“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”
— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell
“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)
Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes, or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing.
In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:
From Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (p. 283):
“We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like ‘alien’ or ‘outlandish.’ And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. (Source)
This Carl Sagan video “Pale Blue Dot” may not be new to many of you, but for those who haven’t seen it, I think everyone should watch it at least once. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how frequently people conflict over personal issues, power, ideology, wealth, or for whatever rationale. What a way to use the finite time we have to exist. For a species that defines itself, taxonomically, as being sapient, we have an odd way of showing it.
The Pale Blue Dot
“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
This is from Sasha Sagan, daughter of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, remembering a time from her childhood when she began to understand mortality. Her parents told her:
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.”
Earth’s night sky in 3.8 billion years (NASA images).
“He was bitter at the universe for all the things it didn’t give him, for how it shortchanged him, for how it sometimes made him feel lesser. “Why couldn’t he just be normal?” he thought. He felt like this too often.
But he always, without fail, waded through the dark clouds and returned to the same thoughts that helped dissipate the bitterness – that we all have our baggage and insecurities that weigh on us. Some carry heavier weights than others, some that look to be almost unbearable, some that seemed to be (from the outside) trivial. But no one was without burden. His burdens were not as great as some, but they were still his.
Neil de Grasse Tyson on the cosmic perspective:
“I assert that if you are depressed after being exposed to the cosmic perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego.”
Existence itself is awe-inspiring enough.
Below is a quick look at the most-read posts that were written in 2012, with a brief summary, in case you’re interested.* Thanks very much to everyone for visiting, and to those who have shared these writings and commented on them.
1) Part 6. Humans are (Blank)- ogamous: Many Intimate Relationships. May 17
This was the most viewed post written this year. It looked at the variety of intimate romantic relationships that humans have negotiated into various socially recognized structures. I tried to go beyond looking at humans as naturally monogamous or promiscuous, which I think are overly simplistic arguments, taking a look at how this complexity may have arisen. There’s also a nice graphic, borrowed from David McCandless.
“We obviously have a lot of cultural diversity in humanity with substantive differences in worldviews and which behaviors are deemed acceptable, but cultures – and individuals – are tasked with how to balance sex, love, intimacy, and commitment, as well as reproduction and parenting. I think this interplay between individual drives and cultures provides an alternate model of looking at things rather than trying to discern what humans ‘are’ in terms of our sexuality.”
2) Human Nature, Humility, & Homosexuality. Feb 10
A pointed response to one conservative’s argument about homosexuality being against human nature, and the need for tolerance and the need to avoid making overly confident claims about human behavior. “I would recommend that if we have a choice, then choose humility. Choose tolerance. Choose love.”
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