Blog – A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: The Pale Blue Dot

On September 5, 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 to explore our Solar System and wander the Milky Way indefinitely. On the surface, the Voyager project was just another part of the space race. Voyager, however, served a more profound and meaningful purpose. It was part of humanity’s desire to explore the unknown. This same motivation sent people to the New World, Lewis and Clark across North America, explorers to the North and South Poles, and astronauts to the moon. Voyager 1 took unprecedented and incredible images of Jupiter, Saturn, its rings, and its moons. What interests me the most, though, is what happened as it approached the very edge of the Solar System and prepared to enter interstellar space.

In February 1990, thirteen years after the probe left Earth, NASA ordered Voyager 1 to turn around and take a photo of the Solar System from 3.7 billion miles away. The famous astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, asked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take the picture, admitting in the process that the image would have little scientific value but could serve the world in other ways. When the photographs were taken, NASA scientists poured over the photos, quickly finding Jupiter and Saturn. As days and then weeks passed, the scientists had failed to find Earth in the photographs and feared that somehow they had missed it.

Then, someone spotted what they thought was dirt on an image of solar light beams. When they went to wipe it clean, they found that it was part of the picture. More importantly, that microbe of dirt was Earth. The photo, famously titled The Pale Blue Dot, showed Earth in less than one pixel (0.12 pixels to be exact). As a reference, the photo frame was 640,000 pixels in size. Carl Sagan, a master of finding deep meaning in simple things, remarked in his presentation of the powerful photograph to reporters:

“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 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.

[…] 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.”

I regularly think about Carl Sagan’s remarks on the reality that all of human history, all that we have been and all that we will ever be, exists on this pale blue dot that all at once can feel incredibly big and undeniably small. I love the final words of his address, “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.”

Much of what Sagan spoke about reverberates in our world today, thirty years after that photo of the pale blue dot was taken. As education leaders, we each have a responsibility to preserve, protect, and enhance life on the mote of dust we call home. The children in our schools will be asked to find solutions to challenges we could not possibly imagine. How we teach, encourage, and guide them has an undeniable impact on the future of our world and theirs.

More immediately, though, Sagan’s remarks on the pale blue dot remind us all that we share the same home. It’s easy to forget that we all play on the same team in our deeply divided world. Whether we are on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the upcoming presidential elections, our coordinated response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, or any number of fissures that increasingly define our society, we need to be reminded that we’re all in this together. Disagreement is okay; in fact, it is healthy. What isn’t healthy is allowing conflict to blind us to the reality that, like it or not, we succeed and fail together.

There is comfort in hoping that our world will return to some sense of normal in the next couple of months. I, too, find myself thinking that 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2021, might magically usher in a place without pandemics, or politics, or arguments. But we all know that is unlikely to happen. What is likely, however, is that we will continue to face difficult decisions. We will continue to mire ourselves in deep and meaningful disagreements. I hope we will keep an eye on the future as we continue to navigate our present challenges. What we do today impacts how people live on our pale blue dot tomorrow. As leaders, we are being watched. We set an example for the next generation of leaders in every interaction, in every tweet, and each whispered comment. So, as we continue to lead and adapt, may we all strive to lead in the vision of the late Carl Sagan, more kindly, more compassionately, and in an attempt to preserve our precious dot.

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