Thursday, December 20, 2007

Review: Pale Blue Dot

Okay, my finals are done, just in time to participate in the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon. Haven't had time to read all the posts yet, but the ones by Ann Druyan and Nick Sagan are well worth reading.

Last year, I did a review of The Demon Haunted World. This year, I thought I'd made a point to read Pale Blue Dot, which I had also heard good things about but never gotten around to reading.

The first thing that struck me as I got into the book is this: Sagan's work is horribly dated. This is no criticism of him, just a statement of how fast the world changes. In The Demon Haunted World, Sagan's prime exhibit for rationality was UFO believers, with creationists mentioned only as a "lest we forget" footnote. Today Evangelical Christians increasingly look like the most frightening force for irrationality in the US, with orthodox Muslim's competing with them for that title on a global scale. This is not my idiosyncratic impression, among the people noting that orthodox religion is making a comeback against New Agey claptrap has been Susan Clancy, a psychologist who's spent much of her time studying the UFO-people. This doesn't mean Demon Haunted World is irrelevant; I think it will be profoundly relevant to any era were irrational beliefs are a significant force in the world. However, it is from a different era.

Now consider Pale Blue Dot, which describes our progress thus far for space exploration and looks at future prospects, with an eye towards eventual colonization of planets. Sagan's prose is as ever inspiring, and he pulls of the careful balancing act of dreaming big yet being realistic about the scientific and technological aspects of what he's considering. Still, when I think "human mission to Mars," I immediately think of George W. Bush's short-lived attempt to champion such a project. Frankly, I can't think it was a good idea. In our current financial situation as a nation, it would be yet another instance of several recent instances of fiscal irresponsibility, each individually inexcusable but shocking when put together. Until we get our act together on a number of domestic and global issues, I can't imagine backing such a project, and frankly if I were in Congress right now I'd be sorely tempted to vote against funding any future space missions until we do.

Sagan worries about a natural catastrophe such as an asteroid wiping out life on Earth, and suggests we should move part of our species off-planet for that reason. I worry far more about a possible slide into religious totalitarianism. Democracy seems to be on the march, but I can't be so confident as Sagan, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, seems to have been about its ultimate triumph. I think this might have given Sagan pause, as he talks about needing to get our act together here before moving outwards, it's simply that he was more optimistic than I can be right now. Prospects also don't look so bright for preventing global warming, which could cause significant human misery and might, via economic shocks, have nasty implications for world politics.

Nevertheless, the book's poetry draws me in, and I think it provides an important sense of perspective for our current troubles. It's also just plain fine popular science writing. At first I was thinking of giving this book four stars, because I've told myself that I would only give fives for must-reads, and saying too many of an author's books, even a very good author's books, are must-reads sits a little odd with me. But no. Pale Blue Dot is a Five Star-er.

I'll end with an excerpt from the book that's been floating around the internet, precisely because it encapsulates the sense of perspective that runs throughout the whole:
Look again at 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.


DougEDoug said...

I worry far more about a possible slide into religious totalitarianism.

Oh yeah, you wouldn't want anything to infringe on your own flavor of totalitarianism, right? If there were ever a blog that was more dedicated to the eradication of dissenting views... then that would be just 1up on yours.
Do you really not see the irony in you comment?

DougEDoug said...

I think it will be profoundly relevant to any era were irrational beliefs are a significant force in the world.

What constitutes an irrational belief?

Hallq said...

As I said in the other thread, you're probably beyond help, but let me explain this to you slowly: I criticize other viewpoints. Totalitarianism involves using arrests, torture, and murder to enforce your viewpoint (see Augustine's letter to Donatus, Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Luther's On the Jews and their Lies, the Cervetus affair, etc.) There's a difference.

Anonymous said...

Mien kampf was published long before the gas chambers opened. Hitler was only "criticizing".

Anonymous said...

Can you expound on why you worry more about religious totalitarianism than global warming? I agree, to an extent, in that religious totalitarianism is more of an immediate issue, but global warming is not completely within humanity's control. And why are you less optimistic than Sagan about humanity/democratic advance?

I'm curious about what you have to say .


Anonymous said...

And, person who commented about Mein Kampf, you are obviously making some absurd leaps of illogic. First of all, there's the factual problems, and then there's what Hitler was doing - he was criticizing, surely, but not constructively - a lot of it was just concerted whining - and the authoritarianism came after, which is not to say authoritarianism will follow criticism, because usually it doesn't. Might I wager a guess that you are a Christian fundamentalist?

Have you ever heard of 'reductio ad Hitlerum'? Look it up and realize how wrong you are.