Pale Blue Dot
By Seth Shostak
Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day, the annual celebration that gives us license to profess our affections.
But February 14 is memorable for other reasons, including several that are decidedly lugubrious. For example, there was the savage execution of St. Valentine himself in 269 AD. It was also the date on which Captain James Cook was clubbed to death on the beaches of Hawaii in 1779, and when seven of Bugs Moran’s gang members were massacred in a Chicago garage in 1929.
However, Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been bad news: It marks another event that has had a subtle and wistful impact. In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft – outbound from the Solar System at four times the distance of Saturn – swung its 1500 mm telephoto lens back towards Earth, and snapped a picture.
There wasn’t much to see. Earth at that remove appeared smaller than the resolution element of the camera. It was discernable only as a soft-hued pixel, swamped by light streaks caused by reflections in the lens and sunshade. Astronomer Carl Sagan, who persuaded NASA to make the image, described Earth’s aspect as a “pale blue dot.”
He also poetically commented on the fact that the totality of human accomplishment, everything we’ve ever wished and done, has played out on that barely visible speck.
Valentine’s Day is a hopeful holiday, celebrating as it does one of humanity’s finest behaviors (and the one that ensures our species’ continuance). Our planet, much though we love it, may be no more than a firefly in the void. But with our inspiration, our compassion, and our curiosity, we can enlighten the cosmos.
"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."
- Carl Sagan