Professor Carl Sagan’s ‘A Pale Blue Dot’

I wish you a very Happy, Healthy, Safe and Successful New Year!

The tendency is to see the end of the previous year with the onrushing approach of the new year to be the perfect time to reflect on the soon to be completed year and to give thought to what we hope the new year has in store for us.

This is also a time to give thought to our New Year’s Resolution – what we plan to make our priorities for the coming year that hopefully holds the promise of of challenges met and successes achieved.

In order to put things in proper perspective as we prepare to close out 2010 and as we prepare for 2011, we need to give thought to our place in the universe

Of course the concept of “our place in the universe” can be interpreted in a number of ways – today I thought it would be worthwhile to think about our place in the universe in a very real sense. I have been enthralled with astronomy ever since I was a 6 year old attending second grade. The moon, the stars and other astronomical bodies captured my imagination not unlike the way that the skies have attracted the attention of the earliest of our ancestors to walk the earth.

A number of years ago a professor by the name of Carl Sagan was a frequent and popular guest on The Tonight Show, back when the previous host of that show, Johnny Carson, held court every weekday night on that program. Professor Sagan was an astrophysicist who probably got more “average” folks to become interested in astronomy than anyone else.

He authored many books including “Cosmos” which also served as the name for his series on television that has been often re-aired on television in recent years. Another of his books, “Contact” also served as the basis for the science fiction movie of the same name that starred Jodie Foster in the role of a radio astronomer who was in search of extraterrestrial intelligent life – paralleling the scientists who are engaged in the SETI project.

You might therefore understand why I was thrilled to have a chance encounter with Carl Sagan when he unexpectedly walked into my inspection booth at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the early 1970’s when I began my career with the INS. Although he was frequently seen on television, he seem extremely pleased that I immediately recognized him even before he handed me his United States passport. We shook hands and I delighted welcomed him back to the United States.

Another of his well known books was entitled, “A Pale Blue Dot.” It is this book I want to briefly discuss with you today.

This book was based on a command that was given to Voyager I more than a dozen years after it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On February 14, 1990, the scientists and engineers who are still communicating with the Voyager I Spacecraft commanded the intrepid artifact of man’s ingenuity to turn its camera back towards the planets of the solar system even as the craft was hurtling out of our solar system – they were about to end the work of the imagining team because there would nothing more of interest for the space probe to photograph so far from all other astronomical bodies.

Voyager 1 obediently photographed all of the planets of the solar system from tits unique vantage point roughly four billion miles from the sun. The planet we call home, Earth, showed up as Professor Sagan, one of the scientists on the project noted .” a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” The distance was so great that our entire planet appeared on just over 10% of one pixel on sensor in the camera!

To provide you with a bit of historical information, two Voyager spacecraft were launched days apart in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. The two spacecraft were simply named Voyager I and Voyager II. Voyager I ultimately passed Jupiter and used the gravity of the solar system’s largest planet to head on to a rendezvous with Saturn whereupon it headed out of the solar system. Voyager II flew by Jupiter, used the Jovian gravitational field to head for Saturn but rather then simply head out of the solar system, this spacecraft used Saturn’s gravity to head for a rendezvous with Uranus and then from Uranus to head to Neptune – a so called “Grand Tour” made possible by a chance alignment of the outer planets of our solar system that won’t happen for another 176 years!

I found a link on the Fox News website about the story concerning the Voyager Spacecraft that is about to enter interstellar space, having been hurtling through space since it was launched in 1977. There are actually two Voyager spacecraft, appropriately named Voyager I and Voyager II. Here is the link to the Fox News Report about Voyager:

See the video

What Professor Sagan stated in the excerpt from his book “A Pale Blue Dot” is, in my judgement extremely profound. It is his view about astronomy that coincides with my belief that all high school students should be required to study astronomy in order to qualify for their diplomas. In studying astronomy we not only learn about chemistry and physics and other scientific disciplines that addition seeking to answer the age-old questions about where we came from and where we are headed, astronomy also teaches us to be humble. When you stop and think about it, we are the equivalent of little more than microorganisms who inhabit a mote of dust suspended in the infinity of the universe. Our life expectancy represents no more than a blink in the life of the universe!

It certainly provides an important perspective on our place in the universe and the foolishness of all too many members of our species who have developed disproportionately huge egos to which no human being is entitled!

In searching for this material about Carl Sagan and his famous book, I also came up with a link to a YouTube presentation of Prof. Sagan’s reading of his own words.

I hope you find this material to be as exciting and thought provoking as I do!

Again – I wish you a very Happy New Year!

“A Pale Blue Dot” narrated by Carl Sagan

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Michael Cutler
Michael Cutler, a former Senior INS Investigator, an expert witness in more than a dozen Congressional Hearings is a Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and an advisor to the '911 Families for a Secure America.' He writes about the nexus between immigration and national security.