Last weekend the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired, Carl Sagan’s masterpiece reimagined. In celebration, NASA unveiled a gallery of images, aptly titled “NASA Images of a Spacetime Odyssey.” It’s a gorgeous collection of some new, and some familiar images, from NASA’s repertoire of galactic exploration. More than that, this gallery is one of those beautiful moments when art converges with science, serving a dose of liberating reality, to aid in easing the troubles of our daily lives.
When I saw Alain de Botton speak, there was one thing he said that particularly struck me and that I tell to anyone willing to listen: Botton quipped that the greatest modern day artist is none other than the Hubble Space Telescope. An avid star gazer myself, I couldn’t help but agree.
The night’s sky is readily available to consistently remind us that we are a part of something vast and objective. Personal preoccupations and worries, no matter how unsettling they might feel that moment, are ultimately minor and insignificant. Yet, we still fret, unproductively, about tomorrow, the next week, and of all that we couldn’t possibly resolve. Baz Luhrmann famously once said, “worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.” NASA’s images are a tool to help realize this sentiment.
The reason I bring this up is that the bulk of NASA’s online gallery is formed of Hubble Telescope images. If art serves to remedy ourselves and ease our souls, then there is no other instrument that churns out “art” as consistently as the Hubble Telescope. The sheer amount of information, literally and metaphorically, condensed into every single Hubble image is, more or less, unfathomable. And that’s precisely what to take from all these images.
Understand about the workings of our universe, and what we know of it, but also understand about your existence within it all. What does that understanding consist of exactly? That your being is inconsequential. Remember that the next time you ache over an internet bill or a broken heart. Better yet, view some of NASA’s images or watch the Cosmos and consider if those worries are what you should really be wracking your brain over. You’ll quickly come to the realization that there are better things to occupy your mind with.
As NASA’s gallery is a tribute to the new Cosmos, and Cosmos is a tribute to Carl Sagan’s original series, I find it fitting to quote Mr. Sagan and bring this article full-circle. In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe teetered the void of our solar system (some 6 billion kilometers away) and took a photo, looking back. Within it, the earth could be seen as, literally, a fraction of a pixel, in comparison to the vast blackness of space that surrounded it. In his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Sagan had this to say of the photograph:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. 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.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena…Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Cosmos airs every Sunday 9/8c. Before you tune in, be sure to check out the full gallery of NASA’s images, as well as all of NASA Goddard’s fantastic Flickr galleries.