Billions and Billions

Billions and Billions
Photo by Greg Rakozy / Unsplash

I still remember the time when I stumbled upon Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was on a trip to the Andaman Islands back in my 20's. Having witnessed the wonders that inhabit our marine worlds in a few scuba-dive sessions, I was in awe about nature, life and pretty much the universe. On my trip back, I scrolled through a collection of documentaries lent by a friend and settled on Cosmos, because the title sounded interesting to me back then.

The screen dimmed, with ASMR music by Alpha Vangelis playing out. And then Carl Sagan's soothing voice soon took over. If that was not a hook for me to continue watching, a few minutes into the show, he speaks with impeccable pronunciation the following words:

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we've learned most of what we know. Recently, we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

For someone who couldn't put into words just how surreal the scuba-diving experience was, I was thankful to Sagan for articulating my feelings into words. I remember spending the next few days watching Cosmos, and being spell struck by Carl Sagan. Here was someone who could take complex topics about humanity, science and the universe and distill it to precise, understandable words. While the entire show is an act of brilliance, a few scenes went above and beyond to cement the narrative for me. Like the time he talks about the tragedy that befell Hypatia and Library of Alexandria. Or when he debunks Astrology. Every moment of Cosmos is filled with these truth bombs, contemplative questions and debates that I've come to love.

In the past few years, I've sometimes grown to be cynical and hopeless about the world. I've often wondered about the great perils that await humanity if we do not act upon the immediate challenges that we face. At times like these, I tend to go back to Sagan and reflect upon the words he used to describe the photograph of Earth from 6 billion kilometers into space. While it's a delight to hear him speak it out, it's equally inspiring to read the words in your own head.

Pale Blue Dot :

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. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and 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 this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, 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.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

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.