A grand tour indeed

Earth as seen by Voyager spacecraft

“Today, I’d like to take you on a journey. A journey of time, space, human ingenuity, and humility. This is a journey that will take us out of our solar system, to a place where literally no one has gone before.

“In the early seventies, scientists had determined that the solar system’s biggest planets were about to align in a very special way. This specific arrangement only happens once every 175 years. Because of this alignment, and by using a special technique called ‘gravity assist fly-by’, it was possible to send a spacecraft to our biggest planets. They decided to send two: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They were launched in the space of two weeks. Their mission was to tour the solar system and to visit the large planets furthest from the Sun.

“Over many years, the Voyager twins roamed the solar system, moving from planet to planet. It took 12 years to reach Neptune, the planet farthest from the Sun: its distance from the Sun is a staggering 4.7 billion kilometers. To give you an idea how far this is: it takes light more than 4 hours to cross the distance between the Sun and Neptune. This means that it also took 4 hours for radio signals from Earth to reach the Voyager aircraft, and another 4 hours for radio signals to return.

“Voyager 1 and 2 both have cameras on board. These cameras were used to take pictures of the planets: the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. For the first time ever, humans were able to look at relatively high resolution pictures of these planets. Scientists were able to see detailed features on those planets, never seen before. From a scientific point of view, those pictures were incredibly important.

“But, those pictures were not the most important, at least not in my opinion. For years, the American astrophysicist Carl Sagan had lobbied to have Voyager point its camera back toward the sun, and therefore toward Earth, and take some pictures of the solar system from outside the solar system. He succeeded, and I for one am extremely grateful that he did.

“Multiple pictures were taken from far, far away, about 6 billion kilometers (or 5.5 light-hours), and a composite photo was created that was later named the “Family Portrait”. Except for Mars, Mercury and Pluto, it shows the big outermost planets, but also Venus and most importantly: Earth. It shows Earth as a small speck, a tiny dot, something so small that it takes up less than a single pixel in the original image. It shows our place in the solar system, and how incredibly empty space is. It puts our place in the universe into perspective. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who fought to have these photos taken, wrote an incredibly inspiring text about this image. I would like to share some parts of this with you.”

‘We succeeded in taking that picture, 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 creator and destroyer of civilisations, 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.

‘[…] 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.’

“A pale blue dot. That’s what we look like when viewed from far away. How tiny we are in the vastness of the universe, and how blown up our problems. This pale blue dot is our world, the only one we know. In stead of fighting over petty human problems, I wish we could care for the Earth — and ourselves !— a bit better so we can be around for other wonders that are undoubtedly still coming our way.

“Voyager 1 has left the solar system years ago, and has now reached “interstellar space”. Its distance from Earth is around 21 billion kilometers, more than three times the distance from which the ‘Family Portrait’ was taken. Nothing made by humans has gone this far, and it will continue its journey for another billion years easily. At some point in the future, it could be the only evidence we have ever existed. Until then, let’s make our time worthwhile.”

About this text: this is the written version of a speech I gave at a Toastmasters meeting as my fourth Project Speech.

More information about the Pale Blue Dot, the Voyager mission, and the Family Portrait can be found on Wikipedia.