. That’s us. On it is everyone you know. Everyone you ever heard of. Every human being who ever was, lived out their lives there. Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there.

It’s a poignant reminder of our place in the universe.

W.L.