After reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, I decided that it was time to return for Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, the Cosmos sequel famous for the short but poignant speech of the same name. Pale Blue Dot is possibly the most humbling book you will ever read, and that rings especially true for anyone who believes that the Universe was created exclusively for humans.
As is the case when observing reality with an unbiased lens (whether you are a paleoanthropologist, astronomer, or any other scientist), humans are knocked off of their pedestal of superiority by Sagan, whose analysis might sound harsh but is most definitely true. Chapter Three of the book, “The Great Demotions”, is exactly what it sounds like: humbling humans who often see themselves as angels or even gods to mere animals, who evolved just like the rest of them, on an inconspicuous planet orbiting one of billions of stars in a galaxy that it is itself not any more noteworthy than the next.
But while it is harsh, our species’—and our planet’s—obscurity does not rob the Earth or the Universe of its grandeur. In the classic Sagan style that I praised in a recent post, the author sprinkles these beginning chapters with reasons why these demotions ought not thoroughly depress us. The smaller we are, all the more there is to explore and be inspired by out there.
This leads Sagan into the bulk of what Pale Blue Dot is about: the human future in space. He argues that in order for our species to survive in the long term (like millions or even billions of years), we will have to first expand off of our own planet and eventually out of our own Solar System. While he is optimistic about these feats that I had personally never considered humankind accomplishing, he is also realistic. Sagan knows that a curiosity regarding exploration alone will not be reason enough for the powers that be to give space agencies the funding needed to send manned spacecraft to explore or eventually colonize other worlds.
For the rest of the book, Pale Blue Dot gets down to business with more academic content. The author teaches us about various planets and moons in our own Solar System, in a way catching us up on what had been discovered since Cosmos had been written fourteen years earlier. After showing us around Mars, Venus, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and their moons, he dives into the more practical aspects of what it would mean for us realistically to prepare for space flight, and he explains our ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
It was a bit disheartening to read Sagan’s own disappointment in 1994 that we had not returned to the Moon since 1972, myself reading it in 2020 and knowing that almost fifty years had passed since Apollo and still we had not returned. I personally am hopeful that if we can get our world under control even a little bit that the rumored 2024 Moon mission can become a reality. Furthermore, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to see humankind take our first steps on Mars in my lifetime. (I know there’s not much I can contribute to this goal, but this book convinced me to join and support The Planetary Society, co-founded by Sagan and currently led by Bill Nye, with the goal of advancing space exploration.)
The more academic part of the book wasn’t bad, but it didn’t have that sparkle that made me fall in love with Cosmos. It was much more matter-of-fact and less goosebump-inducing. That’s not to mention that much of it was outdated, considering that it primarily dealt with the current state of technology, what we knew about different worlds, and the current plans for various launches. I didn’t find myself underlining much after the beginning, so if you are pressed for time, then I would have to recommend the first four chapters of the book more fervently than the rest.
On that note, I want to end by sharing my favorite quotes from Pale Blue Dot. While there were not as many as in Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, the quotes that I did underline were inspiring and humbling.
1. The Pale Blue Dot speech, pp. 6-7 (video below)
2. “Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?” pp. 8-9
3. “And yet—never mind how many kings, popes, philosophers, scientists, and poets insisted on the contrary—the Earth through those millennia stubbornly persisted in orbiting the Sun.” p. 12
4. “Philosophy and religion presented mere opinion—opinion that might be overturned by observation and experiment—as certainty. This worried them not at all. That some of their deeply held beliefs might turn out to be mistakes was a possibility hardly considered. Doctrinal humility was to be practiced by others. Their own teachings were inerrant and infallible. In truth, they had better reason to be humble than they knew.” pp. 13-14
5. “Are not these facts, available even for skeptics to confirm, a surer insight into God’s Universe than all the speculations of the theologians? But what if these facts contradict the beliefs of those who hold their religion incapable of making mistakes?” p. 16
6. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” p. 19
7. “Far from being at the center of the Galaxy, our Sun with its entourage of dim and tiny planets lies in an undistinguished sector of an obscure spiral arm. We are thirty thousand light years from the Center. . . . The Milky Way Galaxy is one of billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies notable neither in mass nor in brightness nor in how its stars are configured and arrayed. Some modern deep sky photographs show more galaxies beyond the Milky Way than stars within the Milky Way. Every one of them is an island universe containing perhaps a hundred billion suns. Such an image is a profound sermon on humility.” p. 21
8. “If, despite [observing distant quasars 5 billion light-years away], we were to accept the literal [6,000-year-old Universe] truth of such religious books, how could we reconcile the data? The only plausible conclusion, I think, is that God recently made all the photons of light arriving on the Earth in such a coherent format as to mislead generations of astronomers into the misapprehension that there are such things as galaxies and quasars, and intentionally driving them to the spurious conclusion that the Universe is vast and old. This is such a malevolent theology I still have difficulty believing that anyone, no matter how devoted to the divine inspiration of any religious book, could seriously entertain it.” p. 24
9. “Our commonsense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame.” p. 26
10. “Is our self-esteem so precarious that nothing short of a universe custom-made for us will do?” p. 44
11. “What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print.” p. 46
12. “In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” p. 50
13. “If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand? But if our objective is deep knowledge rather than shallow reassurance, the gains from this new perspective far outweigh the losses. Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” p. 51
14. “There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. . . . We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.” p. 53
15. “I lie back in an open field and the sky surrounds me. I’m overpowered by its scale. It’s so vast and so far away that my own insignificance becomes palpable. But I don’t feel rejected by the sky. I’m a part of it—tiny, to be sure, but everything is tiny compared to that overwhelming immensity. And when I concentrate on the stars, the planets, and their motions, I have an irresistible sense of machinery, clockwork, elegant precision working on a scale that, however lofty our aspirations, dwarfs and humbles us.” p. 98
16. “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” p. 131
17. “We must surrender our skepticism only in the face of rock-solid evidence. Science demands a tolerance for ambiguity. Where we are ignorant, we withhold belief. Whatever annoyance the uncertainty engenders serves a higher purpose: It drives us to accumulate better data. This attitude is the difference between science and so much else. Science offers little in the way of cheap thrills. The standards of evidence are strict. But when followed they allow us to see far, illuminating even a great darkness.” p. 301
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, First Ballantine Books Edition (New York, New York: Random House, 1994).