In The Armchair

Pale Blue Dot: Stapledon

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on July 31, 2009

sagan-cosmosThe first time I ever heard of Carl Sagan was on a Sunday midmorning more than 20 years ago.  I was maybe 10 at the time.  We used to watch Star Trek reruns on Doordarshan (the only channel in India back then).  Eagerly filing into a friend’s house to watch Star Trek, we were quite disappointed to hear that the programme had been cancelled and replaced by something called Cosmos.  Still, the name Cosmos sounded promising.  We were even more intrigued when, a few minutes into the programme, we saw the main guy standing in a spaceship.  He began talking.  We kept watching, hoping something would happen.  But it didn’t.  No monsters, no fistfights, no logical pointy-eared aliens.  Nothing exciting at all, in fact.  The man just kept talking interminably about something or other and then the programme ended.  We filed out, disappointed at having wasted a Sunday morning.

That man, of course, was Carl Sagan, who I later found was one of the most thoughtful and inspiring writers and science educators I’ve ever come across.  And that programme was the TV adaptation of his fantastic book, Cosmos.  One example of Sagan’s spectacular ability to evoke wonder and awe in his readers is his famous Pale Blue Dot speech, delivered scant months before his death in December 1996.pale-blue-dot Referring to this photograph of the Earth (the almost invisible pale blue dot at the center of the top ray of light), Sagan said:

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.

Great stuff, but it was anticipated 60 years before by Olaf Stapledon.  Stapledon’s 1937 book Star Maker was recently suggested to me by a friend.  In his book, Stapledon says:Starmaker_firstedition

I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness.  And on the skin of that little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit.  And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolutions, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.

The similarity of thought is striking; Stapledon almost sems to have been looking at the same image (which didn’t exist in 1937, of course). This is perhaps quite a common sentiment, felt and expressed by various writers at various times. I would say that, when contemplating the vastness of space, it is hard not to be awed by the relative insignificance of our world. These two authors express it beautifully.


2 Responses

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  1. Bekaar BokBok said, on August 4, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Hey, so you are reading Star Maker then ? 🙂

    We should have a chat when you are done.

    • Armchair Guy said, on August 4, 2009 at 11:47 am

      Bekaar BokBok:

      Yes — and it’s a really great book so far. I’ll ping you once I’m done.

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