I wrote about Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos in a recent post on the One Book Meme. Tonight, twice during the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore mentioned some Sagan quotes that I remembered from past reading. The first one was about the thickness – and hence the fragility – of the Earth’s atmosphere. He was saying that if you had a large model globe of the Earth and put a layer of varnish on it, the thickness of the varnish in comparison with the size of the globe would give a reasonably good idea of the thickness of the atmosphere in relation to the size of the real Earth. The second quote, which I shall never forget, pertains to a picture taken by Voyager I as it left the solar neighborhood for the depths of outer space.
It was a sub-pixel point image of Earth, and Sagan wrote about it in Pale Blue Dot:
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 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 is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
An Inconvenient Truth was inconvenient for me, even though I belong to the camp that accepts global warming as fact, and climate change as euphemism. The graphs correlating the increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide level to the rise in temperature are alarming – but not as alarming as the leaked government memo which instructed someone to “Reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” It is astonishing that some people are so cavalier about bargaining a planet for an unsustainable economy. Do watch it. Apart from a few moments in which Al Gore reminisces on his personal life which could be construed as manipulative, it is a hard-hitting and well-made film.